Sunday, September 24, 2023

Botswana caught in the tension between gender equality and culture

When elderly Batswana men trade greetings, the first subject that always comes up is inquiries about the heath of loved ones : “Ba tsogile jang bana?” Which loosely translates to, “how is the health of your children?”. By children, they are referring to the wife and scions.

This run-of-the-mill solicitous exchange of greetings is slowly becoming politically incorrect as Botswana twists and turns amid the tension between gender equality and culture.

Old habits die hard…. And Botswana’s gender equality crusade which has made great progress in the past few years is now floundering on the rocks of old habits.

Botswana currently ranks 95th out of 188 countries in the United Nations Development Programme Gender Inequality Index. This is an improvement from the 2015 index when the country ranked 108th.  In fact, women’s empowerment in Botswana has been on a rapid progress for decades. Since 1990,  the average expected years of schooling for girls has gone from 10.3 years in 1990 to 12.8 years in 2015. The percentage of women with at least some secondary education went from 41 percent (1990) to 85.1 percent (2015). The average gross national income for females has gone up from $7,988 (1991) to $13,281 (2015).

These are more than just numbers, they are a measure of how Batswana women are increasingly asserting their rights. This however is disrupting Botswana’s traditional structures of gender dominance and control.

In Botswana’s traditional setting, the Church has always provided the moral compass for social interactions and most bible punching male chauvinists are quick to quote the scripture to enforce male dominance: “Ephesians 5:22-24 Wives, obey your husbands as you obey the Lord. The husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church people. The church is his body and he saved it. Wives should obey their husbands in everything, just as the church people obey Christ.”

Dr Sophie Moagi, clinical psychologist in Gaborone says, “The word “submission” carries a lot of negative assumptions with it in this day and age. Over the years it’s been so twisted and misused that many Christian married couples are avoiding the subject all together. Wives often find submission especially cringey because they view it as a means for their husbands—and men in general—to hold them down and control them. This perception is usually a result of their own life experiences from childhood to the present. Submitting may seem easy, when the man of the house has money — a symbol of power and control. Perhaps it is easier to relinquish control to a man who can comfortably take care of you financially, but what about the woman who has more financial muscle than her husband? Doesn’t that make her the leader, to whom submission is due? Can a woman who is the breadwinner or who earns more than her husband still be submissive?”

Dr Moagi’s argument is testimony to how much Botswana has changed. Just a few decades ago, when a Motswana woman said “I do”, she was under no illusions regarding the role she was expected to play as wife. Her place was in the kitchen from where she obeyed her husband and trusted him to make all the decisions pertaining to her and her children. She understood that she didn’t have a voice. In a typical traditional marriage, the position and status of men and women differ. The wife, as a sign of respect is forced to submit to her husband (although seemingly willingly) in almost every aspect of her life. This implies that she has no power whatsoever, she has to acquire her approval in everything she does. It also implies that the husband, as the authority figure has all the power and can make decisions without consulting her. Any sign of disapproval from the wife could be construed as not being sufficiently submissive.

Botswana’s progress towards gender equality is however challenging these traditional and cultural value systems, creating a tectonic shift in the way Batswana men and women relate.

Dr Poloko Ntshwarang, senior Social Work lecturer at the University of Botswana says, “There are many other women who liken submission to loss of free will. The concept of submission may have made sense for their mothers, but how about now when the gender roles are blurred? Can the modern independent woman be a submissive wife? The post-modern society views submission as a form of abuse. Many women feel submission is surrender where you yield by force or because you don’t have a choice, while some feel submission is done willingly.”

The empowerment of women now means they have equal opportunities as men and can contribute equally in the running of the home.

A recent Afrobarometer survey in Botswana revealed that “ women enjoy equal rights when it comes to jobs and land ownership. Women are no more likely than men to report gender-based discrimination, and in fact are somewhat more likely than men to find it easy to obtain key public services.

The Afrobarometer Survey report further states that, “in practice, large majorities of Batswana assert that women already enjoy the same opportunities as men when it comes to earning an income (85%), getting a paying job (84%), and owning or inheriting land (82%)”.


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