Women in Africa and their story of acquiescence

ethiopia

Credit: Rod Waddington

“Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.”   –  Francis Bacon

In Africa, a woman is not Adam’s ribs, but rather his shoulder and backbone. She represents 80% of the manpower working on the continent. But these women are still forced to believe that men hold the reins of power.  My first look at Chema Rodriguez’ documentary, ‘Will you marry me?’ stirred up some thoughts you might agree or disagree with. In India, we have several instances of parents marrying off their daughter due to poverty or for fear of straying from tradition. But familiarity should not breed contempt.

The Ethiopian city of Harar, with 110 mosques and 102 shrines, is called the ‘City of Saints’. However, the same city shelters sinners who force their daughters into marrying people of their father’s age. They fix marriages which are in ‘everyone’s interest’ except the bride’s. The story of a 23-year-old Rachel is that of a rebellion. She fled to Addis Ababa at the age of 16 to avoid such a marriage and now she is seen as an infidel who hasn’t followed the prophet’s book. Much as her mother sheds tears in secret and wants her to come back, she cannot convince her husband to bring the daughter back because “women can’t take decisions in such matter”.  Rachel’s story looks even more believable when you know that about 125 million girls in Africa are married before the age of 18.

From Ethiopia, the documentary takes us to a fishing village in Mali where people have no qualms about polygamy. If you have read the stories of water wives in drought-hit Maharashtra, you won’t be taken aback by the idea of getting married just to increase the number of helping hands in a family. But for men in this village, a second or a third wife doesn’t only mean an additional worker, but also an additional partner who can comfort them in bed when their other wives have just become a mother.

It’s a taboo in many parts of Africa to have sexual relations with a lactating wife. According to folklore, sperm can taint mother’s milk and cause kwashiorkor in the suckling child. Public opinion also link infant diarrhea with resumption of sexual intercourse. The man, who featured in the documentary, is a product of a gerontocratic society that peddles such ideas. While it’s true that new moms prefer to abstain from sex due to fatigue, fear of pain and often due to lack of interest in the first few months after childbirth, that doesn’t mean she would like this phase to be prolonged.

Howsoever hard you try not to see the gender inequality in this whole discourse, you can’t turn away from the fact that women are subjected to more restrictions and control than men are. The man in the family gets a new woman, a new helping hand and someone to give him company at night. And the first wife has to make her husband promise that he shouldn’t make his second wife his favourite.

In West Africa, at least 30% of men are polygamist and interestingly, more than half the polygamist families in West Africa are either animists or converted Christians. One of the common reasons cited for polygamy flourishing in Africa is the decades-long civil strife and insurgencies that create war widows. In some countries, especially Rwanda, Somalia, Senegal and Libya, there are double the number of women than men of marriageable age. Men take advantage of this distorted sex ratio and their “relative bargaining power increases”.  With men being scarce, women enter into a polygamous marriages and often settle for less. They end up marrying men whose advances they would have otherwise declined.

africa

Credit: Eric Lafforgue

In Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, women participate in Miss Yongama competition—a platform for single women to feel beautiful and to attract a prospect. For them, it’s the best way to find a good match because only crème de la crème of Senegal flocks to this beauty and style contest. The documentary also shows how cosmetics stores have mushroomed across Senegal to meet the growing demand for harmful skin lightening creams and other beauty products. The locals blame it on the West for dumping their products on African soil and infecting the locals with racist thoughts.

These days, between 52% and 67% of Senegalese women use skin lightening products: all in anticipation of higher social standing, better employment and increased marital prospects. Others try to keep their husbands’ attention with perfumes or sexy lingerie. One of the protagonists spoke her mind when she said, “Men are like children. When they get home, you have to serve dinner to them and get dressed up to play with them. You have to keep them excited.”