Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Window on another world

by Thomas Dollar

I’m writing the first of what should be a biweekly (as in fortnightly) series of blog posts from Freetown, Sierra Leone. I’m halfway through a yearlong Princeton in Africa fellowship, and I want to share some of my thoughts and observations from West Africa.

“Equal Writes” does a great job discussing gender issues at Princeton, in the US media, and in contemporary American culture. I’m a big fan—that’s why I wanted to write for this blog. Still, I want to add a little global perspective. The community in which “Equal Writes” is produced (2009, Ivy League, East Coast America) is one in which feminism has already won the argument. We’re 160 years past the Seneca Falls Convention, and the basic tenet of feminism—that men and women are socially and politically equal—is undisputed in theory, if not always in practice. There are still going to be battles over how to implement gender-equality in society, but the basic battle of philosophies is over; we won. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in America today who would publicly state that men and women are not or should not be equal.

This is not true everywhere in the world. In Sierra Leone, like many developing countries, the basic premise of gender equality is an exotic one. Getting married and having children are the two all-important events in life—for men as well as women. These aren’t options; they’re givens. For a woman, this means being obedient and faithful to her husband, cooking his dinner and bearing his children. For a man, this means being liberal with the purse-strings for his wife. (Wives, if his purse is very heavy.)

I am something of a rare bird in Sierra Leonean society. I’m 22 years old, and because I’m white, I’m universally assumed to be rich. (This is a correct assumption, by Sierra Leonean standards.) Being rich, I’m able to provide for at least one wife—possibly two. Not only do I not have any wife, however, I don’t even have a girl to cook my food for me. I cook my own dinner, and have even been known to bring pots of soup across Freetown to potlucks—a sight that earns as much derision and incredulous laughter (from both sexes) as if I appeared in the street pregnant.

Levity aside, Sierra Leonean women face the wrong end of a slew of harrowing statistics. The maternal mortality rate is 1,800 deaths per 100,000 births. (The United States, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the Developed World, has 13 maternal deaths per 100,000 births.) The dangers of childbirth in Sierra Leone—from hemorrhaging to fistula—are recounted in this Washington Post article. The fertility rate is 5.9 live births per woman of reproductive age, and the life expectancy is 44 years for women, 41 for men. Combined, these figures create an incredibly youth-heavy population: the median age is just over 17 years. To that end, 62% of women marry before age 18. Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C—what you call it is a heavily-charged matter) is widely practiced in Sierra Leone. Over 90% of women undergo this female-initiated rite, which I will discuss in greater depth in future postings.

In listing these nasty figures, I don’t want to fall into the “Oh, poor Africans; let’s pity them” trap. This is really not constructive. Nor do I want to make American feminists feel smug or self-congratulatory by drawing them into making comparisons that aren’t particularly apt. There are a whole lot of ways in which Princeton is not like Sierra Leone. I do, though, want to broaden the discussions here to include the deeper, existential issues that women around the world face. Crass advertising and size-negative dresses are important topics, but the fact that we’re discussing them at all shows how gender issues in the US and gender issues in Sierra Leone exist on two very different planes.

In the upcoming months, I’ll go into further detail on FGM/C, reproductive health and rights in Sierra Leone, and campaigns for gender equality. I always want to start a discussion, and I’m always happy to answer questions as best I can—either here or on my own blog, Freetown Calling.

Padi kusheh-o na from Salone!


At March 4, 2009 at 5:20 PM , Blogger Courtny said...

It's always good to have a reminder of just how different things are outside the US--and to focus on the big issues and trends that affect women's lives. Many of the issues that women around the world face stem from the same problem: a culture that insists on controlling female sexuality.

In the US, size negative dresses, crass advertising, and the emphasis on female physical "perfection" is just another attempt to control female sexuality--and women in general.


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