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African Universities and Gender-Based Violence

By Sethunya Tshepho Mosime

A couple of days ago a student in the department of sociology where I work as a professor decided to interview me as part of a research course. His aim was to explore the impact of traditional cultures on the advancement of female academics in Botswana.”

His first question was whether I thought “traditional” culture in Botswana prevented women from joining and remaining in academia. It was difficult for me to answer. I was born and bred in the rapidly urbanizing capital of Botswana, Gaborone. The rural connections I had through my grandmother grew strained when she became very ill in the early 1990s and was forced to stop farming. I wasn’t even sure I understood the “traditional” culture that he was referencing. 

Born in the first decade of Botswana’s independence, I have been a guinea pig for many of the country’s development policies, both failures and successes. I was fully educated in government-funded public schools. In the early 1980s, Gaborone became one of the fastest growing cities in the world, and I was a part of the ride. My Botswana changed radically with every decade that passed. I was young during the glory days of Emang Basadi—the women’s liberation movement. When I completed my bachelor’s degree, there was an opening for a staff development fellow in the department. I was the top of my class in both political science and sociology, and being a young woman was an added advantage. I got the job. Those were the days of female empowerment in Botswana. 

While my profession and my research has sustained my connection with rural Botswana and traditional culture in the wider sense, it’s my early rural upbringing that has allowed me to understand and observe protocol in traditional settings, especially at the kgotla, the local decision-making institution. Village elders gather at this local assembly every morning to arbitrate disputes, plan village developments, and engage with government policy institutions. It’s the seat of patriarchy. As a professional on “official duty” at the kgotla, I’ve been able to traverse gender boundaries that in my own personal capacity, as a young woman, I may not have been able to cross. I’ve been able to address elderly traditional leaders, most of them men, on the sensitive topic of safer male circumcision. For this I am indebted to the earliest young Batswana female physicians who trained as far back as 1926. History has it that a London Missionary Society nurse, Violet Taylor, opened a midwifery clinic and trained two assistants recruited from the royal family of the Bakwena group in the then Bechuanaland Protectorate. As noted by Dintle K. Mogobe and Ephraim Ncube, “They were young, single and had never given birth to a child,” contrary to hitherto existing cultural norms. Since this period, traditional boundaries around what spaces are exclusive to women or men began to shift. By the turn of the 21st century, nursing had become normalized as a predominantly female occupation, and so was undressing before a typically younger female nurse. I salute these pioneers. It was in villages that the gender empowerment revolution begun.

In villages, as an educated woman, I’m celebrated. I’m invited to speak at graduation ceremonies and school award ceremonies. I’m even asked to direct funerals in villages. I’m invited to the fire along with my uncles to debate national politics. There is even rumor that I have political ambitions to serve as a member of parliament, and a number of volunteer campaign managers have come forward. I have no such ambitions, but the doors are open. And it isn’t only because I’m an academic that I’m able to enjoy access to decision-making. Although the village chiefs are often men, they recognize that it’s women who are the movers and shakers in rural Botswana. As the backbone of village development efforts, they lead village health committees, land-allocation processes, churches, adult-education efforts, and different kinds of support groups for people living with disabilities and illnesses. 

Therefore, it’s not traditional culture that impedes my progress as an academic, it’s the insidious violent patriarchy found in the universities themselves. This has little to do with the villages where I travel to do field work. The backlash against the very successful “women’s empowerment” initiatives of the 1990s is felt at every corner of the world where women have made nominal gains, but it’s even more virulent in universities, which perpetuate both covert and overt gender-based violence against female students and lecturers. Sexual harassment policies, in the few places where they exist, are often neglected and under-resourced. Promotion is a game of lobbying and downright bootlicking of those in authority, where guidelines are flouted and standards are different for women than for men. For example, while the number of women qualifying for promotion to senior lecturer and associate professor positions at my university has increased in the last five years, the majority of them have had to wait more than two years for their promotions to be approved. For most male colleagues, it only takes a month. Articles written by women, especially if published in feminist journals, are often undervalued, and women are more likely than men to be accused of working with so-called “predatory publishers,” even as men also publish in the same spaces. African female academics are also more likely than men to do the undervalued work of advocacy and community development.

The only way that “traditional” culture slows down the African female academic is through the gender role she’s expected to perform in the home. She not only has to work twice as hard as her male academic colleagues for fewer rewards, she must also work as a housekeeper and an active member of her community. She shuttles children to and from school, cooks for the family, attends countless family meetings and events, and is a breadwinner for several households.  

Working late is a normal part of life for the African male academic, but for the female this is hardly an option. Security on campus is often so poor that even when she can work late, it’s unsafe to do so. Networking on campus is also a limited option. The male colleague goes to the staff canteen to catch up over a beer after 5pm, but if the female colleague is brave enough to have a beer with colleagues, the conversation is less likely to be an opportunity for networking and more likely to be an attack on the qualities of her womanhood. It’s common for her to be told directly that she’s a slut who’s unlikely to make a good wife, mother, or strong academic. If she retorts, she may endure sanctions, such as delays in processing her applications for promotion, sabbatical, leave to attend conferences, or even unpaid leave. 

Traditional African culture has often been vilified as an impediment to the advancement of women, and this notion continues to be perpetuated despite the growing body of literature showing that many pre-colonial African cultures had less rigid gender norms and didn’t demarcate so severely between public and domestic spheres. This is a colonial and missionary legacy, one even more entrenched in institutions such as the academy, the judiciary, and the church. The village is much more enabling for women than the city. Tradition is much more enabling for women than modernity. My female friends in politics, does this sound familiar? I think so. And this is not just a phenomenon in Botswana. It’s widespread.

*****

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Sethunya Tshepho Mosime is a lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, at the University of Botswana. She teaches a wide range of courses including African Social Thought, Sociological Theories and Methods, Gender and the Criminal Justice System, Communication for Development, and Media-Military Relations.

[Photo courtesy of Lerotsi]

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