Mar 16, 2011

The enemy within

As we talk about women’s social and financial empowerment we often bring up the different forces that have for generations disenfranchised women – inheritance laws that do not benefit widows and their orphans, restrictions to property ownership, etc. However, there’s a dirty little secret we often do not openly acknowledge – women’s complicity in their own oppression and/or in the oppression of their fellow women.
That’s probably not a politically correct thing to mention and I may be accused of turning on the ‘victim’ here, but hear me out. I honestly believe our systems thrive because they serve a purpose for the most part, and when they mostly go unchallenged it adds to their legitimacy (right or wrong).
Here’s an example:
In Zambia we have two systems of succession, patrilinealism and matrilinealism. Under patrilinealism, a man is succeeded by his son; the family line is traced through the father. In the latter, matrilinealism, a man’s estate is inherited by his nieces and nephews, typically his sisters’ children. With a family line being passed through the mother, matrilineal succession was important because the woman was responsible for “transmitting political rights, name and social position.” This was likely practiced because of the revered relationship between mother and child, and the cohesion it gives a community.
However, fast forward to modern times, and we see how this practice has been grossly distorted and serves purely a means for the extended family to enrich themselves after the death of a relative at the expense of his immediate family.
It is not uncommon to see a man’s sister(s) descend like locusts on his family home stripping it of all valuable possessions. Granted other family members are also involved, but they are usually spearheaded by the females. Some widows and their children consider themselves lucky if they manage to keep their clothing and undergarments; but quite literally EVERYTHING is taken. Shameful stuff indeed.
Now, why would women treat their fellow women like so, or allow such treatment to occur? Shouldn’t we be at the forefront of advocating changes to the practice of property grabbing? If it can happen to your sister-in-law couldn’t it happen to you? Why do we allow ourselves to be party to the destitution and impoverishment of women and children?
This is just one example, but it is one with far reaching consequences. We are part of the problem, and ultimately part of the solution. Change will only come when we start internally, within our own families and communities condemning the abhorrent practice. Bringing traditional rulers into the fold is another avenue that needs to be pursued relentlessly – they are an important key in rural communities and have greater influence than local courts, which is not to say that local courts and magistrates shouldn’t be educated about existing laws that protect the rights of widows and children.

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