By Muhammed Ceesay
More often than not, when a person writes, speaks about or advocates for the welfare of women, he or she is construed as a feminist who seeks to go against traditional social construct. Thus, proponents of women welfare are mostly seen as defiant to what most societies establish and see as normal.
However, many a times, those who stand to amplify the voices of women tend to receive very rousing praises and credit from bodies and/or organisations that legally commit themselves to empower women. But the idea of “Women Empowerment” would obviously be disillusionment so long as we continue to think too stereotypical in the way we see the functioning of our societies.
In The Gambia, so many organisations and agencies are involved in activities geared toward the promotion of the welfare of women; yet, there are so many economic challenges facing women in the country which still impede their development. This is not so much of a presumptuous statement, but it is an observable societal fact. It is quite palpable that women in The Gambia still remain the most economically disadvantaged groups in many Gambian communities, despite the unending commitments, conventions, laws, statues, programmes and policies that The Gambia has ratified all in the name of the protection and promotion of the welfare of women. For example, The Gambia has a special ministry of Women’s Affairs and other state machineries like the Women’s Bureau and is a signatory to the Convention against All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). And again it also has the Women’s Act which was enacted in 2010. But as we speak, it seems that the impacts of these institutions and laws are only felt on institutional paper reports, for the economic conditions of women (especially those in rural settings) in the country is pathetic.
What could be the root cause to the economic disadvantages confronting women in The Gambia? From my personal independent analysis, this essay wishes to answer this question by relating it to Gender Stereotype which still appears to be a major blockade to the economic progress of women in the country.
Gender stereotyping continues to be an obstacle to the achievement of equality between men and women. Apart from the personal and social consequences, for both women and men, of gender stereotyping, it also has negative repercussions on countries’ economic development and competitiveness. Gender stereotyping places unhealthy demands on both sexes which inhibit their natural talents and interests from developing, and consequently limit economic progress and prevent social cohesion” (Bohan, 2015). Gender stereotypes can also affect men’s and women’s performance. Stereotype threat is defined as “an individual’s awareness that he or she may be judged by or may self-fulfill negative stereo-types about her or his gender…” (Lips 2001, p. 33). Research indicates that stereo-type threat can negatively affect performance by increasing anxiety.
As stated earlier, the economic struggles like unemployment facing women in the country seems to have a gender feature. “Gender is embedded so thoroughly in our institutions, our actions, our beliefs, and our desires that it appears to us to be completely natural” (Eckert et. al n.d). Traditionally, in most African societies, women are seen to be supposed to be confined to the home only to bear, breed, nurture children and run to meet the unending demands of their male counterparts.
Thus, men have been seen to be the breadwinners in many homes. This is purely stereotypical against women. Women being biologically made to carry babies (in their wombs) do not automatically qualify them to be solely responsible of sitting at home and nurturing children. Because of the fact that many of us were raised to think so stereotypical in the way male and female persons should function in our societies, most of us especially women have been made to accept without critic; to believe without question and to succumb to the dictates of their male counterparts even if it has to go down so bitter for them. In The Gambia, so many women could be seen wallowing in very bitter circumstances on a routine basis NOT because they prefer to leave unproductive lives, but because society sees them to be suppose to do only the jobs/works which are socially recognised for females; thus, limiting their productiveness to freely and effectively participate in the meaningful development of their communities, in particular, and the country at large.
The weak economic status of women in the country is not only attributed to the absence of sound human capital, but also because of gender stereotype in terms of available jobs. For example, one could realise that in most Gambian societies, it is rare to see a woman, say, driving as commercial taxi or engaged in other so-called common male-recommended works/jobs like carpentry, metal works etc. to earn a living. In any instance, she would probably receive so much public denunciation that it is unsuitable even though some women could be better skilled in such professions than some men. Who says a woman cannot be a taxi driver or a carpenter? Don’t these professions only require skills to perform? And are women not capable of learning a skill? The thinking must change! And the state, civil society and the private sector in the country must be more serious and involved in fighting against this unfortunate social construct, for if our government of the day wants to get rid of the pervasiveness of unemployment among the youths (male and female), the approach to fight must be revisited.
One does not have to stay for long in The Gambia to realise the pervasiveness of gender stereotype against women, especially among those in rural Gambia; and it clearly appears that gender stereotype against women is more commonly found within the informal sector of The Gambian economy. De facto, we have seen, times without number, female/women as nurses, teachers, manageresses, doctors, security officers etc. but it is very hard, if it actually exists, to find a woman/female taxi driver or carpenter in The Gambia. Why so? It is a stereotype that jobs/works are socially construed to be suitable based on one’s biological make up. This mostly affects women in The Gambia.
Isn’t this limiting the productive role of women in the country? Considering the economic weakness of The Gambia, households feel the ultimate economic malfunction more severely, but because of the fact that the informal micro-economic sector remains so undiversified for more female participation, male household heads mostly would have to bear the brunt of financial burden to feed the unending needs of their immediate families. It is very unfortunate to see that some women could be very skillful to perform certain works in our societies, but mostly because of stereotype and, by extension, fear for mockery, they tend to coil in their shells even if it means to remain unemployed. In urban Gambia, women in the informal sector are mostly limited to fish selling, seasonal petty trade on fruits and groundnut. In rural Gambia, women are mostly limited to small scale farming, unsustainable petty trade on locally available commodities. Unfortunately, these forms of jobs/businesses have limited financial returns. This is not enough to free them from financial insecurity. Therefore, women should be encourage more and given the space and avenue to explore more other economically rewarding job opportunities without any form of stereotype.
Article 16 of The Gambia’s Women’s Act, 2010 clearly stipulates that: Every woman has the right to work on the basis of the same employment opportunities including the application of the same criteria for matters of employment. Article 17 (a, b) of the same act also clearly spells out that every woman has the right to free choice of profession and employment; the right to receive vocational training and retaining, including apprenticeships, advance vocational training and recurrent training. Well, it is very clear in our legal books that both men and women should be given equal opportunities to job/employment with equal training opportunities which out rightly denounces gender stereotype in terms of jobs/employment, but what have been the ultimate effects of these statues on our society. Again, I wish to question how this has affected women working in the informal sector which is somewhat much undiversified…
Having the laws on paper is one side of the story, but making sure that the dictates of the laws are strictly followed is another untold part of the story. And I believe that so long as we are strangled by our deeply-rooted gender stereotypical thoughts, the space for women to freely explore other economically rewarding job opportunities would be very tapered. In fact what appears so ironical is the fact that the very people who develop these acts and laws speaking for women, are in fact victims of stereotypical thinking. Now, I wish to suggest the following approach to the fight against job stereotype against women: i) More sustainable vocational training for women (young) to increase their human capital ii) More effective public sensitisation on the negative effects of job stereotype iii) More investment in the informal sector targeting, mostly, women.
Finally, I would want to say that both women and men are created by the same creator and given differing potentials to adequately utilise them for the benefit of society and humankind. And our biological make up should not readily define the type of economic opportunity we should explore; instead, our given potentials and skills should be the base of the kind of work we do; not what society stereotypically recognise. Therefore, it is not justifiable in any case to let our inauspicious thoughts to govern the operations of our society. We must excuse ourselves for having been gendered to think so stereotypical but it is high time we started redefining and reshaping our thinking for the greater good, for the ultimate progress of our society is our ultimate responsibility which women are part and parcel of. Demystifying the deeply-rooted gender stereotypical concepts by opening up more space for women to engage in any morally binding activity that can enhance their economic status is the panacea to uplift them from the economic disadvantages they are faced with. To end, I wish to say that it is not because the solution to emancipate women from societal imbalances remains a mystery, but it appears that the very people who are supposed to promote and propagate their welfare, for the most part, feel insecure to do so. We owe our women a lot; and we must rethink!!
Muhammed Ceesay is third year student at the University of The Gambia and a youth activist.