Tag Archives: Feminism

#Gambia: Will The Real Women’s Affairs Minister Please Stand Up?

On 29th June, President Adama Barrow made what has been described as one of his boldest moves since his rise to the highest seat of power in The Gambia. The first cabinet reshuffle since the demise of the Jammeh government came as a surprise to many, even as some had already anticipated the move due to the ever-growing grapevine in the country’s information space. Evidently, the changes in some of the positions were not entirely shocking, but some, particularly that of the Vice President and Minister of Women’s Affairs raised questions and gave way to much speculation and analyses, especially on social media.

I will leave the task of the political readings into the replacement of Fatoumatta Jallow Tambajang by Ousainou Darboe to our experts in the domain. My thoughts will be focused on the emerging debate on what this reshuffle means for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and the state of women in The Gambia, in general.

The heart of the debate, with opinions proferred from different sections of society, is the handing-over of the leadership of the Women’s Affairs Ministry to a man. It is important to note that this is automatic, as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is tied to the Office of the Vice President, a system inherited from the previous regime. I wonder where the surprise and questions are coming from. For people like me, born at the dawn of the 90s, the two portfolios are one and same. Having a woman – Isatou Njie-Saidy – lead this portfolio for more than two decades also did well to cement this notion, possibly giving way to conclusions that the Vice Presidency should always be handed over to a woman. This was evident in the process leading to the appointment of President Barrow’s deputy, bar the controversial process that characterised that decision. For a great majority of Gambians, it made sense for a woman to take up the second seat of power. For some, it may have been an allusion to the country’s efforts to ensure gender equality and better female representation in government. For others, it was about the familiarity – this is what we know and are accustomed to, so let’s stick with that plan.

However, it is important to go beyond the optics of gender equality in The Gambia, usually backed by the tokenism of appointing one or two prominent women into leadership positions, and parading them as the markers for progress in that domain. I’ve always been on the opposite side of the idea of tokenism taking the place of real representation that goes beyond the few women who ‘break the glass ceiling’. My idea of equality and representation begins not at the climax of the goal, manifested in appointments and promotions, but at the very root of the issues that have created and continue to contribute to gender inequality and inequity.

How do we ensure that girls are prepared for leadership from an early age? How do we dismantle patriarchal systems that continue to place girls on the short end of the opportunity stick, such that their progress is generally stunted, and their potential for higher leadership pruned to its death? How do we build confidence and an unapologetic quest for success in girls, just as is done for boys? How do we open up the space to allow for mistakes from girls and women, so that when one errs, the rest of the female population will not be discredited and dismissed as incapable, incompetent, and unsuitable for leadership and responsibility? More importantly, how have we contributed to the creation of a system that sees nothing wrong with placing a man at the head of an institution dedicated to the affairs of women, especially in a country where there is no dearth of competent women to take up that role?

I ask these questions because some of the outrage on this issue has been amusing to me. I’ve sat back and watched people who dismiss feminism and gender equality spin threads and threads of opinion on the matter, regurgitating the very ideas they dismissed. I’ve also observed a trend of convenience where these issues are suddenly coming to light, to some. Meanwhile, the inequality in gender representation in government has always been there, right from the first appointments made by the President in 2017. I would assume that it wasn’t much of a problem then as it is now, as manifested in the number of voices that questioned the real ‘change’ in the system, if women are still left behind. If anything, it has been quite refreshing to see an increase in voices demanding for better representation. It shows that people are not really ignorant about gender and why representation matters, even if we choose to ignore it at our convenience.

But I ask, shouldn’t our outrage be extended to other ministries, government departments, parastatals and private institutions? Better yet, can we extend this to our homes, where inequalities are stark and characterise our daily reality as women and girls? How do we ensure that the current anomaly with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is fixed, and barred from replication in all other areas of our lives? I do not have all the answers, but I have a few recommendations that may contribute to advancing the debate and addressing a challenge that is gaining bigger prominence in the new Gambia.

My first suggestion, as shared on my Twitter account in the wake of the reshuffle, is that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs should be detached from the Office of the Vice President. Women make up the majority of the population, and the issues affecting their growth and development are too broad and complex to be annexed under the portfolio of the Vice President. This arrangement places the Ministry on the back burner, with matters of the Vice Presidency overshadowing its relevance. Because issues related to women and children are often interlinked, I would go further to suggest a Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare. With this Ministry, the Women’s Bureau and the Department of Social Welfare can be brought under one umbrella, creating a convergence for crosscutting issues, and providing an opportunity for a holistic approach to implementing solutions for the relevant groups. The opportunity for better coordination of women’s development, child protection and social protection should be embraced and leveraged for better results. And yes, this Ministry should be headed by a woman, selected for her competence and drive for results, as well as the extra advantage of being a woman with primary experience on the issues that require solutions. As long as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is under the Office of the Vice President, we should prepare ourselves for leadership as the President desires – regardless of gender. This can be fixed.

The second suggestion is for President Barrow and his government to re-evaluate the status of women in The Gambia, and move to fulfill its obligations under the CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol that clearly outline the rights of women and girls. The Constitutional Review Commission, which got into action a few weeks ago, has a responsibility to ensure the full incorporation and enforcement of the provisions of these instruments. A new Constitution that does not adequately represent the interests of women and girls, cognizant of the present inequalities and inequities, is as good as nothing in the new Gambia. We have an opportunity, and I’m counting on civil society and members of the public to make solid contributions to this effect, as much as those are possible. We must move our voices and actions into the spaces where they can make a real difference.

My final point is centered on the need for a change in attitudes towards women and girls at all levels of society. The gender disparities we see in government today are not magical happenings. They are a clear reflection of the state of our country, and the status of women and girls. We cannot cry foul at representation and equality in government and then turn around and benefit from that same inequality in our homes. The work to improve the lives of women and girls should be the responsibility of all people, regardless of gender. One might argue that this brings to moot, the argument against Darboe as Women’s Affairs Minister, but that is a conversation I will leave for another post. The point is that we should all have a conversation with ourselves, identify the contributions we make to the perpetuation of the status quo, and work to make amends. And yes, I’m also talking to our so-called progressive men and #He4She champions who shout out loud for the cause, but are unapologetic about their sexism and misogyny where there are no eyes, ears and mouths to keep them in check. Change begins with the little things we do, and this includes making an honest pact with ourselves to let go of convenience and personal comfort and work towards the common good… or at least a good that everyone can enjoy, and build a life of dignity from.

I believe that it is also necessary to open up the space for dialogue and debate, even with people we perceive to be on the opposite side of our views. Dissent and opposition do not necessarily translate to hate, and we must learn to rise above personality attacks and taking things personal. Our focus should be on issues and figuring out how to finally get this new Gambia ship moving in the right direction. Right is right at all times and in all situations. Wrong is wrong at all times and in all situations. We voted, fought, and made sacrifices for a change, and should keep those in power accountable to the people under their leadership … even those close to us.

To The Gambia ever true.

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Self Care: Safeguard Your Joy

What do you do when your fountain runs dry, and all the grass you watered turns brown?
What happens when everyone blames you for letting the grass go brown?
Did you ever really want to water that grass? Were you pretending?
Why did you let your fountain run dry?
Are you jealous of the grass?

© Jama Jack (2017)

 

We’re told life is short, and we should make the best use of our time on Earth. Life can also be very long, depending on how we live it – by our own choices or by whatever fate the Universe thrusts upon us. As I grow up, I am also learning that life can very well be what we make it, as far as choices go, for those who are privileged to have them. So what do you do when your fountain runs dry, and you can no longer water the grass that turned to you for growth?

I’ve been in voluntary service for 18 years now, working with non-profit organisations, NGO, individuals and small pockets of ‘do-gooders’ around the world. I started out at age 10, when most of my peers were still cushioned away from the labour of social justice, rights lobbying, and activism. I’m sometimes told that I do not have a single ‘business bone’ in my body, because one of the hardest things for me to do is monetize my work.  My joy and reward come from seeing something I am a part of, contributed to, or created, come to life and provide solutions. It is in the smiles of the girls we work with after they have finished offloading their troubles, and taken in the encouragement, motivation and love we share with them. It is in so many other things that I sometimes don’t even notice, big and small. It is also in my knowledge of self, an understanding of my purpose in life, and a focus on the mission I’ve laid out for myself.

In carrying out this mission, I am often reminded that, despite all my achievements, I’m still human. I can be weak. I can make mistakes. I can do wrong. I am not infallible. I sometimes fail. I feel pain. I get hurt. I am vulnerable.  And sometimes… I’m too hard on myself.

When you’re used to giving and giving – of your time, your energy, your resources, your knowledge, your heart, your mind, your soul – it becomes hard to deal with periods when giving is difficult. You know, the times when getting out of bed is a task you would rather save for the next day. When your phone rings and you feel a wave on anxiety, willing the person to stop calling and try again some other time. When your task list looks like Gambia’s blueprint, but you know you’re not fit to carry out any tasks. It’s easier to deal with when these things are for you… you can forgive yourself. It’s harder when it feels like a whole world counting on you, waiting on unfinished tasks,  seeking your opinion, searching for your review and commentary. It’s hard to push away the feelings of letting people down, even when you know you can’t be blamed for any of it. Some days are just not it!

For several years now, I have waxed lyrical about self-care and how important it is, especially for people working in difficult situations. “Self-care is not selfish” is a slogan that has been stuck in my head since my MILEAD 2012 class in Accra, in a room with other young women leaders from across Africa and the Diaspora. This was significant because, for many of us, self-care was a foreign concept, despite the emotionally tasking work we do in our communities for the advancement of women and girls. How many stories of rape can you record and document before you have to face your own demons, and seek healing? How many times can you internalize the pains and struggles of the girls and women you work with before they start to manifest in your being, physically and mentally? How much longer are you going to keep pushing, and giving, and serving, and sacrificing, before your soul gives in and demands attention? How much water can you hold and share with the world, before your fountain runs dry? And when this happens, what next?

2017 ended on a high note for me. I got married to the most incredible, loving, and amazing man I know. I got to see my best friend again after more than 8 years. I started a new, better role at work. I got into grad school. I made choices and decisions that were mostly misunderstood, but made me very happy. I got rid of/left toxic spaces and energies that did nothing to contribute to my growth and new journey. And I finally got a vacation… which is where the light bulbs went on.

In that period, I was lost in a world where there wasn’t much to worry about.  I had time for myself, which I could spend with my loved ones, doing the things that I love. It dawned on me that this is something I should practice intentionally, even when there’s no vacation. I spend a lot of time preaching self-care to my tribe of sisters, but hardly ever give myself any. In spells of self-deception, I chew on chocolate and read a book, with thoughts drifting off to the next task, the next project, the next work plan. In that period, however, my time was for me and I chose how to spend it, even when I was getting constant reminders that I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to disappear. I had to be present for my people. I had no excuses. Even when the fountain runs dry.

It runs dry because I hardly take time to clean it up and replenish its contents. It runs dry because it’s too busy pouring into receptacles that take and take, but hardly peep in to see how much is left of the source. It runs dry because it feels too guilty to hold on to the bit of moisture that will fill up its own cracks and keep it from breaking. It runs dry, keeping on with the service of filling up others, even when there’s little left to give. It runs dry because it doesn’t know how to say no.

So I made a promise to myself for 2018: to safeguard my joy. Certainly easier said than done, but it is a promise I’m deliberately trying to fulfill. It is my gift to myself, for those times when the only thing that makes sense to me is me. It is a conscious effort at letting go of all toxic energy, immersing myself in all that’s good for me and society, and making intentional stops to take care of myself. It is also a promise to reconcile with my truth and stop making excuses for it, even when I stand alone, and even when it means losing support. It is understanding that there is only so much one can do, and it’s okay to stop when you can’t afford to, anymore. It’s allowing the phone to ring to its end, without feeling guilty or having to cook up excuses. It’s learning to say no, and knowing it doesn’t negate all the other times I’ve said yes. As I journey into older age, likability is not a goal I’ve set out to achieve. Acceptance of me and my work comes with acceptance of my very nuanced self, and the acknowledgement that I’m not perfect, even if I come across as a perfectionist.

In the end, when I lay down to sleep – at night or for the last time – I hope it will be with a feeling of fulfillment and appreciation of the fact that the fountain gave what it could and held on to what it needed. And in a world with so many fountains, some bigger and deeper, the grass always has a chance to stay evergreen.

For Little Girls Turned Women

I rise
In answer to the cries
Of the innocent, the fragile
Too young to understand
Yet never too young to know pain
Borne from the cuts of society
Masked in honour and servitude to God
Marked with the demands of a culture
That stands by and listens to these cries
Then beats the drums to celebrate this honour

I rise
For the little girl turned woman
Her only crime was being born female
Into a world where choice is masculine
Dignity is male
And pleasure is for her to give, never to receive
Her gift from God, stolen
Made a woman yet less of a woman
For how is she complete with a piece of her missing
While she watches the cycle grow
From her to her daughter, to her daughter
Missing pieces, vacuums of emotional trauma
Wherein dwell the loud echoes of pain indescribable

I rise
For an end to the cries
Healing for the cuts, the hearts, the minds
For the screams at childbirth, the passage too narrow
An end to the nightmares, the feeling of guilt
For the missing pieces, from woman to woman
I rise for the 70% and counting…
Against the culture that breeds it
The people who fight for it, defend it
For the little girl who needed one voice

I give my voice to her
I rise

#EndFGM #EndChildMarriage

11/11/2015

LinguereSpeaks: Storytelling As A Means of Empowering Girls And Women

Statement written for and read at launching of ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, a book authored by young Gambian,  Charlotte Ajuwa Smith.

IMG_3050

***

My name is Jama and I’m a writer. It is a great honour for me to be a part of this very important gathering, as we not only launch the book ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, but also celebrate the talent and bravery of Charlotte Ajuwa Smith.

I say talent and there may be no questions about that, but I understand there may be some of us wondering what is so brave about writing a book, publishing and launching it into the market. Isn’t that supposed to be an easy thing, especially in today’s world where we have access to relatively more resources and platforms than before?

That last part is true, but access to these resources is still not equitable, and therefore, some sections of society fare better than others. As with most sectors of growth and development, girls and women are dealt the lesser hand when it comes to access. This is due to a number of reasons, and key among them are the social and cultural environments in which we raise our girls, who grow up to be women.

I look back to the periods of our history where the education of the girl child was seen to be of little or no significance. Where we were taught that the place of a girl is in the home, where she is taught the skills that will make her desirable for marriage and ready to keep a home. Her value lay in how expertly she handled domestic chores and how great a home she could make.

This is not to say that there is no value in learning these skills, as they benefit all of society; the problem begins when we see this role is all a girl – a woman – is good for, therefore neglecting the whole package of wonderful gifts they have been given by God.

One of my favourite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, once said and I quote “We teach our girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to our girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.”

How is this relevant to our conversation today, you may ask. First, because she is a storyteller who has taken it upon herself to create a strong example of what an educated and enlightened girl can grow up to become; the spaces we can navigate in our world, and the opportunities we can create for the millions of young girls who are still tied to society’s limits of who and what they can be. She is keeping the dream alive through the stories she tells and the speeches she gives. That is empowerment.

In The Gambia, we do not have a scarcity in the number of women living lives that tell stories of achievement, resistance, resilience and a breaking away from the norm. We are seated in a theatre that was established by one of such women, in the person of Aunty Janet Badjan-Young, creating a centre of excellence for young men and women in The Gambia to explore their talents and grow the creative arts in the country.

We have many more examples of women writing stories that speak to the humanity of girls and women, leaving their footprints (or can I say handprints) in the narrative of our lives – past and present. Again, this is important.

Comparatively, we may still have many more men telling our stories, in oral and written form and using other media around the world. However, there is a growing shift in the ownership of our narratives, and therefore, the kinds of stories that are produced and shared about girls and women.

Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to read and discover stories that provide more empowering and dignified images of girls and women, especially African. With the new generation of writers and storytellers, especially female, there is even greater hope of discovering stories that we can easily relate to, and of characters that look like us and share similar cultures with us.

I go back to Chimamanda in her TED Talk entitled ‘The Danger of the Single Story’. In this talk she says and I quote, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are not untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The stories that have been told of us may not necessarily be untrue; the roles of the female characters may be roles that we have assumed at one point or the other. However, when we continue to create these roles, we are teaching the girls and women that there are limits to what they can become and this is what we will continue to embody, perhaps never discovering how much more potential we have.

In the few years since I started writing actively and taking my stories seriously, I have learnt lessons that I continue to share. I may still be young and I still have a long way to go in this journey, but each day comes with a learning moment, each one leaving me with more determination to pursue the course. What started as casual storytelling for me has morphed into a journey of telling my story and the stories of other girls and women that I encounter. This has become one of my life’s missions, and though it can be challenging, it is also very fulfilling.

When I write, I am aware that I do not only write for myself. I write for the many people who encounter my work and often find inspiration to also break out of their shells and tell their stories. In doing so, we are reclaiming the narrative of ourselves and are telling our stories from our perspective. We are cancelling the danger of the single story. We are dispelling the myths surrounding our experiences and are telling the world that there is more to us than the boxes we are forced and fit into. We are unwrapping the gifts we have been blessed with, and are sharing them with the bigger world out there. This is what hope looks like. For the next generation of girls and women, this is significant.

Today is significant, as it is yet another manifestation of what we can do when we have the necessary structures and support spaces we need. I believe Charlotte has achieved a milestone, not just for herself, but for every girl and woman, in and out of this hall. In the audience today, there may be a girl, a young woman, looking at her today and telling herself ‘I can do it too’. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the empowerment we need. The ones that come from living examples of possibility, of opportunity, of talent, of grace and of success.

Today, I urge everyone present here today to help in keeping this chain growing. There is no measure of the significant progress we all can enjoy if we encourage everyone in society, regardless of their gender, ethnic group, social standing or other man-made qualification, to reach for their goals and meet their fullest potential.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the author and everyone who’s supported her through this journey. I say this on behalf of the girls and women who will read this book and gain a stronger conviction and clarity of the path ahead of them. It is one thing to have a dream; it is another thing to keep it alive and turn it to reality. I am without doubt that the book we shall launch today will create another road of opportunity, belief, confidence and self-assurance for the many who read it.

We are the present and the future, and to build our country, our work needs to be supported and celebrated. We are the dream; help us keep us alive.

I thank you for your attention.

Jama Jack

17 July 2016

The New Year Resolution That Worked

The year 2015 has been an interesting one for me, taking me through all of my elements and rocking up a myriad emotions in more ways than one.

I am not usually one to make New Year Resolutions, for the simple reason that they are pushed to the back of my mind by reality and, therefore, rendered considerably pointless. However, at the beginning of 2015, I made one resolution and pinned it on my Twitter profile.

 

twitter resoultion

You may ask why post it on Twitter and not on the walls of my room, or somewhere more visible. My resolution was inspired by the Twitter trend #FeministNewYearResolutions and through the course of the year, has been a great reminder for me, as I navigate spaces with my voice and thoughts as a feminist.

Making that promise to myself, and to the world which followed that trend, ensured that I shared my views on feminism and a great many issues affecting women and girls without reservation, and with no apology.

The online ‘streets’ can be especially ruthless for those sharing unpopular views that diverge from the usual conservative life values we have been taught to embrace as normal.

Identifying as a feminist has brought me my fair share of vitriol and trolling, especially online, with suggestions that my choice is an anomaly because feminism goes against my African values. Ha!

In past years, trolling and (disrespectful) opposition to my views would get to me and sometimes lead me to question my beliefs, lending credibility to what I have now come to consider as no different from noise. Not this year; and I daresay the conscious decision and the thought process that went into coming up with that resolution helped me in holding the fort strong and remaining unmoved by the negativity.

Proclaiming my feminist identity, especially on Twitter, took to a new level when I changed my name to Jollof Feminist, further strengthening the feminist branding of my page, especially for the benefit of new followers. This change, in itself, warranted comments that I would rather not delve into, but choose to replace with how they made me feel.

A few months ago, I was in conversation with one of the members of the diplomatic corps in The Gambia, and our discussion centered on Gambian women’s voices online and the reception to this new and growing normal. We explored the negative reactions to feminism as a concept or way of life, and I had another eureka moment.

I came to the realisation that people are not as angry about feminism itself, as they are at feminists, especially when these latter happen to be women. Their opposition, I concluded, came from a place of discomfort and displeasure at seeing women use their voices to fill up our spaces, as opposed to the previous norm of being seen and never heard. My conclusion was reinforced by the opposite reactions I saw towards men speaking on the same issues, even when simply regurgitating opinions and think pieces from women in the same spaces.

This is not to say that some male feminists do not get attacked for their views, but this can never be compared on the same scale as the attacks on female feminists. This understanding awakened a new fire in me, solidifying the resolution to remain unapologetic about my being a feminist and, consequently, my feminist views and opinions.

Without a doubt, it has been a challenging year and I have found myself in more debates on feminism and, especially, sexism than I care to enumerate. Sometimes, the exchanges would get too heated, but I pride myself in the calmness and focus with which I now maneuver through them, ensuring that my points are made in all respect, but my views are not watered down and trampled upon as irrelevant or an overreaction.

A friend once asked me if it was all worth it, and if I wasn’t bothered by the negative attention I would probably get from engaging in debates and arguments online. My response was simple: it took me a lot of learning and decisions to get here and I am very much convinced about the necessity of what I do. If there’s anything worthy I am doing, it is this.

Reading through this piece, one would think that it has all been ice, blood and fire with my experiences as a vocal feminist online. However, I am grounded in reality by the many positive reactions to these efforts, directly and indirectly.

I have been humbled and honoured in equal measure by the many young women who reach out to express gratitude for these efforts, and explain how it has inspired them to speak up about their experiences and struggles, as well as those of other women and girls.

I have also engaged with several men, young and old, who acknowledge the importance of our voices and our stories, and who vow to be more sensitive especially in navigating our shared spaces on the grounds of their male privilege.

I had an acquaintance reach out to say he has become more mindful of what he says about women when he is around me. I took that as a first step to change, while making obvious my wish that this would become normal for him and he wouldn’t require my presence to check what he says and does, in relation to women.

I have been lucky to find and engage with other feminists, especially young Africans, who have provided more learning opportunities for me, and even more affirmation of the importance of the work we do in simply being ourselves and making our voices heard. The solidarity on Twitter is priceless and the experience is one I am truly grateful for this year.

And for me, that is enough worth and result for the work being done by the many like me, who have decided to no longer be silenced. Discovering the power in our voices and the greater power in using them to tell our own stories has been enough motivation to remain true to my promise and ensure my resolution was seen through to the end of the year.

Where reality has often pushed previous resolutions to the bin in my head, this year has been different. Perhaps, this is because I made a resolution that was in complete alignment with my daily living and activities, both at work and through private ventures. In alignment with my beliefs and what I have come to accept and embrace as the purpose of my life, for as long as it is needed in our world.

I made a resolution at the start of the year, and through the course of living it, I have been blessed with countless experiences and lessons, each one reaffirming the validity of my choices and the necessity of my life’s work. I would cheat and make this my resolution for the coming year, but it would be a repetition of something that has already taken firm root in my being and would flourish even without a reminder.

In 2015, I refused to apologise and stood firm with my beliefs, but I still believe I can be more, do more, give more and embrace the wholeness of my being.

So for 2016, I choose one phrase to guide me: BE INTENTIONAL. In everything I choose to be, say, do and be a part of. Let’s see how this one works out.

As we go into another year, with resolutions or not, I thank you for taking this journey with me and for reading my blogs, even when they come from a very confused place. I am truly appreciative of the support I get through Linguere and pray that it will lead to the realisation of the plans I have to make this bigger.

Have a very awesome 2016! 🙂

Gender Equality: A Call For Understanding And Partnership #WCY2014

For many decades, gender equality has been the subject of much debate, with the main issue being its nonexistence in our world. By nonexistence, we refer to the remarkable absence of equality and equity in various spheres, ranging from the social to the economic, political and other sectors.

It is no coincidence and certainly with great reason that the promotion of gender equality figures in the Millennium Development Goals, with special focus on equal access to education, political leadership and employment opportunities. Arguments have linked improvements in promoting gender equality to an increased progress in attaining the other seven MDGs for obvious reasons.

It is important to note that the call for gender equality predates the establishment of the MDGs, reaching far back into history and gaining greater momentum around the beginning of the 19th century. The movement was further pronounced by significant milestones like the creation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the 2005 Beijing Platform for Action, among others.

Young men and women working together; partnership is key

Young men and women working together; partnership is key

Barely a year to the target date for the attainment of the MDGs, the progress made in the various sectors still leave much to be desired. Gender inequality remains a significant problem in most parts of the world, regardless of economic, political and social advancements registered.

One is bound to question the effectiveness of the various projects and measures put in place to promote the cause and ensure much progress is made. Why haven’t we seen more improvements in this area, despite the growth in human rights and especially, feminist groups working for a common cause?

The growth in the women’s movement did not leave the world indifferent; very significant encouragement and criticism have been received. Equally significant is the reaction to the nature of the participants in and promoters of the cause for gender equality. It has become normal to identify gender equality as a women’s issue, extending to the labeling of women’s rights advocates with various adjectives, most of which are not positive. Angry, bitter, man-hating, male-bashing, brainwashed are just a few. This perpetuates the misconception that advocacy for gender equality is a domain exclusively for women, most of whom personify the adjectives listed above.

It is evident that one of the main issues hindering progress in achieving gender equality is the existence and preservation of traditional gender roles that naturally make leaders of men and followers of women. This already creates an “us VS them” dynamic, that continues to set one group against the other, in sticking with the binary definition of gender. However, it would be unfair to blame men for all the disparities in this cause, despite the suggestions that the opposition or passivity is due to the ‘fear’ of being overtaken and dominated by women. Arguments have presented women as contributors to the perpetuation of the challenges caused by gender roles, through their decisions to stick with the familiar and preserve their traditions and cultures.

This stems from a general misunderstanding of the call for gender equality, or the equally renowned fifty-fifty slogan and their objectives. It is, therefore, very important that people are sensitised and educated about the aims of the movement to foster better understanding and consequently increased participation in its promotion.

Only when all parties are aware and well-informed can we register even more progress in attaining equality and ending discrimination due to one’s gender. The empowerment of women translates to marked development in various sectors, as everyone is free to contribute their quota and develop themselves, their families and their communities.

It is also crucial that women’s rights groups work towards an end to the alienation of men from the work being done to advance gender equality. This has been a cause for concern and has contributed to the belief that promoting gender equality is a women’s issue, when it really affects people from everywhere around the world.

For this reason, gender equality should be everyone’s concern – male or female. With concerted efforts, preceded by equal opportunities, we’ll observe a growth in productivity and production while registering declines in issues like Violence Against Women touching on problems like early and forced marriages, domestic violence, FGM/C, rape culture etc, as well as the over-expectations on men to show dominance among other issues born from patriarchy. Respect of human rights flourishes and the existence of level grounds for all will positively affect the progress made on other development goals.

As the world transitions from the MDGs to the implementation of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, it will be beneficial to establish more inclusive approaches and promote more education on gender equality, its benefits and the consequent ripple effect of its progress with regards to other goals and causes.

There is strength in unity and our differences as humans should never be a threshold for injustice, inequality and the violation of basic human rights. Gender equality affects us all and should be everyone’s concern. It is not just a women’s issue. It is humanity’s issue.

In Response To The Gambia’s Pen

About two weeks ago, I got home tired, after a day of rigorous school work. In one of my classes, the lecturer had digressed into the growing relevance of e-reputation as a criterion for employment. Once I’d completed my daily routine, I turned to the all-efficient Google to see what traces I had left, and continue to leave on the Internet. An article in the Daily Observer caught my attention and I got even more excited when I read the signature: that of The Gambia’s Pen, Momodou Sabally. It was an opinion piece (“To Gambian Women: Love, Honour And Respect!”), written to celebrate Gambian women on the occasion of International Women’s Day. In one paragraph, the author wrote “To the young ones, the up-and-coming I say keep it up and don’t you ever give up! There are thousands of young Gambian girls with great promise but let me mention a few I’ve recognised of late: Jama Jack, Aisha Sulayman Keita and Satang Nabaneh. To them I say keep pushing, the future is bright adorned wih starry lights.” I was honored to receive such encouragement as I, together with my colleagues, continue to advocate for the cause of women.

In today’s Daily Observer, the author sings…but with a different tune. I couldn’t help noticing the disclaimer at the top of both articles, detaching the author from the feminist circle, but that is of little significance in the face of the contents of today’s article. “To Gambian Girls: A Message For Self-Preservation And Empowerment“, this title read. I braced myself for yet another inspirational read; one I could draw lessons from. After reading the introduction, however, I was forced to close the tab and set off for school. It was to be completed upon my return, and after proper assimilation of its contents.

I read and re-read the article and attempted to summarise the contents in a few lines. In short, the author’s message was: Dear Gambian girls, the world has changed and you have bigger opportunities to excel now. Grab them all, succeed in whatever you do, but remember that even with that success, you can never be equal to men and society expects you to remain chaste till marriage.

I marvelled at the double standards our society strives on. I wondered if the encouragement received in the first article was also to be taken with the notice in the second. The author tells Gambian girls that “you can and should be bigger and better than any man in any calling that suits you, including leadership roles”; a direct contradiction of the opening paragraph, where the author unreservedly declares that “…men and women at some level are not equal for man was made to be the leader and woman the follower”. You wouldn’t blame me for my confusion, would you?

At the MILEAD Institute in Accra last year, one of the dynamic resource persons highlighted the importance of redefining gender roles and doing away with the patriarchal and mysogynistic norms our society lives by. Being born female means only one thing: that one is a human being and is equal to all others in the eyes of the Creator. In our traditional societies, however, being born female means being raised as a woman…a lesser being automatically condemned to certain expectations that clearly infringe on one’s liberty to live as one pleases. Our biologically-defined organs become an instrument for the socially-constructed notion of gender, allowing us to create variables which identify differences in roles, responsibilities, opportunities, needs, constraints etc. I dare say  that these roles, which end up as natural elements in our daily living, are designed with little regard for the person’s interests or social orientations. The status of females, determined by (a patriarchial) society must change to accomodate the evolution of our times and acknowledge the capabilities of our womenfolk, without restricting them to traditional roles, while asking little or nothing of the opposite sex, as far as society’s expectations are concerned.

After ‘advising’ Gambian girls to “preserve our purity and delay our biological urgings”, the author turned to the boys, perhaps as an afterthought and in an attempt to avail himself of any accusations that might be advanced by the girls. How difficult is it to instill the same moral values in ALL of our kids REGARDLESS of their sex? Why should chastity be a priority only for girls, who risk great condemnation if they are found wanting in that department? How would the Gambian public have received that song quoted in the article if, instead of advising the girl to “baayi goor yiko jaii jiko chaii chaii”, the artists had opted to ask of the boys that they “baayi jiko chaii chaii yinyor jaii haleh yu jigeen yi”? Afterall, doesn’t the act of premarital sex go both ways for heterosexual individuals? Wouldn’t it be fair that where we ask girls to guard their chastity, we also ask of boys to lower their gazes, if spirituality is the backing we use for our ‘advice’?

I couldn’t help noting another contradiction in the poem which ended the article. The author tells the young girl to “dress up and parade”, to “do your thing with checkess”. I assumed this would be done in those same high heels which are “more suitable for girls than boots and overalls”. Isn’t this an evident, if even subtle portrayal of the woman as a sexual object, made to beautify herself and parade for we all know who? Yet, she still must guard her chastity and be “mindful of her reputation and that of her clan”. Hmmph!

We live in the 21st century and the feminist movement still faces enormous challenges, despite the milestones gained in the years since the Beijing conference. I’ve always been of the belief that we can only register significant success if we break the gender barriers and work together, both men and women, towards creating a better world for the human being. I believe the women’s movement cannot and will not make a breakthrough if there is no collaboration and solidarity among men and women, especially in revisiting and redefining the patriarchal norms and values by which we are expected to live our lives. I understand that the author has the right to an opinion, just like I do, and he has put it forward, even with the disclaimers. However, when one attains a certain status in society and is looked up to as a source of inspiration for young people, I think it is only right that one pays attention to the messsages put forward and the implications it might have.

To conclude, I throw a last look at the first paragraph where the author declares, “I am not a feminist” and that I ” am free to call him chauvinistic…”. I’ll honorably pass on that offer and , instead, suggest a very powerful video  by the amazing Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at one of the TedxEuston events. The title ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ is enough for me to rest my case.

Link to Daily Observer article: http://observer.gm/africa/gambia/article/opinion-to-gambian-girls-a-message-for-self-preservation-and-empowerment