Creating Awareness on Gender Issues In African Cities

L-R Molara Wood, Prof. Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch, Tabia Princewill and Ireti Bakare-Yusuf, all panelists for the second roundtable ôGender ofin African citiesö

In the frame of its programs and commitments as related to women issues, the French cultural network in Nigeria; under the Embassy of France in Nigeria, Institute francais du Nigeria, French Institute for Research in Africa and Alliance Francaise of Lagos, recently held a roundtable to create awareness on gender issues in African cities. Sunday Ehigiator reports

There are growing debates about gender relationships in African societies. Emerging in the first place from feminist movements and academics, they quickly reached out to public spheres, especially in Nigeria. Particular attention has been paid to urban contexts, where women are said to be more likely to emancipate (professionally, economically and politically). At the same time, several researches in Europe have shown that it remains more complicated for women to move and walk freely in cities today. Urban infrastructures are also still designed by and for men’s professional and leisure activities like sports.

These issues are particularly relevant in African urban contexts, whether in Lagos where women have long invested in public spaces and public transports to conduct economic activities and expand their social networks out of the domestic sphere, or in Abuja, administrative and political capital of Nigeria, where, despite the increasing role of women in politics and businesses, the influence of Islamic religion is still impacting their presence and flux out of the domestic sphere.

The joint debates organised by the French Cultural Network in Nigeria, in Abuja and Lagos represented great opportunities to discuss and interrogate the place of and for women in African cities, starting with institute examples, through questioning of public policies implementation, civil society initiatives and artistic productions exploring the notion of “gender of” and “gender in” Nigerian and African cities.

Gender Equality 

In her address, Geographer, Université de Grenoble, France, Professor Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch said in African cities and average cities in the world, women are so very much oppressed and dominated. According to her, “be it in private and public space. And that domination is a male domination,  and it is enforced through a lot of different means that all needs to be tackled.

“The means by which women are dominated varies from country to country. There are set of rules that may protect and not protect women. Rules that may be implemented or not implemented. Police that are not helpful to women who have been attacked or assaulted. And social norms that make us being seen badly; or every women behaving not properly for instance; sexual or verbal harassment in the street. So all these are really core to reducing the rhythm of movement and the access to education, health etc. for so many women.

 “There certainly has been improvement in the treatment of women and push for gender equality. But we still have a very long way to go. Though we have been speaking about gender equality for a very long time, but we haven’t taken those steps that are necessary to ensure gender equality. So we speak about it, but we don’t do it that much. My recommendation would be to tackle all the questions on gender equality at all levels. Be it at the state legislation level, or federal, in the health sector, education sector, security sector, to ensure that we have quality representation and so on. All of us , in our everyday life, we should include gender equality in the way we behave, in the way we also teach our children for a more gender equal world.

 “I definitely don’t believe in the axiom that ‘women are the problems to themselves’. Women are not women’s problem. Men and patriarchal norms are women’s problem. And patriarchal norms are also men’s problem. The question here is, is it only women who have to do something for gender equality, men are also not up to the task. Secondly, women have been socialised into contributing to enforce the patriarchal from which they are suffering. So we also need to break that conditioning that has been imposed on us”.

Planning Cities Appropriately 

Also speaking, activist and journalist, Smooth FM, Nigeria, Ireti Bakare-Yusuf said it  is so critically important to talk about gender in cities today. According to her, this is so “because we don’t think about the way the cities accept either gender. In fact,  they have taken it for granted that, the way Lagos is, is the way Lagos is etc. We forget that cities are gendered. And because they are gendered, they actually exclude others, whereas, what cities should be, is a fair and safety place for all. Hence it should be fair to each group.
“Conversations like this develops, expands, grows wings and legs and start happening in different corridors and phases when started. And eventually, they make their way upward to shape politics, behaviours, governance, urban planning, estate management, cities planning and public development.

“So that is why I think they are really important because, if you plan a city with a woman in mind, trust me; you have taken care of things for both genders including minorities. But, if you plan a city with just a man in mind, you just excluded those people. And that’s what must be taken away from these. When we plan our cities in Nigeria, when we plan our estates, we must start thinking about women. Not so much about the kitchen; because that is what she is interested in, no. Both genders experience cities differently. Take it up to the point of view of how women experience things. And how do you do that? Do surveys, ask questions, collate data. Because trust me, what you presume the answer would be is definitely not what the answer is.

“And as a practical solution to our representation in cities, we can start creating pavements, we can start getting rid of interlocking stones; in other cities outside Nigeria like New York, London etc, the average woman can run to catch a bus in her heels. In Lagos, she can’t. And I am comparing metropolis. So let’s start having sidewalks in pavements, let’s get rid of those interlocking stones which I understand that they are relatively new to Nigeria. And it is unfortunate that as at the time they were deciding the outlooks of cities, nobody interjected to remind them to be conscious of how it is going to be for children and for women? You see children slipping over them all the time, so we can make those changes. We can also make those changes in the way our estates are planned.

“Therefore, we have somewhere like VGC for instance, was it planned from the point of view of a female? I say no, though they tried a bit, but more has to still be done. I don’t believe women are women’s problem either. We forget that patriarchy has been around for ever. It has been around for so long that it had become a norm. And from those norms, you bring in women whose mindsets have been socialised to think in a particular way. So no, women aren’t other women’s problem.

“So what we need to do is to begin to reclaim our face, voices and actually force a demand for a change in the society for all and not for one; equity and equality. The rethink is being women mindful. Women are not our problem; the problem to men and women is patriarchy. Patriarch and norms are the ones that socialise the mind into thinking a particular way. They are the ones that are encouraging these women that we are talking about to continue to abuse their daughters and sons because they were also brought up like that; and grew into that system.

“So everybody’s enemy is one; and that is patriarchy. So let’s get rid of the patriarchal structures. Let’s get rid of patriarchy in our culture. Let’s install gainful patriarchal policies. Family court is a good example. How many men or good father’s are able to win in a family court? Not many. However, who do you think are the ones that design the laws that says, ‘women wins first in family courts’; men. So patriarchy is the problem, not another women. Those who says that haven’t interrogated the infiltration enough. If they had, they wouldn’t be saying that.”

Concept of Gender

Speaking with THISDAY, Special Assistant to the Secretary to the Lagos State Government, Tabia Princewill said, “I think the whole concept of gender in Africa is evolving because for a very long time; sadly women were pushed out of the public space. Meaning that there is this impression that women were supposed to stay in the private space like home, and be more concerned with child rearing and taking care of the home etc. as opposed to being a boy in the public. But the truth is that, if you really researched the African history and culture in the past, you will realise that there was no cut chain up until the advent of colonisation.

“We really need to go back and re-assess who we are as Africans.  Because a lot of the time, you would be surprised to find out that western norms came and changed our idea of what womanhood is. And the interesting thing about that is, they came and changed us; told us women should be in the kitchen, women should be in the private sector not in the public sector, and now, they are the ones trying to sell feminism into us. When in the actual sense, we were practising feminism even before they were. When the British came in the 19th century, they were surprised to see women who own properties, women who were doing business, and if you know what London was like in the 19th century; women could not own property or do business unless it was their husband’s running it. All they could do was assist. Even at that, they were denied from doing so. So if we refer back to our history, we will realise that a lot of things we are doing today wasn’t part of us, but what was inherited from our colonial masters.”