If words alone, regardless of intention, could change circumstances then March 8 would be salvation day for many women. You can fault this day for many things but definitely not for failing to produce high profile speeches, lots of media coverage, widespread praise (both realistic and romantic) for women and their abilities, resilience and great importance, and just generally keeping women front of collective mind.
This year’s International Women’s Day on March 8 was no different. There was marching in different parts of the country, marchers were in new uniform outfits according to the organisations they represented, there were speeches and there were speeches, there were appeals to government and there were assurances by government, there was eulogizing of women on different platforms, there was celebration, there was entertainment and of course there was media coverage, lots of it.
I support the idea of commemorating International Women’s Day; its relevance needs no justification. I think the type of expression it generates is also good, including the one by those who join in simply because “everyone else is doing it”, because it contributes to entrenching a culture of celebrating women.
One of my main reservations about this day though is that I sometimes feel it encourages an amount of contentment that we as a country should not yet feel. I feel it creates an impression that gender has now arrived at the top of the country’s agenda and it is a foremost priority for millions of citizens. If it were so, I do not believe we would still see the attitudes we see towards women. We would also not see the very marked reduction and even disappearance of gender as a subject in the media and in many citizens’ conversations as we do once March 8 passes. It is as if “gender” is an event to attend at a particular time and having fulfilled that on March 8, people can move on to other things until the next event probably the 16 days of activism against Gender Based Violence.
What if the impression created during Women’s week and Women’s Day was where we really are, can you imagine the possibilities? I think we would still be committing much time and passion to raising issues and ensuring something is done about them. I think it would bother us more that even straight from progressive events like the commemoration of Women’s Day, many women go back home to their limited means, to their toxic relationships where intimate partners double as their emotional abusers, batterers and killers, to their desperate poverty, to being ladders for political climbers who never return once they cross over to the plentiful land of public office, to illiteracy, to never ending lack.
We would be diligent in calling things as they are: for example we would not call women and children who walk long distances to draw water for daily use strong, we would call them deprived. If service delivery was as it should be, no one would have to do this. We would adjust our expectations and stop believing deep down that poverty and lack are an acceptable state of being; that it is meant to be this way for some people.
I think if all the people who raise their voices on March 8 could carry on without waiting for another event before they talk again, we could do a lot. The day to day discussion around women could significantly shift from blanket statements that do not reflect the varied nature of our realities as women, to well researched specifics. Specifics that we can confidently use as a checklist when the government talks about the services it has delivered; we can easily see how much the progress on paper reflects the progress on the ground. Specifics that can guide our own interventions as citizens; we would know better where we can make a practical difference.
If the visibility that women enjoy in the media for example and indeed the popularity among many politicians is not just lip-service, where does it go when there is no event? It is not possible that we exhaust all issues during these ‘peak’ periods. We can never run out of things to talk about: the lack of capacity that excludes many women from the possibility of having meaningful income or competing for high positions; the lack of opportunities for that same capacity building; the poverty that makes it impossible to plan as far as the next meal; the death of great ideas due to lack of access to finance; the needless suffering and deaths due to lack of access to quality health care services; the avoidable maternal mortality; the illiteracy that enables gullibility during elections; the economic dependency that makes women stay in abusive relationships; the lack of satisfactory representation in politics and other decision making roles…I will not even try to exhaust this list because I cannot. The issues are clearly too many, too complex and too urgent to be limited to a few designated days.
It is imperative to mention of course that women cannot live any better than their environment allows. If inequality, poverty, lack of opportunities and general hopelessness remain widespread in the country then surely women cannot be expected to be exceptions; they will continue bearing the brunt of these unfortunate circumstances.
It is, however, still not too much to ask that we as a country should take care not to be comfortable with treating women like a convenient category that can be sidelined for as long as we want then called upon to be fussed over and romanticized in order to complete the March 8 script or whatever occasion where a “gender quota” needs to be filled.