Strange, but violence against women could be a twisted indicator of their rising status in African society

The lower down you go on the power (and income) ladder, the more likely men are to try and exert forceful control over women’s bodies

THIS week, Kenya was up in arms over the appalling public stripping of three women in separate incidences, ostensibly for their “indecent” dressing.

On Monday, a demonstration in the capital Nairobi was held, co-ordinated on social media using the hastag #MyDressMyChoice.

It was one of those rare occasions when Nairobi’s middle class, long-accused of “clicktivism” – protesting loudly on social media but never coming out to do anything on the ground – left the daily grind to demonstrate on the streets.

The fact that it happened in the seedier parts of the city’s business districts, perpetrated by matatu (public minivan) touts and layabout types – the city’s underclass – was not a surprise.

Growing up in Nairobi, my mother was very liberal about what her two daughters could or could not wear; until I left home to go to college she actually did all my clothes shopping, and was stylish about it too. 

Because she didn’t police our dressing at all, there wasn’t any thrill in putting on “forbidden” minis or tight jeans, like some of my friends who seemed to lose their heads when we were in college, away from the grip of parental authority.

She only had one condition though – know where you are going. We could wear the skimpiest shorts if we were going by car to a fancy mall in upmarket Nairobi, but if we were taking public transport and going downtown, it was implicit that dressing like that was dangerous.

I never questioned the rationale of these situation-specific rules – they were pragmatic for obvious, but rather vague, reasons.

That was until this week when the strip-shaming incidents crystallised it for me. Policing women’s bodies is never about decency, and always about power.

This is why the lower down you go on the power (and income) ladder, the more likely men are to try and exert forceful control over women’s bodies – it’s a feeble attempt to “take back” power, and put women in their place. 

A man like George Clooney is very unlikely to bother himself with the length of his woman’s skirt – he has the means to exert power over bigger things. But if you’re a man who doesn’t have much power in the big things in life, you try and preside over the little that you can.

When my mother was growing up in the 60s and 70s, all of her photos show her in short minis, it was normal back then and didn’t put you in any danger, she says. It’s the same for all my friends, whose grainy photos of their mothers in miniskirts, big afros and platform shoes are a regular feature in photo albums.

But the shift in the power balance also explains why in recent decades, violence against women has spiked considerably. Men in general, and African men in particular, have seen the power balance tip away from them. 

Women are more educated, more financially independent, and are making more of the big decisions. It’s not entirely a sinister scheme of the feminists – the economy of the 21st century simply favours social intelligence, technology and innovation, brute strength is no longer a critical factor of production.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report shows that of the 33 African countries surveyed, 22 have reached, or are nearing, equal boys and girls enrolled in primary school, and for 11 – concentrated in eastern and southern Africa – there are actually more girls than boys enrolled in school.

Women now outnumber men in their participation in the labour market, again in east and southern Africa – Malawi, Mozambique,

 Burundi, Rwanda and Tanzania are the top five. Although these women tend to work in low-value, highly vulnerable informal jobs like hawking, agriculture, market selling and petty trading, over the long term, it really makes a difference in making them the de facto head of the family, even though they may remain married.

It’s particularly pronounced in war and post-conflict situations. One study in 2001 showed that an estimated 70-80% of families in Somalia were dependent on a woman’s earnings for survival.

One striking statistic indicated that women re-invest 90% of their income back into the family, whereas for men it’s 30-40%.  In families all over Africa, when you want something, you ask mama.

Children of single mothers are even likely to do better in school in Africa and other low income regions; given the same resources, mothers invest more time, money and emotional support in their children’s education than fathers do.

But as the space for women and girls is expanding, that of boys and men, generally, is not. It’s more pronounced when you are on the poorer end of the income distribution and these little “exercises of power” mean a lot. 

When as a man you have been brutalised by the big bad world, you want to throw your weight somewhere – hence the cat-calling, unwanted sexual advances, even sexual assault and strip-shaming when as a woman, you are in the seedier parts of town.

You wouldn’t expect it, but my own sense is that a sharp spike in abuses against women is actually a sign of the rising status of women is society, as men try and react to it and “put women in their place”.

For example, South Africa is ranked third in Africa in the status of women, with very high levels of education attainment, health outcomes and political empowerment of women, and it has been rising over the past few years.

But violence against women is so high that the New York Times called it South Africa’s War on Women; the police reported that there were 62,000 sexual assaults between April 2013 and March 2014, and that’s just the reported cases. 

A woman is killed by an intimate partner every eight hours in South Africa, and one is raped every four minutes, according to some estimates.

But the correlation between a rising status of women and violence against them is only true to a certain point. Rwanda, for example, is ranked first in Africa in the status of women, but does not experience South Africa- style attacks. The government’s very heavy-handed (militaristic, even) response to crime is a strong deterrent.

In any case, once societies become rich enough, these kinds of petty “hem-line” power games generally reduce, as there is enough to go around for both men and women to make it in life, success is no longer a zero-sum battle of the sexes.

Still, these frustrations persist all over the world, even in rich societies. WHO calls it “a global health problem of epidemic proportions”; In Europe, for example, a woman has a lifetime chance of one in four of experiencing physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner; in the Americas it’s 29.8%, Africa 36.6%, the Middle East 37% and South East Asia, 37.7%.

What’s the way out then? Money solves many problems, so obviously, getting Africa richer is one way. My own sense is that we raise boys with a limited psychological repertoire from which to gain identity and purpose from. 

The most creative and successful people are those who are psychologically androgynous, says this stunning book by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, people who have the strengths of both genders. 

Not to be confused with homosexuality, it simply means creative and talented girls are more dominant and tough than other girls, and creative and talented boys are more sensitive and less aggressive than their male peers. A psychologically androgynous person in effect doubles his or her repertoire of responses and can interact with the world in terms of a much richer and varied spectrum of opportunities. 

When you have a rich inner life, the length of someone else’s skirt doesn’t matter very much.


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