In one corner of sub-Saharan Africa a woman feels unworthy when she is dumped by two consecutive husbands because she cannot produce children.
In one corner of sub-Saharan Africa a woman feels unworthy and dejected when she is dumped by two consecutive husbands because she cannot produce children. In another, a powerless woman who has already given birth to eight children is forced by her husband to bear even more. In yet another, a teenage girl is sold into marriage and forced to have children before her young body is ready.
These sad but common tales all shed light on the fact that too often the meaning of womanhood in parts of Africa is compressed into one package: reproduction and motherhood. Because of this, women do not have control of their bodies and are at greater risk of problems associated with childbirth.
As South Africa celebrates Women’s Month, it is worth examining what it means to be a woman and whether the definition of femininity can be separated from the biological function of reproduction.
The idea that a woman’s defining role is to produce children can be traced to a complicated web of reasons, from deeply rooted traditional cultural norms and values, to societal expectations, the multifaceted cycle of poverty and the tight grip of gender inequalities.
In much of Africa, reproduction and motherhood are seen as the prime duty of women — a reality which not only limits women’s choices, opportunities and freedoms but also simplifies and compartmentalises their identity.
“Womanhood concerns much more than motherhood, and women in sub-Saharan Africa have a right to choose the life they want to live,” says Chigomezgo Gondwe, a gender activist and artist. “Not all women are able to choose for themselves though.”
Gondwe notes that deeply entrenched cultural norms present in many of the poorer parts of Africa still prevent women from enjoying this right: women are still considered unworthy and inferior if they reject their destiny as baby machines.
‘There is an error in me’
When Memory Ncube* was abandoned by two husbands after she was unable to produce children, she was harassed by her community and called names such as “no use” or “the dry tree with no fruits or leaves”.
“It feels as though there is an error in me,” she cries. “My life is meaningless now and my infertility is the end of me.”
Last year in a highly publicised case in Malawi, 20-year-old Agnes Msolo inserted a stone into her body and “gave birth” to it in an effort to convince her family that she was bewitched. It was better to be seen to be a witch than to admit to infertility.
Women’s rights are, by default, almost always linked to childbirth and child-rearing. The world over, women are seen as mothers first, although conditions differ. In Scandinavia, women are at the frontline of changing these ingrained perceptions. They have significantly more choices and the autonomy to pursue a professional career and personal development rather than marriage and motherhood.
However, in China, women are restricted to giving birth to just one child, whereas in overcrowded Bangladesh, young girls are often forced into motherhood in their teens, before their bodies have matured. In Sierra Leone, more than 85% of young girls undergo female genital mutilation which leaves scar tissue and frequently causes fistula, a permanent tear in the uterus or bladder caused by difficult pregnancies — often because the mother is too young to be giving birth.
Seeds of purpose
Another aspect of the complex web of poverty puts women at risk in their role as mothers because childbirth in Africa is often a matter of life and death, both for mother and baby. A 2009 joint report by the national science academies of seven African countries noted that half of the world’s annual maternal and child deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, where 265 000 mothers die during pregnancy and 880 000 stillbirths occur largely due to limited health services.
This type of loss quite often only reinforces a woman’s feeling of unworthiness and powerlessness, and in most cases women are blamed.
How do we untie the grip of gender inequality in most sub-Saharan African societies and begin to nurture female brain power rather than continue to look at women as simply baby machines?
“Poverty eradication must focus on the female intellect because it is from that intellectual capacity that women draw the ability to progress and to strive for higher purposes in life than breeding,” says Gondwe. “The seeds of renewed purpose must be planted in girls and women in sub-Saharan Africa so they can choose who they want to be and explore and actualise their silenced potential.”
Issuing a challenge to women during Women’s Month, Gondwe says it was time for women to untangle themselves from the webs that bind them to one identity and challenge the societal and cultural construction of womanhood so they can begin to flourish as more than just baby machines.
She says women must also take responsibility for their own human rights and become agents for change in their communities and active contributors to the economic growth of their country. “Africa must change -now not later, and it starts with us!”
*Memory Ncube is a pseudonym.
Helene Christensen is a freelance journalist based in Malawi. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service which offers fresh news on every day news.