Why sexism is a threat to gender equality gains

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A few weeks ago an article titled Litclub: Empowering the girl child through literacy was published in The New Times. The use of the term ‘girl-child’ in the article sparked off a debate with one of the readers describing the use of the term ‘girl-child’ as incredibly offensive and demeaning, not to mention, sexist.

When you take a closer look, regardless of the achievements that gender equality has attained, do certain connotations or scenarios subtly convey sexism?

Lillian Kagisha, a journalist, says that sexism is still common, especially in our daily lives. Kagisha cites an incident she encountered on a night out. “As the security guard was checking through my purse, my date teasingly told him not to worry about me being harmful and the security guy teased back saying that it was even okay to leave the purse behind since he was the one going to pay.

“It was obvious to the security guy that it’s the man who has to pay and that left me wondering the kind of era we live in. Society hasn’t fully embraced this thing we call gender equality,” she adds.

Be it the language being used or even different ways society assumes things ought to be, all this in some subtle way show sexism still prevails.

“When I think of the term ‘girl-child’, I imagine something delicate. Nobody says boy-child, why? I think the term should be generalized, as children, and if we must single them out, they can be referred to as girls. Girls are not weak, and they certainly aren’t flimsy. We have proved, and are still proving, that we are just as strong as men; stronger even,” says a gender activist who asked for anonymity.

Every now and then women come across words and phrases that come off as sexist- words like, you are doing quite well for a girl, or, despite being a woman she managed to accomplish it. These are some of the ‘compliments’ women get after toiling hard for success.

Olive Uwamariya, a gender activist, says that gender inequality and sexism are so deep rooted in our lives and societies that men and women alike do not often recognise sexism when it happens.

Women experience subtle sexism in many ways, for instance, at the workplace, Uwamariya says. Often, comments are passed to women about how they behave, connecting it to either being pregnant or hormones. This is sexist.

 “Women are addressed in a manner that is downgrading, referring to their way of dressing and requiring them to be ‘decent’ as if women are the only ones that need to be policed about their bodies and dress codes,” Uwamariya points out.

She also wonders why women in high level leadership roles, especially in male dominated fields, are often questioned on how they got there, wondering if they slept their way to the top, as if women cannot work professionally to get leadership positions!

According to Uwamariya, women are also sometimes accused of being too harsh and not ‘feminine’ or ‘caring’ enough - a typical stereotype of women.

“A typical example is female presenters in the media, people will often talk about their dress code, hair, makeup, weight, rather than focus on their ability to be good journalists. Women who are in the sports, pundits or commentators will often describe women and their appearance rather than their qualifications as sports women,” she adds.

Many times, adverts portray women as the ‘carers’, the ones who look after their homes and children while men on the other side are the ones that earn and protect their families and make decisions.

Uwamariya says that these traditional attitudes reinforce gender roles that they are trying hard to change. Gender roles are fluid, a woman can be a breadwinner too and a man can look after his children and care for the home too.

“There is subtle sexism in our language; generally this is the hardest type of subtle sexism to look out for. We often hear people say ‘he runs like a girl’ meaning that men are supposed to be reminded that they need to behave like men, and behaving otherwise is not acceptable, especially if they dare to behave or act like a girl or woman.

“This literally means women are ‘lower’ than men and no man should behave in a way that is ‘inferior’. Also, a phrase such as ‘you are a man, act like one’ adds burden to men and they reinforce negative masculinities - men do not cry, amarira y’umugabo atemba ajya mu nda -men are supposed to be strong, but no, men can also cry!”

People are often quick to see sexism that is blatant in policies, for example, unequal pay between women and men. However, what they do not see is often hard to detect and with this, there is need to educate women on how to detect the language that is unacceptable and at times abusive.

“We need to educate our boys and men that treating girls and women equally is the right thing to do, that gender evolves, that wearing pink or not, liking sports or crying, is not emasculating, it does not make one any less of a man. In fact, negative and rigid masculinity denies men the chance to grow into individuals that are capable of being themselves and reaching their full potential as husbands, fathers and simply, members of the society,” Uwamariya says.

“There are some places, especially work places, where subtle sexism is not acknowledged in the organisation’s policies; as activists, we need to work with institutions and see that policies are put in place to acknowledge and take measures where and when sexism occurs,” she adds.

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Commonly used terms like 'girl-child' have sparked debate on sexism . (File photo)

Some may argue that women could be taking the equality thing overboard; however, Uwamariya says that it is only normal to want to be treated as equals.

She acknowledges the progress in gender equality in Rwanda and around the world, though to her, there is still a long way to go to change attitudes and behaviors towards women.

What’s your take on sexism?

Annet Uwimbabazi, a business woman, says that sexism has been, to some point, fought against but that the little things still prevail right under our noses.

“Women are still seen as sexual objects, so much so that even in work places, male colleagues only choose to compliment them on their physical appearance and rarely a word on their hard work,” Uwimbabazi says.

“Men can be just referred to as CEOs or entrepreneurs but if it’s a woman then there has to be female as a prefix, ‘female CEO’, these things hurt and our male counterparts should understand that it’s the little things that hurt the most,” she adds.

Sharon Umurerwa says that complete gender equality cannot happen overnight and that both sexes should be kind enough and be patient with each other.

She, however, says that women are to some extent taking this fight to the extreme.

“There are actually certain things that would make you wonder, for instance, the dominance of the term ‘chairman’ yet women too preside over meetings, but this shouldn’t cause alarm because I believe this will change with time,” Umurerwa says.

Yves Ujeneza, an entrepreneur, argues that society has changed a great deal over for the past few years and he wonders why some people are still holding onto views that were meant to stay in the nineties.

“The perception that women should stick to some outdated fashion criterion should be eliminated from our society and with this, women can actually be equal to their male counterparts,” he says.

How can women put an end to chauvinist references?

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Musabyimana

Many females face references that literally undermine who they are and what they stand for every day, but they take it in without any question, and others don’t seem to mind. They laugh about it like it’s normal. The way I see it, the best way to get rid of such references is to make it part of young girls’ nurturing and education. The government, especially the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion, should take the lead; introduce campaigns and initiatives that aim at promoting awareness on demeaning references and also, what can be done to stop them.

Jackline Musabyimana, housewife

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Mary Ingabire

Undermining references to women is something that has been going on for a long time now, so I believe in setting up clear measures to deal with such.  For instance, by providing a platform for the offended individuals to speak and be heard. I think the public should be sensitised or made aware of how women should be treated or regarded, as a way to minimise such disheartenment. On the other hand, it’s important to teach young people to value their strengths and abilities regardless of the references.

Mary Ingabire, student

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Benigne Irambona

I think it stems from some cases where women feel powerless or are not confident enough to ‘own their spot’, which eventually affects their self-esteem. I believe women should be empowered to think positively about themselves, and encouraged to maximise their potential. It’s obvious some women are not aware of their talent, abilities or rights for that matter. This would give them a chance to stand up for themselves. Through campaigns and awareness programmes, this can be achieved.

Benigne Irambona, customer care agent

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Personally, I think women should step up and stand up for what they believe in. They are the victims of such debasing references, so they should be at forefront of the battle field. Women should advocate for rights to be looked at in whichever way they deem fit, just like their counterparts. I believe that no one can be given a certain level of respect, unless they demand for it, and own it.

Phiona Mutesi, currency exchange agent