Going beyond representation to true equality

Claire Martens

Claire Martens

By Claire Martens

I recently attended a high-level dialogue on the future of development in Africa. The discussions centred on governance and development and were attended by delegates from a number of African countries. Admittedly, I have not travelled through much of Africa, and so my distorted perceptions of gender equality throughout the continent are based on anecdotal evidence and media reports. But I think it is fair to say that gender rights and equality is not equally prolific in every African country, and even where these are supported, the results are far from perfect. I was surprised then to hear a lot of support for gender equality as a development outcome, voiced by both male and female delegates. I guess I must be somewhat naïve…or maybe not.

One discussion, in particular, was about gender representation in parliament. Interestingly, in Kenya a strict gender policy is being implemented which seeks a 50/50 representation, which sounds very noble. But I admit that my definition of gender equality does not encapsulate only one aspect of representation, as important as gender leadership is, but considers more the day-to-day trials and tribulations which exclude women from active participation in every aspect of life – from birth to school and family, to employment and giving birth and death. I always think about development in terms of the reality of the human being and what makes up their existence.

This thinking is strongly influence by Amartya Sen’s “Development as Freedom”, which sees development of human beings as something quite different to conventional theories of development which miss out on all the good stuff that make us human – our relationships, desires, needs and opportunities. Development as freedom understands and accepts that people are different and that true development of the human self comes from having a range of capabilities.

While I fully support gender representation in Parliament, because there are many useful and positive aspects which come from having female leaders at such a high level of governance, I wonder what these women truly represent in a world which continues to segregate women from the same opportunities as men, constraining their capabilities and confining them to worlds imposed upon them. As my colleague said to me, the changes don’t happen before the woman gets to the top, but only while she is there. Hence, that climb is difficult and I am continually surprised when women “make it”, when though I shouldn’t be.

But, when you really think about the challenges faced by women, you may also start to react like me. Think about China and how many girl children are born, in comparison to boys. Think about how being born into poverty denies you a good education in a country like South Africa. Think about how many girls are taken out of school to support their other siblings, or denied an education from the beginning, like fourteen year-old Malala Yousafza who was shot for wanting to go to school. Think about how many South African girls fall pregnant while they are still at school, or children themselves. Ever heard of the practice of ukuthwala? Well, it happens. I have yet to hear of a child bride who has gone on to be a world leader.

When I think about the world in this way, I see gender equality as equal opportunity in all facets of life and death, from simply the willingness of your parents to allow you to be born, to being able to attend school, finish it without being married or falling pregnant and go on to study anything you want to study or work in an environment where you are respected and valued.

Imagine the life you want and ask yourself how much of that you have achieved, what has set you back, and how is it related to the patriarchal norms and conditions that exist in this country. I am not talking of money, even though wealth can buy you many capabilities, but being able to have relationships with anyone you choose, love whoever you want, think and believe in anything that affirms your life and values and be capable of making real choices. We need to move away from gender representation to true equality, which means breaking down the social and cultural norms which deny people the lives they want.

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