Is ‘gender’ just a buzzword?

*Trigger warning – domestic violence*

The past few months I have had gender equality and women’s rights on my mind. As a proud feminist, this is not unusual for me, however, something has been gnawing at me recently. It began with International Women’s Day March 8th, and several corresponding events around the day. It is clear that gender equality is a hot topic for NGOs, government, businesses and society. For many, this seemingly elusive, yet ever present term ‘gender’ seems to pop up everywhere these days, to the chagrin and skepticism of some.

On March 20th, I went to a contemporary dance show named ‘Mizani, or ‘balance’ in Swahili hosted by the High Commission of Canada at the Alliance Française in Dar es Salaam. Mizani is an educational dance performance, which highlights issues of gender equality in Tanzania, created by a former Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI) recipient, Ibuka Dance Foundation which has been brought nationwide to local government schools and communities. In the piece, there are 3 men and 3 women dancers: the men represent a doctor, a politician and a farmer, while the women represent a schoolgirl, a teacher and a housewife. At one point, the performance includes illustrations of domestic violence. The male farmer, arriving home drunk is shown beating his wife and daughter. When the other male dancers eventually come and grab him and hold him back, he shouts: “Huyu ni mke wangu, naweza kumfanya nachotaka mimi. Mimi ni baba Mwenye nyumba, naweza kufanya chochote ninachotaka kufanya” which means “This is my wife, I can do what I want to her. I am the father of the house, I can do whatever I want to do.”

It was at this point in the performance that I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck and goosebumps creep across my arms. This phrase transported me back to a field visit near Morogoro as part of a Gender Study undertaken with MEDA’s Strengthening Small Business Value Chains (SSBVC) project. Global Affairs Canada’s (GAC) Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP) means that all Government of Canada international assistance initiatives should be developed and implemented in ways that improve gender equality and empower women and girls. For GAC-funded projects such as SSBVC, FIAP has translated to an invitation to engage in a deeper analysis and address gender-based constraints facing clients. As a result, over March and April 2019, I carried out a Gender Equality Assessment with colleagues in Arusha, Morogoro and Mtwara.

During one of the Focus Group Discussions with women beneficiaries, one woman, when responding to a question about the impact of the gender equality trainings in her household, said:

“Before, when my husband would leave the house, if he did not leave money for food, and he came home to supper prepared he would beat me.”

I thought she meant that her husband would beat her if she didn’t have supper prepared. However, my Tanzanian colleague explained that in this case, the husband was accusing his wife of sleeping with another man in order to get money for food, because he couldn’t imagine that she, a woman could earn her own money. While he beat her, he asked ‘where did you get the money to buy this food?’ and ‘are you a prostitute now?’ However, following the gender equality trainings through the SSBVC project, her husband understood that his wife can have her own sources of income and learned that his wife earning an income is not a threat, but a benefit to their household.

This was a positive impact of the project; however, it highlights the uncomfortable reality of gender-based violence in Tanzania. The gravity of this woman’s story was magnified by what was going on next door to the venue where we were having the Focus Group. Through the window, we could see there was a funeral being held for a husband and his wife. After the focus group, the leader of the farmers’ association explained the devastating truth to us. The deceased husband, who was in his sixties, attacked his young, 18-year-old wife, who had just given birth to their first child. He accused her of infidelity, and in a fit of rage, beat her to death. When the man realized what he had done, he killed himself, orphaning their 3-month-old baby girl.

The phrase from the dance performance still rings through my mind: “This is my wife, I can do what I want to her. I am the father of the house, I can do whatever I want to do.”

This tragic example has stayed with me. It highlights so many human rights issues – child marriage, domestic violence, right to education…etc. And this is happening in the very communities we are working in. Having worked previously as a Gender Officer in Rwanda and Peru, I faced my fair share of skeptics to the importance of ‘gender work’. Many people from ‘developed’ countries think of gender as a buzzword or propaganda promoted by various agendas. From privileged positions some like to argue that we have equality and that gender problems have been solved. Well-meaning individuals ask: ‘what does adding gender equality trainings to projects actually do?’ or ‘Is this just to have some figures down on paper to make funders happy?’

For me, ‘gender equality’, and ‘gender mainstreaming’ are crucial. Governments, organizations, projects and businesses cannot afford to be gender blind. Gender inequality impacts women and girls, families, and communities all over the world. It is not a buzzword, far from it. These are people’s lives. Gender inequality is not something that is solved overnight, it takes a multi-layered approach from numerous actors. It takes strategies, opportunities, trainings for women and men- it takes time, energy, resources and dedication. However, it is so important to address these issues. Because maybe that woman farmer wouldn’t have been at that Focus Group to tell her story if her husband hadn’t attended that gender equality training. Maybe it would have been her funeral going on next door. And that is the very uncomfortable truth.

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