Negotiating culture for the realisation of women’s rights

Monday March 2 2020



Emilly Comfort Maractho

Emilly Comfort Maractho 

By Emilly Comfort Maractho

This year the theme for the International Women’s Day is ‘I am generation equality: realising women’s rights’.
I am always impressed by those who come up with these slogans. They are visionary as they speak to aspirations of the future rather than current realities. I will be optimistic, looking to a world where truly women’s rights are human rights, when it will not be necessary to speak of human rights and then women’s rights in the same breath.

I recently published an article in the Journal of African Media Studies (JAMS), (Re)producing cultural narratives about women in public affairs programmes in Uganda.
The article was inspired by a series of interviews I conducted with radio and television political and current affairs talk show hosts, producers, and presenters of prime programmes.
I was investigating determinants of women’s participation in them, now published in the book, Perspectives on political communication in Africa by Palgrave.
Predictably, most of these were men. I was taken aback by their attitude towards women, the judgements and belief in what women’s role in society should be.

Culture, was not my issue, and became so when I started to hear things such as ‘some public offices should never be given to women of child bearing age because they are too distracted, that public life is too messy for women because they are matriarchs at home, or that many women hold their positions because of their networks rather than merit’, and so on. I was speechless as I reviewed the transcripts.
I had my assumptions about the progress we have made towards women’s participation in public life. These were falling apart. I somehow knew from reading that we were not yet on the mark because of issues around the effectiveness of women’s participation in policy and decision making.

Yet, I had not imagined that the failed aspects of this struggle for gender equality and women’s empowerment were more entrenched than the perceived success. I starting reading around this very widely. I realised that women all over the world struggled with cultural ideations that worked against them, even in liberal societies.
As I think about the notion of realising women’s rights and wonder about what it might take, I believe that advocacy, which requires more listening, understanding and quite action than speaking (shouting) is a good starting point.
We should be negotiating culture, engaging individuals or groups in different ways. Most people have approached the quest for women’s empowerment as activists, which at some point was really needed. But now we need more advocacy within our small areas of influence where we can cause change.

If we look as far back as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted on December 18, 1979, we will see that declarations are necessary but not sufficient.
Forty years later, there are still millions of girls denied the basic right to education in our communities. Many efforts thereafter have been put forward, the most notable being the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, 1995. After 25 years, there is progress, but excruciatingly slow and full of disparity in results.
This year also marks 20 years of the passage of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which aimed at increasing the participation of women in peace and security processes.

It provided the much needed foundation for the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Here, progress is even slower, with women still facing exclusion from peace and political processes.
Many countries like Uganda have done their part to domesticate these international policy efforts in promoting women’s rights, yet the gaps between policy and practice are glaring.
I appreciate the United Nations for never giving up decades of struggle towards realising women’s rights. Their commitment to the pursuit of human dignity for all is needed. Often, we do not meet the targets, but move forward. I am sometimes told that gender is an idea whose time has passed. I disagree. I think it is needed now more than ever, having tasted its fruits.

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The real issue is how we can negotiate for fairness in a political culture that for the most part, has disempowered rather than empowered women; a media culture that reproduces critical biases and stereotypes about women through misrepresentation and negative portrayal; a social culture that through religious practices, traditions and family expectations teach women to conform to social ideals making them gatekeepers of cultural practices that injure them in the first place; and an economic or corporate culture designed and intricately linked to put women at the bottom of the economic pyramid while allowing their participation.

This month, I will look at how we can negotiate these cultures. While policies are being pursued, individually we have to negotiate culture by becoming advocates. Most of us see culture as traditional practices we must preserve or lose our identity. It is way more than that. The site of that negotiation is the personal and private rather than the political and public.

Ms Maractho is the head and senior lecturer, Department of Journalism and Media studies at UCU. emillycm@gmail.com

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