Is gender inequality in Africa about culture or is it about poverty?

“Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2012), a Nigerian Author and feminist.

Congolese women resting and watching other women build a barrage to collect fishes in Odzala National Park, Republic of Congo.

When it comes to poverty and gender in Sub-Saharan Africa, the discussions often focus on how dominant cultural practices impact women and how women are denied their rights due to these practices. There are many cultural practices in Africa that do not serve the interests of women. These range from genital mutilations, to early marriages, to disproportionate labor in the field and in households and inability to own the land, to mention but a few.

The discussion, however, rarely touches upon the role poverty plays in these cultures and how it affects relationships between men and women. In other words, if the countries in sub-Saharan Africa were not as poor, would women be treated differently? Are gender discriminating cultural practices and traditions the result of poverty or is poverty the result of traditions?

We can see both from research and from practice that as people get better off, gender relations also improve. So, it might be that certain gender discriminating cultural practices and traditional beliefs result from poverty or are perpetuated by poverty. This is one of the questions Lohna Bonkat, University of Jos and Asaaju Morenikeji, University of Bayreuth ask in their research “Questioning Poverty: Experiences of women in South Western and North Central Nigeria”. Their study showed that poverty reduction had positive impact on gender, i.e. it reduced gender inequality and enhanced gender relations. Similar results were demonstrated by the work of NGOs in Zambia on a project called a Safer Zambia, ASAZA. The project which focused on reducing gender based violence showed that as households became less poor, gender relations improved and violence reduced, even without changing cultural norms and beliefs. 

Diana Raitala’s research for her Master’s thesis at the University of Jyvaskyla, also showed that women who came from poor families and were married off to their husbands paying bride price could not leave their marriages because their parents were not able to pay a refund for divorce. It can therefore be argued that although the bride price affects gender relations in households, poverty compounds the problem. If the bride’s family were able to pay back the bride price and had enough food, the bride would easily end marriage and return to her parents instead of staying in an abusive marriage. Child marriages are quite common in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these marriages occur as a result of poverty when parents can’t provide for their children and want to transfer responsibilities to other people.  

High poverty also results in illiteracy in most of the sub-Saharan Africa. Lack of resources on the government level leads to lack of infrastructure required to guarantee safety of girls as well as to lack of teachers in schools. At the household level, families are not able to send their children to school due to lack of uniforms and books. Girls who do not go to school become easy targets for child marriages. Such marriages lead to gender inequality and violations of girls’ rights.

So, poverty eradication is key for meeting the gender equality targets for sub-Saharan Africa. Dambisa Moyo, an international economist from Zambia suggests that African economies need to grow by at least 7% if they are to have a meaningful dent on poverty. Another African scholar and anti-corruption campaigner, Patrick L. O. Lumumba from Kenya, proposes that action on gender equality in Africa would also require establishment of good governance with democratic processes, populated with politicians who genuinely care about economic growth and strong institutions.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie rightly observed, culture and all the associated practices have been made by humans and indeed humans can change them. The biggest obstacle standing in the way of gender equality in sub-Saharan Africa is not culture or tradition. It is poverty. Overcoming poverty can create cultural change, making gender equality in Africa a reality.

By Elvis Chifwafwa, originally from Zambia, currently is doing his Master of Science in Rural Development and Natural Resources Management at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU at the Ultuna Campus.

This blog was inspired by the session “Poverty and Gender in Sub-Saharan Africa” at the Nordic Africa Days 2016 under the theme Gender and Change, Challenges for Africa held in Uppsala in September 2016.