Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Challenging Customs

I assigned a UN report on "Gender Equality and Social Institutions in Zambia" as required reading for my community interventions course. It generated the liveliest discussion we have had in that class.

The majority of social work students are women. The men tend to choose the diploma program in community development. There is considerable overlap in the curricula of these two programs, but social work has an image of being a woman's field more than does community development. So in my community interventions [social work] class, there are only two men and ten women.

The article on gender, in addition to discussing such issues as inheritance, domestic violence, ownership rights, and securing credit--all areas in which women suffer inequality--delves into official and traditional family law. I quote: "Husbands are traditionally the heads of families in Zambia. They have sole parental authority and make most of the important household decisions, including those regarding the use of contraception." And later, "The custom of paying a dowry incites domestic violence: having paid a bride price, the husband and other men in the family consider the woman to be their joint property."

The students agreed with the report in most respects. They said that while such practices are more universal in the rural areas, they also are strong in urban areas, even among the educated population. Bride price was identified as one of the primary motivators behind underage marriages. In villages, a daughter is a potential source of income for the parents. Girls are often kept home after grade 7 and marriages may be contracted at age 12 to 14. Pregnancy follows shortly after marriage, with detrimental health consequences in many cases.

The women in my class, almost all in their early to mid twenties, spoke of their dismay at being considered inferior, being expected to be subservient, and being thought of as property. But, clearly, they felt trapped. Marriage is seen as necessary for survival. Jobs are scarce (40%-60% unemployment) and men are favored in the employment market. Culturally, there is little respect for a single woman.

It is not all bleak. I believe that there are Zambian marriages based on a partnership model. Even when the husband considers himself the head of the household, he does not necessarily beat his wife. But too many men do. And too many men exert total control over family finances. The general cultural acceptability of extramarital relationships for the man (having a "side dish" or "spare wheel") and condemnation of the same for the woman marks an interesting double standard.

Cultural patterns and practices do not change easily or quickly. Women here are socialized to be deferent and submissive. In the rituals associated with preparation for marriage, the woman is taught how to please her husband in every way. She is taught that she can refuse no request or expectation her husband makes or shows. This education is carried out by her aunts and other female relatives.

In the class, we discussed how privilege and power are maintained by the consent and cooperation of the underlings. Traditions will not become more egalitarian by themselves. It will require a movement. It will require a vision of something better, and hope for the possibility of change. Given that many people cherish the security and predictability of the status quo, efforts to create change will encounter serious resistance. But as women achieve more equality, more respect, and more opportunity, Zambia's development will move ahead.

I offered the class a saying of Mahatma Ghandi: "You must be the change you want to see in the world." For Zambian women--indeed for all men and women--may it be so!

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