Addressing prejudice against women
Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman once said: “The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl.” Shaped by discrimination and bias, the society, especially in the third world, has dealt the girl-child a rough blow even before birth. In India and across South Asia, untold numbers of infant girls have been murdered by their own families throughout the centuries. In the modern world, the phenomenon of ultrasounds and gender-selective abortion has introduced a new method of perpetuating this ancient killing machine. India, for instance, accounts for the termination of about 10 million female foetuses over the past 20 years while female infants are still found dumped in dump sites or drowned in rivers or lakes in large numbers.
In Nigeria, the story is not different as women continue to endure all sorts of humiliations for giving birth to girls- the so-called weaker sex. It is not uncommon to find in-laws harassing wives for given birth to girls. In fact, “son preference” is an age-long phenomenon deeply rooted in beliefs that women and girls have less value than men and boys, and that the male child will ultimately take care of the parents when the daughters are married. Thus, such prejudices lead to aggression and violence against girls as they grow up.
In her journey through life, the girl- child, when lucky enough to be spared, undergoes a lot of harrowing experiences ranging from early marriage, low level of schooling, exposure to violence, HIV infection, maternal death and vesico-vaginal fistula. Although child marriage is against the law in many countries including Nigeria as international treaties forbid the practice, it is estimated that about 51 million girls are forced into early marriages world-wide .In Nigeria, the marriageable age varies from one region to the other. In the North- West and North- East regions, for instance, 14 years is considered as the average age for marriage while in the North -Central region, marriage could be contracted between 2nd and 3rd menstruation, whereas in the Southern part it varies from between 16 to 18 years.
Quite often, in most African countries, parents of child brides are driven by factors such as pressure to conform to age old cultural customs like preservation of chastity and economic considerations. In poor developing nations, it is not uncommon for poverty stricken parents to settle debts by offering their underage girls as payments.
Invariably, these early marriages deny girls the opportunity for quality education in addition to depriving them of their childhood. Among the more than 100 million children not in school, approximately 40% are girls. In Nigeria, Women and girls constitute 60% of the illiterate population. Also, most young wives are burdened by growing up responsibilities, household chores, rearing of children, and consequently do not get a chance to interact with their peers or carry on friendships outside the household. Also, they cannot contribute to the economic growth of the country, as they are put in a state of complete dependency on their husbands.
As a result of the age gap existing between the child brides and their spouses, they are often exposed to domestic violence and other forms of abuse. At least one in three girls and women worldwide has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime. It is now a common occurrence to hear of girls and women being frequently raped, irrespective of their ages. Today, of all girls and women’s fears, that of being raped is the darkest .The rape epidemic in our society reflects the extent to which women’s and girls’ rights are being flagrantly violated. It has gone so bad that minors, as young as 4 years old, are now being raped with resultant effect of preventing the victims from socializing or settling down later in the future. Kidnapping of young girls of school age, either as sex slaves or for ransom is now the in-thing. The Ese Oruru saga and the three Secondary School girls abducted from their hostel in Ikorodu, Lagos, attested to this.
Equally, child brides often suffer from Vesico- vaginal fistula, a medical condition where there is an opening between the uterus and the bladder because the pelvic bones do not have sufficient time to develop. This often leads to abandonment or divorce by their husbands and ostracization by their communities as urine continuously leak from their bladders.
As a widow, a woman faces various inhuman and degrading treatments in the hands of her husband’s family. These range from shaving of hair, to drinking of her husband’s corpse bath water and sleeping alone with the husband’s corpse as well as not taking her bath for a number of days.
It is in realisation of the enormity of challenges being faced by girls and the female gender in general, that the Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode has pledge to provide a level playing ground for women and the girl child. In his words: “We live in a world where women are largely exploited as support and back-up; only to be seen and not heard. As a government, we will ensure that women are protected from sexual and domestic assaults, and we will continue to accord women their right of place in the society. We will also ensure that no woman or girl-child will be made vulnerable or disenfranchised on the basis of gender, religion or social status in the state”.
This, the Governor demonstrated recently by promptly swinging into action in not only ensuring the prompt release of the three girls abducted from a secondary school hostel in the state, but also mobilized necessary security agencies in arresting the masterminds of the dastardly act. This action became necessary in order to guarantee that the girl child receives qualitative education in a secure and peaceful environment.
Earlier on, the state government launched the state’s guidelines against domestic and sexual violence, called the Domestic Violence Protocol for Responder Agencies aimed at providing guidelines and establishing standards for relevant agencies. These agencies include the police, judiciary officials, health care providers, social workers etc.
The Lagos State Government also approved the procurement of Rescue Vehicles, establishment of more shelter and transit homes for victims and would be survivors of domestic violence in addition to the procurement of rape kits and training for sexual assault examiners at primary health care centres across the state.
It is now left for the female gender to put their destinies in their hands and come out of their cocoons of stereotyping in order to be part of decision-making on issues that affect them, because according to Andrea Dworkin, an American feminist and writer “Women have been taught that, for us, the earth is flat, and that if we venture out, we will fall off the edge”.
Bakare is of the Features Unit, Ministry of Information & Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja.