Some time ago someone sent me the following message:
“I’m doing a gender story. I want to know why does society refer to gender issues as women and girls issues? Are they not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes? Are we saying that men are not being abused? Aren’t young boys being violated too?”
The questions came during an inconvenient time (I was in the middle of my dissertation) but because they are questions that have been thrown my way time and again, I had to respond. This was my considered view.
Why does society refer to gender issues as women and girls issues?
Because gender issues seek to address, expose, redress, explore and understand the societal realities that often privilege men and simultaneously disadvantage women.
For example: a recent gender issue is the curfew which police have placed on women to limit their movement during the night time. This curfew affects women only BECAUSE they are women at the same time this curfew PRIVILEGES men by allowing them to enjoy freedom of movement without being harassed.
Consequently those who are being disadvantaged by this curfew (ie women) are the ones most likely to make it a gender issue by insisting that they are being disadvantaged on the basis of their sex. On the other hand, while men themselves may feel that the curfew is unfair – they are less likely to pro-actively seek to redress it because it is not necessarily directly affecting their own liberties, in fact the curfew is affording them privileges that are being denied women.
Any issue is often associated with the social group that stands more to gain from its resolution than the ones that have little to gain or in fact are benefiting from the status quo.
Therefore the resolution of gender issues in our society would greatly benefit women and in some cases it would also diminish the unfair privileges men enjoy on the basis of their gender; which unfair privileges enable them to enjoy supremacy over women or exercise dominance over them.
No social group wants to be dominated by another, why should women be the exception? At the very core of it, gender issues represent a search for fairness eg it is unfair that women have a curfew placed on them; it is unfair that men are not given a curfew too. BUT it would still be unfair if women were given a curfew and men were also given the same curfew because that would restrict EVERYONE’s freedom of movement and infringe on their liberties. The fair thing therefore would be for women to enjoy the same privileges that men are enjoying i.e a just society would allow its citizenry to enjoy freedom of movement both male and female.
Gender issues tend to be associated with the social group that is disadvantaged and can benefit from the resolution of those issues that they feel are unfair, unjust or place them at a comparative disadvantage.
Are they not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes?
No, they are not creating stereotypes and discrimination by focusing more on females than both sexes. What they are doing is RESPONDING to pre-existing inequalities in our society.
Any attempt at neutrality in terms of addressing gender imbalances in society requires us to pretend that everyone is starting off from an even playing field which is not the case. In our socialization, in our customs and cultures we have privileged the male citizens and relegated the female members – and we have done this because we insist that it is traditional or normal. Gender issues become a way of looking at these inequalities and assessing whether or not the gender roles men and women fulfil are ‘natural’ or merely constructed.
It is not ‘natural’ for girls to do the dishes and for boys to herd cattle – it is a socially constructed expectation, society expects, requires and assigns certain roles to its girls and to its boys and in the same manner it constructs roles, responsibilities, expectations and assigns ‘power’ to men and ‘rules’ to women.
In talking of gender issues and focusing on women and girls – we show an appreciation for the fact that there has been an uneven assignation of gender roles that has privileged men insofar as they have been afforded opportunities that women have not been granted; and these opportunities are opportunities that men received when they were still boys (being able to go to school without first having to do the dishes or sweep the yard) and these are the opportunities that girls could not enjoy (being married off at very young ages, missing some days at school to cope with menstrual pains, not getting enough time to do homework or read because they have chores).
Over the years the advantage merely widens within the job sector as women still have to juggle multiple responsibilities while holding down full time jobs (women are less likely to go for careers that require constant travel or long hours because the gender roles assigned to them necessitate that they be at home being hands on in nurturing their families while men are not required to be hands on and can have more time to invest in career development, being rewarded with promotions, benefits and eventually becoming the dominant partner in terms of acquiring and accumulating resources).
It is not discriminatory nor stereotypical to address an existing gender imbalance by acknowledging the need to give preferential treatment to the social group that needs that preferential treatment to offset the negative cumulative impact of an unjust societal status quo.
If you have two children and one of them has a limp; your offering a crutch to the limping child is not discriminatory but it is an appreciation of their comparative disadvantage. You cannot then insist on offering both children a crutch just to appear non-discriminatory. Similarly insisting that gender issues should provide a crutch for the social group that has historically enjoyed dominance and privilege is unhelpful.
Discrimination is unfair, women should not get favors just because they are women BUT by the same token women should NOT be denied opportunities or privileges for being women.
Are we saying that men are not being abused? Aren’t young boys being violated too?
We are not saying that at all. We are saying that women and girls are comparatively worse off in terms of vulnerability. The key issue for me (as far as I can tell) is the issue of ‘comparativeness’…. there is a degree and an extent to which the vulnerability of women and girls to abuse significantly outweighs that of men and boys.
And it is practical for most to start by dealing with the bigger problem before addressing the smaller one – but in dealing with the bigger issue we are not saying that the smaller issue does not matter or is unimportant. We are merely prioritizing in appreciation of where the resources, support and mobilization are needed the most.
We could of course, say lets prioritize the abuse of men by women and forgo (for now) the abuse of women by men – but you would find that it would not go anywhere in terms of addressing the issue of abuse in our society because such an approach has IGNORED the social group that is most deeply affected by the problem. It is not about being dismissive towards the suffering of men or about pretending women do not abuse men but it is about appreciating the varying realities of men and women that make women more vulnerable to abuse than men.
And as for the violation of young boys, there is no way anyone in their right mind could insist that the suffering of little girls is more important than the suffering of little boys. The suffering of children is categorically unacceptable and gender issues are all encompassing in relation to the rights of children. However the truth is it is impossible to protect the rights of children (both boys and girls) without securing the rights of women.
If the rights of women are violated, their capacity to provide for their children materially or emotionally and otherwise is diminished and severely hampered. Battered women are battered mothers and their condition as victims of abuse and violence dis-empowers them and diminishes their capacity to create and sustain safe home environments for their children.
Gender issues are intertwined with the issue of children’s rights, with the issues of fairness, of social justice and of equality between the sexes in terms of enjoying similar privileges, enjoy equal access and freedoms and in terms of enjoying the liberties of being a full citizen. The only reason why these gender issues become synonymous with women as a social group is that men as a social group already enjoy all of the above. And in seeking the elevation of the status of women in society – gender issues is just a means of saying, “lets all share it together”.