In 2014 UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson launched the HeForShe Campaign. During the speech she gave, she said: “My life is a sheer privilege because my parents didn’t love me less because I was born a daughter. My school did not limit me because I was a girl. My mentors didn’t assume I would go less far because I might give birth to a child one day. These influencers were the gender equality ambassadors that made me who I am today.” This is not the case for every girl and many of them around the world do not experience this support by their families or community and most of the time their rights are not being granted to them. This is an issues that many Western girls do not have to deal with, however it is much too common in more traditional societies such as in for example in Kenya.
The questions remain; what has been done so far to achieve gender equality? And what is the way forward in achieving gender equality for all groups in society?
What is Gender and Gender Equality?
When referring to gender as a concept it is linked to the social constructs associated with the role of women and men and the relations and interactions between them in society. An issue brought forward, when thinking about gender as a concept, is that it mainly focuses on what is expected from women and men in society or a determined context. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that gender is not merely about women but all social groups in society including men, women, trans-genders, and all human beings.
Gender equality on the other hand is different than gender, as it refers to the equal rights for women and men of various aspects related to opportunities as well as responsibilities. However, inequality between all groups in society is viewed as a human rights violation and a pointer of, a more sustainable development on a human centred level is needed.
With gender equality often comes the empowerment of women in society. That includes empowerment on an individual level, strengthening the power of these women within society and modifying the institutions and its rules in society. Gender mainstreaming comes about when the discussion of gender comes to the table. The main goal of gender mainstreaming is to achieve gender equality in the long-run. Moreover, it is the process of measuring the suggestions for men and women of any planned action. It is also of importance as it works as a strategy for men’s and women’s concerns in all economic, political and societal spheres, so that men and women can benefit equally so that inequality does not take over anymore.
About the campaign
The HeForShe Campaign is created by the body of the United Nations Women, which is the UN unit for gender equality and women empowerment. The campaign was brought about with the idea that men and boys can be the ones that lead to change towards the attainment of gender equality in society. The main goal is the acquirement of gender equality through a more inclusive approach that makes men and boys realise that women can become equal partners for them in society. Men in our daily societies should realise that they can also benefit from equal partnership with women. The HeForShe campaign gives men and boys the opportunity to rely on the work of the women’s movement as equal partners, and starting to share the same views of gender equality that will add positive value of all humans in all different type of societies. Therefore, ever since its launch, at the United Nations on September 20th 2014, by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, and many other men from around the world including Heads of State, CEOs and global luminaries, have committed to gender equality.
What has been done since 2014 / Achievements so far
So far as to ameliorating the role of women in patriarchal societies it has been a big effort. However, slowly but surely it is being achieved and women are being recognized for their strength and potential. Around the world, women are becoming more empowered and have achieved a certain visibility that did not used to be there a decade ago. Women are portraying a power of positive role modelling and it is very important for young girls to see how the women before them were successful, that through education, and experience for it to come within their everyday life and grasp. In 2016, when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were implemented, UN Women supported women to stand for their rights to equal treatment under the law, as well as equal respect in society, to gain elected office, to draw on the power of innovation and technology, and to being able to become leaders through sports, among many other initiatives that could lead to their empowerment and equality in society. It was also important through the HeForShe Campaign that women’s rights activists would be supported by grassroot organizations that would influence crucial policy discussion in more traditional societies.
If we take a look at the MDGs and the achievements linked to gender equality many efforts have led to amelioration, however more could have been achieved on a gender equality basis. The UN women work to support women’s main role in food security, as the foundations of the production of food and its use. One of the main achievements of the MDGs was to lead to increase agricultural activity by women through different aspects including technology and information. Legal restrictions were also prior to the UN Women as to eliminate them and to lead to a broader economic empowerment such as women’s rights in order to address feminized poverty. These efforts focused on guaranteeing equal social protection and employment rights for all, whether it was focused on the formal or informal economy.
Gender Inequality in Maasai Society
Gender inequality is not solely a women’s issue but it encompasses everyone in society and all the human rights. In Africa, more specifically in Kenya, women are sometimes viewed as inferior and are not allowed to go to school as that was viewed as a boys “practice”. When looking at the example of Maasai women and girls in Kenya, these women are often forced to live a life of poverty and cultural oppression. If we look back at the previous generations of Maasai women, only about 20 percent of young Maasai girls were enrolled in school and had the capability to reach a school or being allowed to go to school. Even now, with free primary school education, the amount of girls enrolled in schools is very limited. In 2003, 48 percent of these girls were enrolled in school and merely 10 percent of these girls were able to make it to a secondary education.
On top of not being allowed to go to school, these Maasai girls are forced and were still being forced by tradition and culture to go through the rite of passage, from girl to woman, before being married off. That rite of passage is the one of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). It is a procedure where they cut off the labia and clitoris of these young girls, which leads them to not being able to enjoy a “normal” sex life with their future husbands. On top of not being able to enjoy a “normal” married life on a sexual basis, they remain having multiple health issues because of the FGM procedure done to them.
Education and FGM is a proof of gender inequality in Kenya as boys are the ones who are being sent to school, and they are allowed to enjoy a “normal” sex life as they do not have to be circumcised in terms of ritual or culture. Moreover, the Sustainable Development Goal number 5 (SDG5), which advocates for gender equality by 2030 is one of the biggest aims for the international community. According to Amref Health Africa FGM/C causes serious medical complications which can lead to death. Continuously, FGM/C leads to several obstacles for Maasai women in society. These young girls, if they are going to school, are forced to drop out of school and after are being forced into marriage at a very young age, with a much older men. This is really stopping them from achieving their full potential, which is taken away from them.
For men in Maasai cultures it seemed a tradition to practice FGM, merely because they did not get educated on the basis of what it does to a female body, as well as the dangers of practicing FGM. When these chiefs were educated by Amref Health Africa on what it is they are doing to a woman’s body, several of them have stopped practicing this tradition. Therefore, the HeForShe Campaign started as a Western led change on gender equality which has been spreading slowly in other cultures and societies. It is therefore crucial that mean realise that if young women are educated, there economy as well as lifestyles could change, since everyone becomes part of making the society function and might lead to a society free from poverty.
Gender equality is not just a women’s issue, it concerns all of us. Just like men, women everywhere around the world should have the right to be educated, to live free from violence and discrimination, to own property, to be represented in political and economic decision-making processes, and to earn a fair and equal wage. While progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment has been made during the past years, there is still a long way to go for full equality. It is therefore important that we stand together women, men , LGBTQ and take action to create a gender equal world. Foremost because gender equality is a fundamental human right that everyone is entitled to have. Without equality, achieving a prosperous and sustainable world will be impossible.
To conclude, it is important to understand that in many societies women used to have zero position, say and right about their stance in society. It is now time to give a position and status back to women and all the oppressed groups in society by showing the elite group in more traditional societies but also Western societies, what they are worth and show the benefits of equality for all. So, for gender inequality to end it is primordial that FGM/C in Kenya stops as a tradition in general and that the HeForShe campaign continues doing its work to spread the word about the need for gender equality. Because, all girls deserve an equal say about their bodies and what happens to it, so that they can live an equally healthy life as the boys in their community.
*Patricia Vermeulen is CEO of Amref Flying Doctors in the Netherlands.