I spent the past four months living in and experiencing Uganda, East Africa. Not-so-surprisingly, the culture was completely different than American culture, and it took a while to overcome culture shock and adjust to my new surroundings. My experience was amazing, and I have plans to go back; yet there are some things that I still struggle with, namely interactions between men and women.
One of the biggest issues for me in Uganda was the gender roles. Men expect their women to be docile and subservient. Men expect to get a woman on the merits of having money or professing love within moments of meeting her. In familial relationships, men would generally get to make the decisions. I met men who were proud of the fact that they had cheated on their wives. I met many more men who brashly told me that they would cheat on their wife if I was willing to have sex. I often saw men drinking away their money while women were trying to feed and clothe their kids with what little money they could earn alone. I heard firsthand from destitute women how men were unwilling to use condoms or negotiate sexual activity with their wives – even though the men already had several uncared-for children. (Note: I spent a lot of time in the slums, where these problems are more prevalent than the city areas.)
What I saw and experienced should not be greatly surprising to anyone – it is typical of many cultures around the world. What was surprising to me, and what I have not heard often discussed in informal spheres, was that the women were perpetuating this oppressive culture. We usually talk of issues like this in terms of what the men do, but we do not always mention how the women are continuing their oppression.
Let’s look at an example. Many school-age girls would grant older men sexual favors in exchange for small amounts of money. The men dictated whether they would use condoms (in other words, their sex was nearly always unprotected) because they had the power in the relationship. It was not uncommon to see young teenage girls who had dropped out of school because they had had babies and the father had disappeared. This problem is greatly exaggerated by the fact that the girls feel as if they have no self-worth. Most would agree that this is not an ideal situation.
Yet the girls know no other way of life, because this is what their mothers teach them. The children learn from watching their mothers that the women are to be subservient to the men. The children learn from their mothers’ actions that boys are to be treated preferentially. The women push their girls into making money any way they can and belittle them. The mothers in this society, and perhaps many others, are teaching their girls to feel as if they have no worth and to be subservient to men.
When we talk about gender inequality in society, we must remember that the men are not the only perpetrators. The men, especially if they are uninvolved in childrearing, do not have nearly as much influence on children as the women do. And the women, who are raising the upcoming generation, are raising the girls to be just as oppressed as they are. In our discussions – especially when we discuss how to solve these gender equality issues – we need to address the issues of women perpetuating the problems. Only when we look at all facets of an issue can we begin to make real progression in generating solutions.