Redefining the Cultural Norm

Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 2:15pm
In this photo, taken on my aunt’s wedding day, my mother (in red and pink head wrap) is giving her younger sister (my aunt) a blessing to leave the family and join another family.

By Konyin Adewumi, 1st-year MSc-GH student

I have lived under the umbrella of a patriarchal African society all my life.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was the first self-proclaimed African feminist I had ever encountered. To me, she was a glimmer of hope of what could be. However, I believe the rest of the world needs to reevaluate the reality. It is a dangerous game to look at Africa with a savior complex, deep rooted in the history of the white man’s burden.

My mother is the strongest person I know. Growing up, I learned to fear and admire a woman who was more than a foot shorter than me. And though I loved my father with the heart of any young girl whose father has shown her nothing but kindness, I knew that nothing in my life could function without my mother.

My mother could come home from a long day of work, cook my family dinner, drive us anywhere we needed to go, tidy up, adorn herself in anti-aging creams and wake up to do it all over again. She served as both breadwinner to my family and the glue that shouted us all together, because if you have ever encountered an African mother, she was probably shouting.

I could say the same about many of the African women I grew up around. I had aunties whose strengths and talents were unparalleled. So much so that when I see a picture of an African woman with a basket of yams on her head and baby wrapped in eccentrically colored cloth hanging from her back, I see a woman that can do anything. There is power beyond belief in the African woman, this is what I hope others will one day see.

However, I do not hide behind cultural pride and regional dedication as a means to ignore a greater issue. Global problems such as the rapid spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa have made the problems of patriarchy almost impossible to ignore. HIV disproportionately affects girls and young women throughout Africa, often attributed to the overarching culture of male dominance. Women are less in control of reproductive justice, cliterodectomies are practiced in villages around the continent, female literacy rates continue to be much lower than those of men, and child marriage remains prevalent among young girls.

Women of Africa have historically shown the world what they are capable of. They have played pivotal roles in the ending of apartheid, they have mobilized to end civil wars, they have served as voices to end female genital mutilation, and they have served as powerful heads of states. 

If global burdens of disease disproportionately affect women, what is the role of women—as opposed to men—in creating policy? Audre Lorde once said that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. Does this place the burden of change upon the backs of women?

It is not a secret that cultures continue to change. No culture that has refused to adapt has survived the constant transitions and transformations of globalization. 

So I then pose the question: What would the changing of the gender culture look like in Africa? Can it be implemented into African culture, without breaking down walls of the culture itself? Khadija Gbla, a brilliant African feminist who works to end female genital mutilation, once said that culture is not an excuse for abuse. Do we sacrifice health for the sustainment of a culture or culture to promote health? Are the two mutually dichotomous? I believe we are in a time in which women and men of Africa work to cultivate a reality of African feminism rather than aspire to westernized ideas of female rights.

This begins by asking women of all ethnicities, “What does empowerment look like to you, and who can help you attain it?”

This blog post was originally published on the class blog for the Fall 2015 Global Health Challenges class and was republished with permission from the author.