Gender empowerment: What of African boys?

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AS A woman who was once an extremely frightened girl, I know fully well and appreciate the benefits that come with feeling empowered in a largely male dominated world. Much of the abuse I experienced as a child was at the hands of angry, damaged, broken, lurid men. Much of the anxiety I felt as I pursued my highest ambitions was informed by a culture which cautioned me of the consequences of being too driven in a society where a man would have to find me submissive and desirable enough to marry. Indeed even now as I live out my contribution to my continent, I often spend a disproportionate amount of energy fighting off advances or resistance from men who struggle to see me as their equal professionally.
So I understand very intimately what it means to be a woman in a world where the odds are stacked against us and I understand fully well the structural barriers most women have to overcome in order to experience the fullness of their possibilities. My story of abuse, disempowerment and objectification is that of millions of women across the world. Yet having said all that, I find the discourse of girl empowerment on our continent concerning. Allow me to explain why.
As a leadership practitioner, I focus the larger part of my professional energy working with emerging leaders from across the African continent. I coach young men and women who are pursuing various ambitions and who have the success of Africa at the heart of their endeavors. I create learning opportunities for these young leaders to think critically about the way in which they occupy space in the world and how to use the power of their highest imaginations to innovate and contribute. The kind of talent I encounter makes me hopeful for the continent; that is until I also encounter that still very quiet yet very real instance of male disempowerment.
You see, where woman empowerment policies are being exercised efficiently (and there are far too many places where this is not yet happening), one very slowly starts to observe a decline in the confidence and performance of our young men. Researchers in countries like the US and the UK have noted this phenomenon when looking at the declining rates of male student enrollment into university, as one example. The trend is slow, but it is growing and it is becoming more visible.Advertisement

According to the international Business Times in a report in 2011, “about seven out of 10 people in the top 10 of a high school’s graduating class [in the US] are now female.” The same journal quotes the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) who project that by 2019 women will represent “61 percent of total post-baccalaureate enrollment”. One researcher even observed in a different journal that certain schools are starting to cut funding for boys’ sports teams so as to focus on girls’ sporting activities.
I have sat through job interview processes in South Africa where young male graduates struggled to show up from a leadership perspective at the same level that female graduates did. The debates are varied as to why this is happening. But I argue that our discourse of girl and woman empowerment is very slowly starting to create a sense of apathy amongst our boys and young men.
I never forget an instance where I interviewed a young man on campus and asked him why there were so few male leaders in the African student societies. His response: ‘it seems inappropriate for me to seek leadership roles when every message around me implies that it is the turn of girls”. I remember yet another contribution from a participant of a leadership workshop I was running. He came to me at the end of the workshop and asked with great hesitation: “could you design a session that helps men understand how to show up in the context of women empowerment?”
At first even I was a little disturbed by the question. My initial response was to feel the pang of resentment towards a man who had been empowered his whole life and was now claiming threat because of the women’s rights movement. But as he kept speaking I realized that his hesitation was an acknowledgment of the privileges he had enjoyed. His discomfort however was also coupled with a sincere question about how one embodies self when the drift of history is changing so surely that the tools that were once available are no longer acceptable or appropriate. It is a valid question.
Of course the gender empowerment police will right now be cursing loudly, and rightly so, about the long history of abuses against women. As one such advocate once said to me, you do not achieve success at empowering a disenfranchised group of people by focusing on the concerns of their past oppressors. Correct. Except my most urgent concern as I write this is for African boys who are growing up immersed in a discourse of very exclusionary language which is biased towards girls. These boys are not oppressors. In fact, and in Africa specifically, they are most likely encountering the same sense of lack and hopelessness that their sisters are encountering.
The question that I am hearing many young men (and I am sure little boys) ask is how and to what extent do they exert themselves in a world where women and girls are clearly the priority? It is not a question about power or dominance, it is one about existence. And when one’s gender becomes an existential conundrum then we will soon experience the pains that come with that. I should know, I am a woman. Most of my female existence has been an embodiment of the messages that I received growing up. “This is a man’s world.” “Women must be submissive.” “Good girls are polite and they should giggle when men do inappropriate things to them.” Never mind how I felt about myself and how I could show up in my full power. The language that was available made no room for my empowerment. It was about men. No other considerations permitted.
And now the tables are slowly turning
Language is the medium through which we express our deepest values. It is through language that we form new realities and destroy old ones. It is through language that we inform identities and transmit senses of being, particularly to the most vulnerable amongst us. It seems to me therefore a little shortsighted and maybe even careless that we are assuming that as we brandish the language of girl empowerment, young African boys should have the maturity to understand what that means for them. The current language says to them that it is the turn of girls to fulfill their highest destinies. “Girls matter”. “Girls come first”. “Girls will get the special girls’ scholarship”. “Who run the world? Girls!” And as our language dishes out these mantras, it also automatically suggests: “you are not the priority of the community at present”; “you do not matter as much”; “you can take care of yourself”.
This language, in the absence of any meaningful curricula in our schools to discuss gender and meanings of disempowerment, assumes that boys have the maturity to interpret a history of patriarchy they barely understand. That as their sister gets the special attention, they should appreciate what that means in the context of their father’s sins. That like girls in past eras, they should understand the priorities of the time and accept second position. We may not be saying these things out loud but our language certainly implies them. There may be tools still readily available to empower boys, but those tools are slowly and strategically being dismantled. What will remain when they are gone? Have we thought of that?
Our collective consciousness about how women’s exclusion from the playing field has disadvantaged us as a people should be very intimately tied to an understanding of the language and the practices that led us to this place initially. We should have the long-sightedness to ask the question about whether our current discourse will in the long term create a gender disparity in the opposite direction. The focus should be on how to make sure we put in place policies that empower both our girls AND our boys. We should be making sure that as we raise strong and ambitious girls we do not raise a generation of boys who feel inferior to their counterparts. Boys who feel so sidelined that they undo all of the impressive and deeply satisfying work that we have done. Boys who feel so excluded they look for meaning and identity in nefarious movements.
Some people may pose a counter-argument that it will be a long while before we see a real imbalance in the favor of women. My argument is that we should never get there. As a continent we cannot afford yet another policy blunder that further weakens the fabric of our society. Maybe other nations can afford that experiment. We can’t. In empowerment debates in America, researchers are very careful to show that in the girl empowerment context, it is likelyboys from disadvantaged backgrounds who will suffer the most from the incumbent sense of exclusion. It is less likely those coming from affluent backgrounds will feel the pinch so quickly. After all, girl empowerment debates likely mean less to you if you are a middle-class or wealthy kid who can fall back on some well-established trust fund. African boys and indeed our young men are often faced with an equally paralyzing uncertainty about their future as African girls are. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to this.
To conclude, I emphasize that we should continue to pay attention to the undoing of abuses that have been and continue to be suffered by women in a still unequal world. There are many patriarchal structures that are yet to be dismantled before we can celebrate women’s full freedoms. I am also emphasizing that we beware the language and practice that we use as we do this. We cannot cultivate new inequalities while we seek to undo old ones. What we should learn from the women’s movement is that inequality hurts our societies.
As one Harvard Business Review contributor noted, true feminism creates spaces for “power ‘in connection’, power ‘with others’, power ‘of community’ and the role of peer-to-peer relationships in which status is irrelevant.” If we are to get the next 100 years right we have an opportunity to find intelligent ways to bring boys back into this conversation. Gender empowerment need not be a zero-sum game, especially not given the fragile state of our continent. We can and should be empowering both genders to co-create an African future that works for all. This is the only way to avoid repeating the very mistakes that we are currently working so hard to undo.
Rachel Nyaradzo Adams is a leadership practitioner who is fiercely committed to education and leadership development on the African continent. She is first African and then Zimbabwean.