“If you can turn your wounds into wisdom, then you emerge fearless out of a situation. This gives you the strength and confidence to face any adversity that comes your way…Become fearless. Become strong. Inspire others and hold those tight and close who are really in need of support. You will be able to empathize and be there for them because you have been through the same.”
As a 72-year-old South African man of European descent, I know that I am walking on very thin ice when writing about women, women’s rights, and women in conservation.
Nevertheless, this Tuesday morning just past, I set out to write a celebration of International Women’s Day to pay tribute to the many great women of our age. Immediately springing to mind were Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ahearn, Michelle Obama, and of course Kamala Harris. Then came Greta Thunberg, who gave world leaders such a piece of her mind at the UN, and Malala Yousafzai, who survived a Taliban assassination attempt for the crime of wanting an education. I accumulated the likes of Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, and Wangari Maathai. With no effort at all, my list grew and grew. This was going to be easy…or so I thought.
All these extraordinary women are, without doubt, deserving of every tribute they get. Then this headline stopped me in my tracks: “International Women’s Day is a day of mourning for Africa,” wrote Mimi Mefo, a Cameroonian journalist. “International Women’s Day should celebrate the fruits of decades of activism,” she said. “But, on a continent where those who stand accused of sexual abuse often get rewarded rather than punished, what is there to be proud of?”
The UN’s theme for the 2021 international celebration is “Women in leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world.” Mefo, however, understandably finds it hard to embrace the idea, “given the pain and destruction that COVID-19 has caused, especially to women.” But it’s not just about women who have lost agency over their lives in the past year, she reflects, but every year since this day began way back in 1975.
“As I cast my mind back to the euphoria that typically greeted the celebrations on this day in my homeland, Cameroon, I cannot help but recall that this is a country that has 43.2% of its women population facing domestic violence daily, while 39.8% and 14.5% face emotional and sexual violence, respectively. And, with 56.4% of women suffering at least one form of violence in my country, I struggle to find a reason for celebration with or without COVID.”
Mefo is keen not to be misinterpreted. “I am indeed an advocate of women’s empowerment,” she says, “but I just have to be honest and admit that for the first time, International Women’s Day feels rather like a whitewash on the tombs of the many women suffering and dying daily. This day has simply become a faceless event that moves on each year, without any actual focus on the liberation of the ordinary woman or girl child.”
For a woman to succeed in almost any career you care to mention, she will face many more challenges than her male counterparts in climbing to the top of the pile. Of course, not all women are motivated to reach the pinnacle, but that’s not the point. What is, though, is that every woman should have the right to succeed according to her intelligence, abilities, and ambition without any gender-based hurdles being cast before her, particularly those of violence and discrimination.
You would have thought by now that at least the worst of discriminatory such attitudes towards women would have been long-consigned to history books. But gender-based impediments to success remain a global phenomenon, as much in evidence in the boardrooms of Wall Street as in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district. Sadly, here in Africa, this global gender inequity takes on a whole other dimension, for here, much to my shame, the situation is way beyond simply unfair or unjust; it is utterly odious and wicked.
So, perhaps, after all, being an elderly male in Africa doesn’t disqualify my voice in a discussion on gender equality. Far from it, it obliges me to do so. And hopefully, many other men, whatever their age, will join me in voicing disgust towards a society so riddled with chauvinism, misogyny, and old men who try to run their countries (and many succeed) not for their fellow citizens, and certainly not for women, but as personal fiefdoms for their benefit and that of a coterie of henchmen. Corruption and patronage are the order of the day.
Mefo’s Cameroon is not even the worst. First on the list are Mali, Niger, Sudan, Congo (DRC), and the Central African Republic, all cited amongst the most unpleasant and dangerous countries in the world, for women, that is. Here in my own country, South Africa, we have one of the most enlightened constitutions in the world. Something to be proud of? Of course—it is founded on the values of human dignity, the achievement of equality, and the advancement of human rights and freedoms, as well as non-racialism and non-sexism. Yet the dark irony of this is that we have the highest statistics of gender-based violence worldwide, including rape and domestic violence.
How is this possible? Well, Mefo gives us the example that says it all. “For who could forget the story of Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo, who accused South Africa’s former president Jacob Zuma of rape, sparking a national debate about rape culture in a country, where according to the Rape Crisis advocacy group, 40% of women experience rape at least once in their lifetime?…But despite the mounting evidence against Zuma, it was only his account that eventually held up in court, namely that the sex acts had been consensual.”
By now, some of my more regular readers might be feeling that I have wandered far from my usual preoccupation with the state of the natural world. But I don’t think so. In fact, I know that I’m absolutely on track. Consider this. Almost without exception, the world’s great areas of biodiversity lie within the boundaries of some of the poorest countries on Earth. Not all fall inside the continent of Africa, but many do. Furthermore, these precious mountains, rivers, coastlines, forests, and savannas have impoverished communities pressing in from all sides. These people aren’t inherently antagonistic towards wildlife, but they do need access to food and shelter. To put it bluntly, unless conservation works at the rural community level, it isn’t going to work at all. And women are the backbone of those communities. If those same women are treated as chattels, possessions of no higher status than cattle or goats, or worse, then the great conservation areas of Africa will be lost for all time.
Ask any successful man in Africa to whom he owes his success, and you are almost guaranteed that he will pay tribute to his mother or a grandmother for nurturing him through his formative years. Television adverts and talk shows brim with tear-filled stories extolling the virtue of women. And yet, we have such high levels of gender violence. It just doesn’t make sense.
And to the thousands of Mimi Mefo’s out there—don’t lose your resolve, and remember Oprah’s exhortation—”If you can turn your wounds into wisdom, then you emerge fearless out of a situation.“