Women's Day: A reminder of gender equality

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, is a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements, from political to social spheres, while calling for gender equality across board.

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8, is a worldwide event that celebrates women’s achievements, from political to social spheres, while calling for gender equality across board.

It has been observed since the early 1900s and is now recognised each year on this day, March 8. It brings together governments, women’s organisations, corporations and charities.

On Women’s Day we recognise the accomplishments of women, having moved forward in leaps and bounds over the decades. Apart from these accomplishments, we also recognise and celebrate our constitutional right to dignity, equality and fundamental freedoms—not necessarily as women or men, but as equals before the law and society.

Gender equality is, however, not a zero-sum game–the promotion, protection and realisation of the rights enshrined in international human rights instruments is a gain for all.

Founded upon the constitutional values of equality, human dignity and the advancement of human rights and freedoms, the freedom and security of the person is a fundamental right provided for in the Constitution.

But do we, and in particular men, have an equal understanding of these rights? Drawing from Rwanda’s context, women’s rights are recognised in law and in practice.

In gender policy discourse we often observe rhetoric of women’s empowerment by way of legislation and civil society initiatives to improve the lives of women in order to address the challenges of gender equality.

Therefore, it is often necessary component of success in all efforts to empower women. The reality is that any hoped-for advancement in women’s rights cannot be divorced from a necessary evolution of the male attitude towards women especially in African society.

Thus, we must not forget the other, equally important, side of the equation: men.

The gender complex of men and that of women do not exist in mutual exclusivity - men play a critical role in the evolution and reinvention of gender identity for women, in that they react to and sometimes reinforce shifting norms of the gender complex.

It is in this capacity that a symbiotic relationship emerges, whereby one gender does not exist in isolation from the other and changes in one group will invariably mold the other. Men themselves often undergo a sociological transformation in gender identity in tandem with that of women.

However, this does not necessarily lead to an acceptance, on the part of men, of the new role of women in society. As a growing body of research shows, this misstep is often the basis for gender-based violence (GBV) and other harmful behavior that threatens women each day.

As a result, there is an emerging recognition that to achieve the desired level of women’s rights and to reduce violence against women, we must work towards forging a new normal and with men as partners.

All too often, women’s rights is perceived as a challenge for women and as a struggle that we, women alone, must endure. However, there’s a need for men to recognize that this challenge is incumbent upon them as well and that men can play an active role in, and benefit from, advancing women’s rights.

It is important that we continue to encourage the development of programmes that are sensitive to the male experience while taking into account the varied and complex reactions of men to gender-based policies.

Furthermore, it is critical that such initiatives are not designed as or perceived to be anti-male or attacking men’s rights but instead that they are in the interest of advancing human rights, including the right to equality.

However, these efforts alone are insufficient. Government measures play an integral role in achieving gender equality by ensuring that existing policy and legal frameworks are effective.

These measures embolden the value and protection of women. Additionally, these measures stifle misconduct that violates their value, and lead to prosecution and serious consequences. To that extent, there is a need for greater emphasis on preventive and rehabilitative elements that are key to fully mitigating GBV.

Current conditions necessitate a proactive approach to discourage men that might become perpetrators of GBV while those who already have committed acts of GBV must be repressed to understand that it is absolutely unacceptable.

Beyond the government’s commitment to its international obligations, it must also implement, monitor and evaluate initiatives that focus on making gender equality a reality.

Importantly, we must underscore that men who do support gender equality are contributing to the shifting gender dynamics in society. It is critical that men be more vocal and visible about their support for gender equality.

Women’s Day, while it is a moment to reflect on the past, let us not forget the struggle that still remains and look to a future where the men and women of Rwanda as well as Africa can be fully equal partners in society.

The Rwandan laws, in particular, already provide the framework for such a future, but it will be up to us to translate that framework into a reality.

The writer is a law expert.