Probing the myth about women empowerment

In this women-empowerment rich age, I just received a WhatsApp forward titled “MAIDS TAKEOVER”; to the effect that suitors now prefer maids to our daughters for marriage. So while girls are going for their Masters and PHD’s, maids are taking care of the home and children, hence, acquiring wife-material skills. This of course is a silent threat to all educated female wannabe’s that despite their level of education, at the end of it all, they are simply wives in the making. Maids are paid support for what working women should be doing.

One of the group members promptly responded, “Submissiveness and abilities to be a caterer for anything hubby wants made a virtue”. Another member wondered what happens when hubby is not husband material, and if not, who is talking to the boys? But guess who is forwarding these messages? Truth be told, it is mostly the educated women that feel their daughters might fail in their homes.

The question keeps coming up over and over again. What is this myth about women empowerment? After years of fighting for equal rights in terms of political and socio-economic empowerment, why is it that gender equality is regressing, and numerous accounts of gender-based violence are still rolling? Why is it that women are still struggling with the so-called virtues of submissiveness and wife-correctness in marriage? Where is it going wrong?

The original concept of empowerment referred to principles such as the “ability of individuals and groups to act in order to ensure their own well-being or their right to participate in decision-making that concerns them”. It was intended for the marginalised, the poor or oppressed. What started as a tool for self-expression has become a tool for power and financial acquisition under the umbrella of women empowerment. When the concepts of self-awareness and capacity building were raised as major components of empowerment, that is, instruments that help a person make conscious efforts to transform himself (Freire, 1974), they became opportunistic slogans for some political institutions, but more so for NGO’s and so called social enterprises. 

Angry critics are pointing fingers mainly at development agencies that establish programmes that do not incorporate the wider concerns that disempower women. As an example, provision of sewing machines or poultry for economic empowerment to deliver women from insubordination may be a half-baked solution. Most of these actions are not bad in themselves. To some extent, there have been good outcomes for many women.

However, economic empowerment does not always read gender equality and just like the literate women that preach submissiveness in marriage, the solution to women empowerment is not necessarily literacy, economic or political. It could as easily be cultural or relational. There is no one size that fits all. Because of this, the myth about women empowerment and gender equality gets more confusing and the subject less convincing.  Apart from positive reactive policies and outbursts whenever gender abuse occurs, the solutions to (including women empowerment), let alone root causes of gender inequality, are hazy and the subject has grown too wide for grappled meaning. Literally, any person can come up with any solution in the name of empowerment, as long as it appeals to the donor or sympathisers. Whether the actual recipients finally achieve gender equality through this empowerment is an evasive success outcome. For example, having free legal support for abused women is a protective policy that may instil fear in
the perpetrator, but does not necessarily curb his abusive nature. Instead, the inequality and/or abuse may continue in subtle ways at different levels.

Still missing in all this is male inclusion. There are programmes that involve men in this struggle, but it obviously is not enough. Male inclusion at every level of empowerment is a must if gender equality is to make headway. In any case, they are the key stakeholder in all this just as the women are.

Perhaps the worst nightmare is the donor aspect in all this that belts a lot of money into the organisation than it does in understanding the actual needs for women empowerment. The key solution for some countries in Asia (where women are treated shamefully), might be, for example, a conscious awareness-raising for men. In any case, their spite for women goes unabated regardless of the level of education or wealth.

But there is also another aspect of die-hard feminism that calls for aggressive demands for equal roles in the household. In my opinion, it does not matter who heads the household. What matters is mutual respect within the household, and how they support each other’s needs. Role playing could easily be one or the other based on mutual consent and not forcefulness. Whether I am wife material or not, the importance is whether I am happy to live in my skin as a woman, respected for who I am, what I want to do, and how I prefer to do it.

For this to happen, it should start at household levels building upwards. Men and children are key players in this. So simply put but just as simple to start with if we are to clear this myth about women empowerment.

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