A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE ON THE DILEMMA OF THE GIRL CHILD IN AFRICAN CULTURE
This research examines the dilemma of the girl child in African culture and the fundamental problems confronting her existential being. It explores the unfair treatment the girl-child receives in a male chauvinistic and particular society like Africa and the negative effects of such to her femininity. As a way of redeeming the dignity of the girl child and positioning her for a better life, emphasis is placed on the feminist approach and how such could be used to combat the various exploitative and unjust treatment most African societies subject the girl child to in the name of custom and tradition. Since, the discourse of feminism flows well with the objective of this research, efforts will therefore be made to extract some of their rational ideologies and principle that gives premium to fair treatment of the girl-child. To achieve this task, the study shall use the analytic and critical methodology to evaluate the feminist perspectives in addressing the dilemma of the girl child in African culture.
Key words: girl-child, abuse, culture, Africa, values and feminism
Being born and growing up as a girl in a developing society like Nigeria is almost like a curse due to the contempt and ignominious treatment, most girls receive from the family, the school and the society at large. The cumulative effects of these discriminatory, exploitative and unjust treatments have had profound negative impacts on the psychological and social life of the girl child. In fact, the patriarchal nature of most African societies has worsened the situation and as well reduced the essence of feminine gender to domestic dimension alone. It is therefore imperative to philosophically examine the real ontological basis of the feminine gender and its place in the scheme of things. Of course, feminism as a movement champions the cause of women and girls and the various issues that affect womanhood. The feminist position on the dignity of the girl child is significant, in this regard.
It is worth noting that the term ‘feminism’ has many different uses and its meanings are often contested. For example, some writers use the term ‘feminism’ to refer to a historically specific political movement in the US and Europe; other writers use it to refer to the belief that there are injustices against women, though there is no consensus on the exact list of these injustices.Albeit, feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms. Motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on social, cultural, economic, and political phenomena.
That said, the discrimination against the girl-child has remained a perennial unresolved issue in the society and a major concern in the field of philosophy. In every civilized society and especially in the African context, children are regarded as the pride of the parents and the greatest value the society possess. Because of these reasons, children are mostly cherished and consciously protected from all forms of hazards and abuse. However, female children have not been so lucky to be cherished, protected and loved in our society due to certain traditional practices, stereotyping, cultural and religious beliefs which put them at the risk of abuse and neglect.
Against this background, this research posits that for a girl child to become a proper and useful adult, she needs both informal and qualitative formal educations and, more importantly, a favourable and humane society to exploit her innate potentials. This will enable her to develop her mind, intellects and skills to be able to contribute meaningfully back to her society. Thus, our recourse to the radical feminists approach in addressing the dilemma of girl child in African culture is a rational step to redeem the dignity of women.
STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
The problem that gave rise to this study is the age long religious and cultural beliefs in African society which impede the girl-child from living a purposeful life. These beliefs have had very serious implications on how many families especially in rural areas perceive female children. Suffice to say that most of these beliefs are grounded on misconceptions and prejudice. Also, the girl-child problem around the world has many dimensions but the root of all kinds of discriminations and bias against the girl-child lies in the customs, traditions and typical mindset of the society which considers the girl-child and women as inferior beings. In fact, women and girls have been treated in the most inhuman ways from the inception of human civilization. This legacy of injustice against the girl child that is more pronounced in most African cultures shall be philosophically addressed in this research.
OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY
This long essay is an attempt to critically evaluate the dilemma of girl child within the purview of African societies. It seeks to identify the major problems bedeviling girl-child. The past experience of my friend in the northern part of Nigeria prompted me to research on this topic and to suggest ways of addressing the menace. The objectives of this research her
(i) To examine the factors that facilitate the unfair treatment girl-child and women receive generally in the society.
(ii) To evaluate those indigenous cultural beliefs and traditional practices that fuels the abuse of women.
(iii) To address holistically the challenges the girl-child face in our immediate Nigeria society.
(iv) To demonstrate how the feminist view constitute the basis for the campaign of girl-child right.
This study aims at providing answers to the following questions:
(i). To what extent do girl-children enjoy fundamental human rights?
(ii). To what extent do the indigenous African cultures degrade the dignity of the girl-children dignity?
(iii). What are the pragmatic measures in feminism that can address the challenges of the girl child in African society?
This research shall use the analytic and critical methodology to evaluate the feminist perspectives in addressing the dilemma of the girl child in African culture. Since this research is library based; materials like textbooks, monographs, journals and the internet shall be consulted.
THEORECTICAL FRAME WORK
Radical feminism theory shall be used in this research to address the challenges of a girl-child in Africa. At the heart of radical feminism is the belief that men are largely responsible for, and benefit from, the exploitation of women as well as girl-children. The analysis of patriarchy is a central concern. Patriarchy is viewed as a universal phenomenon that existed across time and cultures. Radical feminists often concentrate on the family as one of the primary sources of women’s oppression in the society. They contend that there are some patriarchal structures which restrict girl-children as well as women’s social opportunities. So, we shall pattern our approach in line with the radical feminist position in order to address the dilemma of the girl child in African culture.
VII. OPERATIONAL DEFINITION OF TERMS
There are some key-terms that feature greatly in this essay and there meanings should be understood as follows:
Culture: culture is a way of life of a group of people, the behaviours, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them , and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.
Values: value is a person’s principles or standards of what is important in life. It also denotes the degree of importance of something or action, with the aim of determining what actions are best to do or what way is best to live, or to describe the significance of different actions.
Abuse: abuse is an improper treatment of person that is often characterize with cruelty, violence and oppression. It can also be seen as the repetitive pattern of behaviours to maintain power and control over an intimate partner. These behaviours physically harm, arouse fears, prevent a partner from doing what they wish or force them to behave in ways they do not want.
Discrimination: discrimination in human social affairs is treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favour or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belong to rather than on individual merit.
Feminism: feminism is mostly associated with the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way, or the set of activities intended to achieve this state. Otherwise stated, feminism is concerned about gaining equal rights and opportunities for women, and allowing women to have control over their lives. and bodies at a time when women are sexualized and objectified in so many cultures. Feminism is also about empowering women and young girls.
SCOPE AND DELIMITATION OF THE STUDY
The scope of this work encompasses the discourse of feminism and its significance to the treatment of the girl-child. However, our discourse and analysis is situated within African cultural paradigm.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE STUDY
This research is significant in the following ways:
i. It addresses the various domestic challenges facing girl-child.
ii. The case-study of girl-children mal-treatment that we shall examine in this study will expose the readers to the dangers of abuse, especially domestic violence which is somewhat rampant in Nigeria society.
iii. The research gives credence to the campaign against child abuse generally.
iv. It emphasizes that all humans have dignity irrespective of their gender status, and as such must be treated with utmost respect.
The above significances should not becloud critical reasoning, despite the thoughtful consideration of the feminist approach in this study, the plausibility of feminist prescriptions on the ideal treatment of girl–child within the African society is still contentious. Be that as it may, the results of our analysis and the objective presentation of the recommendations at the end of this research could be employed as a useful theoretical explanatory model to quicken the advocacy for a fair treatment of the girl child in contemporary times.
1.2 Statement of Problem
1.3 Purpose of Research
1.4 Research Questions
1.6 Theoretical Framework
1.7 Contribution to Knowledge
CHAPTER ONE: AFRICAN MORAL VALUES (The Igbo Cultural Paradigm)
1.1 Traditional Igbo Culture (Omenala)
1.2 Moral Conception of Traditional Igbo
CHAPTER TWO: ETHICAL ISSUES IN FEMINISM
2.1 Notion of Feminist Ethics
2.2 Feminism and Prostitution
2.3 Feminism and Abortion
2.4 Feminism and Pornography
CHAPTER THREE: FEMINISM AND THE DILEMMA OF THE GIRL CHILD IN AFRICAN CULTURE
3.1 Kant’s on Human Dignity
3.2 Feminist conception of the dignity of the girl-child
3.3 Peculiar Challenges of Girl Child in Africa
3.4 Feminism and the Dilemma of the girl child in African Culture
CHAPTER FOUR: FEMINIST CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE DIGNITY OF GIRL CHILD IN AFRICA
4.1 Feminism and the Question of relevance to girl-child treatment
AFRICAN MORAL VALUES (The Igbo Cultural Paradigm)
In our day-to-day interactions as human beings, we expect people to conduct themselves in a morally good way. Similarly, we also expect a person to do that which is ethically propitious or good while avoiding that which is evil. When, for instance, we judge the actions and characters of people to be right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, etc., we have an idea of the best way we think they can live. While we may define moral behaviour as behaviour in accordance with the recommended patterns of a community, the morality of a community on the other hand consists of those ways of behaviour which each member of the community is taught, bidden and encouraged to adopt by other members.
It is against this background that this chapter seeks to explore African notion of moral values. The Igbo cultural paradigm shall be presented here to avoid over generalization of African thoughts, and also to situate our discourse within a certain cultural milieu. In same vein, the traditional Igbo culture (omenala) shall be considered in this chapter and we shall examine how some practices in this culture create room for the abuse of girl-child. Our expositions in this chapter shall help greatly in appraising Dilemma of the girl-child in African culture.
1.1 Traditional Igbo Culture (Omenala)
Culture (omenala) understood as the entire way of Life of the people (past present and future), is the traditional law in African societies, a central thread guaranteeing the protection of life and property, the harmony of members of society among themselves and with nature, their linkage to the divine through the ancestors and the deities. It is said that every people have a culture, a way of life that links their past to the present and the future. Even though culture is not static but steadily dynamic, some of the elements that provided rationality for cultural, practices in the past may have disappeared in the face of modern realities of migrations, new technologies, scientific discoveries, wars to mention but a few ingredients.– Nonetheless, there is need to enhance the linkage and sustainability of cultural developments and its interpretation at least on the levels of principles that identify these societies even in the face of a modern age.
In the African milieu, whether amongst an agricultural people or nomadic tribes, Culture (Omenala) provided a proper foundation for a sustainable economy where the preservation of the environment, the enhancement of principles of equity and fair play and the promotion of an economy that recognizes both individual interests and communal protection existed alongside.
This African culture (Omenala) is transferred from one generation to the next by oral tradition, through symbols and rituals, in fables and dances and in the moral formation and religious traditions of the peoples of Africa: Olisa noted that,
as soon as a child is born into the community of ‘Umunna’ (brethren), life is affected by the intricate network of restrictions and all that they represent. Immediately a child is able to speak and understand issues, …it is exposed daily to the do’s and don’ts of the society and parents drum it into its ears, through fables told in the night around the fireside and exposure to the various forms of rituals and other observances, the gravity of committing abominable acts”.
There emerges an inter-woven-ness between religious beliefs and cultural practices, the attempt of which to de-link them during the Islamic and Christian religious missions have proved impossible as mistakes are currently being corrected under a so-called agenda of inculturation. Win-win scenarios emerged from this world outlook and practice, thus, making it possible to evolve out of the Omenala (traditions) unique principles that gave an integral understanding to economy, society, culture and environment. Thereby, traditional African religious values, philosophies and cultural practices are being unearthed and re-branded into the new and emerging religious space on the continent.
The point being made here is that African traditional religion is essentially a philosophy and a spiritual way of life, which permeates, pervades and animates the traditional social institutions, norms and celebrations. Every Igbo ritual act of the peoples of southeastern Nigeria, including sacrifice, dance and festival had a philosophy or idea behind it. In other words, action was motivated based on values which involved a basic belief, a philosophy, an underlying principle or an idea. These values thus generated actions and behavior, which in turn influenced individuals and groups.
A discussion however of ethics within the African ambient must necessarily involve a discussion of both the African philosophies, cultures and their moral and overall ethical practices. That point of linkage between religion, morality, law, social and economic realities is the domain where the African locates tradition, the “Omenala” (culture) which is the foundation for ethics, therefore the rational background for living together. In summary, this contribution from the African point of view achieves the promotion of stakeholder participation which enhances communal living and values based on principles of “onye anwuna ma ibe ya efula” which is “live and let live” implying the age-old social ethical principles of justice, fairness, solidarity and subsidiarity.
It is worth nothing that, the integral nature of African cultural and religious values as ethical values begins with an understanding of life which is considered sacred and had to be preserved, protected, promoted and generated. In this sense, homicide, murder, suicide and other unnatural forms of death inflicted on another was considered a crime against the earth and breach of the bond between humans and the deities and the earth itself. It was a destruction of the communal foundations upon which society existed and had to be pacified by all means by the entire community even where the culprit and his family had to undergo expulsion from that environment. In serving Life, the Omenala in its ethical dimension sought to serve communal harmony; respect the past heritage of ancestors and the laws of the land founded also on religious beliefs; progress the economy by protecting the earth and making laws that discipline erring persons that thwart the laws of the land.
The Omenala, (culture) which was and is the link between the ethical, religious and secular realities as well as the basis for the legal system and morality in general does exist even as strongly today as it was yesterday. Africa’s beliefs in traditional religious practices, cultural practices and even the lifestyles of the present are still found in the many big cities of the Continent. Consequently, a broad understanding of culture(Omenala) which encompasses the entire way of life of a people, has the potential to assist and guide modernization processes in a sustainable manner, founded on cultural rationality (derived from the past) and projecting into the future.
In the face of radical and fast changes worldwide, also in Africa, occasioned by globalization, migrations, technological advances, the danger of losing original sources including cultural integrity remains a threat. There is need to look into the primary sources of traditional cultural rationality to enable a significant yet sustainable development by promoting an intercultural dialogue that looks into Africa’s past history in order to retain and reclaim elements with relevance and applicability in a modern economy.
Unfortunately, this omenala is not as glorious and impeccable as we have presented thus far in this section, of course, there are some practices inherent in it that violate the principle of human rights in contemporary period. As we shall reveal later in this study, the nature of Omenala provides fertile ground for the abuse of feminine gender and the degradation of womanhood in general. For instance, the barbaric and unpleasant treatment a widow receives in the hands of unscrupulous in-laws under the guise of culture is questionable. There are numerous cases of domestic abuses that seem permissible simply because the omenala favours a patriarchy system, not to mention the abuse of girl-child which is more rampant in other African societies. We shall however look at all of this critically in the subsequent chapter. Now, let’s consider the moral conception of traditional Igbo.
1.2 Moral Conception of Traditional Igbo
Essentially, moral thinking is concerned with the issue of good conduct among those who make up the human community. It is also concerned with the creation of a humane social environment without which those who live in society would hardly realize their goals and aspirations in life. It is for this reason that people are constantly exhorted to lead morally emulous lives because, as the argument goes, it is in living virtuously that human beings can give meaning to their social life and existence. With particular reference to traditional African life, it was the opinion that a life of rectitude help build up society and guaranteed the individual a good place in the preternatural or chthonic world. The logic of the belief in the existence of an extra-terrestrial world notwithstanding, the important issue that bears relevance to the present discussion is that the human community can only function properly if it is built on a good moral foundation.
But then, what exactly do we have in mind when we talk about morals? And in relation to African life, what was the nature of moral thinking among traditional Africans in the pre-European African world? These are some of the issues we shall address here. But first, we need to make the following explanation.
Let’s start by noting that, the Igbo form one of the three major ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. The other two are the Yoruba and the Hausa-Fulani. The Igbo like most African society had many of its able-bodied youths exported to Europe and the Americas through the Trans Saharan trade in slaves. Through British colonialism, the people also had an early contact with Christianity and Western education. However, our reference to Igbo past here is merely incidental and perfunctory, as this is not meant to be a treatise on Igbo history or colonial experience. The Igbo experience with colonialism is well documented in the literature that it needs no repeating in the present essay. Our choice of the Igbo culture here is, as we said earlier, to serve as an example or metaphor for our discussion on the nature of moral thinking in the traditional African society.
A debate concerning the nature of moral thinking in traditional societies has long dominated the scholarship of ethical thinkers and social anthropologists alike. There are moral thinkers who deny that traditional societies had value systems that could truly be characterized as ‘moral’. But this type of argument of course is vitiated by the fact that morality is a universal feature of all human societies. Besides, the argument itself cannot be sustained by evidence or by any rational proof.
Among the traditional Igbo, for example, the level of moral thinking was very high. The Igbo language contains a variety of words to express approval and disapproval, good and bad, pleasant and unpleasant, and so on. All embody moral connotations. Take, for instance, the words, ‘aru’ (pollution) and ‘nma’ (good); to commit ‘aru’ (ime aru, in the Igbo language) is to do that which is evil while to do ‘nma’( ime nma, also in Igbo) is to conduct oneself in a morally worthy manner. A person is described as ‘onye aru-rala’, literally ‘one who pollutes or abominates the land’, if his or her ethical conduct is contrary to ethically approved behaviour. ‘Ajo mmadu’ is a phrase used to describe a bad man (or woman), where the ‘ajo’ means bad, i.e., the opposite of good. Furthermore, when a thing or an act is spoken of in terms of ‘iru-ala’ (desecration of the land), ‘ime aru’ or ‘ime nso-ala’ (doing that which is abominable or acting in pollution of the earth), all these are seen as morally bad actions. Among the Igbo, ‘ala’ (that is, the land or earth) is believed to possess some form of divine sanctity or sacrality such that one can either please or offend the preternatural forces that indwell it. The close link the Igbo have to their land is largely due to the belief that it is the abode of the departed ancestors.42 Similarly, the fertility of the soil, the progress of human life as well as the health of the animals is only assured as long as the earth is not desecrated and the ancestors are duly honoured.
The Igbo word ‘nma’, as we have said earlier, conveys the idea of goodness or the idea of acting in an ethically appropriate way. In all things, the Igbo expect that individuals will act and conducting themselves in morally good ways while avoiding that which is evil and obnoxious. In this way, social harmony is ensured. The good life for the Igbo is known as ‘ezi-ndu’ (i.e., the virtuous life), the life of rectitude and approbation. But the question may be asked, on what makes some actions good and others bad? Put differently, what is the standard of judgment among the traditional Igbo?
C.C. Okorocha answers that traditional Igbo moral code is based on the concept of ‘omenala’ or social custom. ‘Omenala’ derives from three Igbo words, namely, ‘ome’ (that which obtains); ‘na’ (in); ‘ala’ (land or society). In the words of Okorocha, “the moral code of Iboland commonly spoken of as ‘omenala’ defines the various aspects of behaviour and social activities that are approved while at the same time indicating those aspects that are prohibited.”
Generally, in Africa, the norm of right or wrong is said to be social custom. As with most other societies of the world, in Africa, the good is usually that which receives the community’s approval while the bad is that which the community prohibits or frowns at. While the good actions build up society, the bad ones tear it down. One is social, the other anti-social. With the Igbo in particular, ‘omenala’ or social custom is the means by which society enforces conformity to its rules. ‘Omenala’ then, is the means by which “the social ethos is measured, and the values of the society... controlled from one generation to another and the processes of socialization through which the education of the young ones are facilitated".
Traditional Igbo morality, like those of other African societies, was communalistic in nature. In communalistic societies, virtue and goodness are often seen as a means of realizing the social harmony of the group. They function to promote order, peace and a camaraderie feeling among the individuals who make up society. It for the reason of this type of opinion that some writers claim that group-related morality detracts from the ‘essential’ nature of morality. Group-related morality, we are told, removes from the moral life the joy of its inner motivation which, it is argued, results from choice, personal decision and responsibility. This is the type of argument, which Paul Roubiczek makes in his book, Ethical Values in the Age of Science. In the book, Roubiczek argues that “to subordinate the good to another purpose, such as usefulness for society, falsifies its nature and thus falsifies morality”.
However, there is no good reason to suppose that Roubiczek’s opinion is necessarily correct. For as Gerhart Piers and M.B. Singer havesuggested, there is no scientifically demonstrable reason why in grouprelated morality, “heavily influenced by the community’s rigorous enforcement mechanism including shame and taunting improvised songs, members of such group could not develop inner remorse or guilt”. Some elements in traditional Igbo cultural practice could be a helpful illustration in this regard. They will also help lend support to opinion expressed above by Piers and Singer. It was (and still is) the practice among the Igbo that when a man and a woman were caught in any uncomely relationship like adultery, they were made to go round the village half naked, with children singing taunting songs on their heels. If any member of the community committed a heinous crime or sacrilege, he was made to suffer public shame or dishonour. Such taunting songs, like the ones by the children, apart from bringing the offenders to public opprobrium, were also meant to deter others from committing the same type of offence in the future. Such immoral acts as adultery and incest were described as ‘nso ala’ (i.e., pollutions against ‘Ala’, the earth goddess). ‘Ala’, the goddess of the land and custodian of Igbo morality, imposed numerous laws and taboos which were meant to guide conduct between the individual and his neighbours, the individual and the forces of nature and, the individual and ‘Ala’ itself.
In the words of A.E. Afigbo: the transgression of any of these rules known as ‘omenala’ (conduct sanctioned by ‘Ala’) was promptly punished. In this way ‘omenala’ came to mean the highest law. It was distinguished from, and superior to ‘iwu’ which is any enactment made by man, the transgression of which would not involve offence to ‘Ala’ and the ancestors, and did not imply moral lapse. ‘Ala’ was the guardian of Igbo morality.
To conclude, we can deduce from the above expositions that African moral values are the central concern management of life and maintenance of well-being within society. Individual ethical choices are made within the context of the community. Here, individual actions are evaluated and judged based on the effect those actions have on the life of the community. So the aim African ethical values boarder on the extent to which an individual’s action or conduct can advance human decency and the common good or viability of the community. We have been able to establish that Igbo moral values, is founded on the collective wisdom of the ancestors and elders that become the basis or point of reference for moral decisions or choices that the individual or community makes. It is a morality which is the creation of the community and emerges from the social institutions; it is lived within the community. For this reason, what an individual does directly or indirectly affects the whole society. Thus, individuals in the society must strive to live a moral life. Since the feminist position constitutes the theoretical frame-work of this study, we shall examine some ethical issues in feminism that borders around the female gender in the next chapter..