Why Harmful Practices
Harmful norms and practices arise from actions and behaviour that negative impact on people in a society, especially on women. These used to be referred to as “cultural practices” however, because cultures are cherished by people who define themselves by their culture, it was liable to create hostility by referring to them as harmful cultural practices. For this reason, anything that society or culture does that is harmful is simply called a harmful practice. Harmful practices are usually thought of as arising in backward and rural based communities where culture is entrenched. However, this is not the case because every society, whether urban or rural has harmful practices that are peculiar to it. For instance, the culture of guns and drugs in America is a harmful practice, as is the culture of fast food in most of Europe. Violence against women is a harmful culture, that is endemic throughout the world and that is condoned, cultivated and kept alive by the patriarchal society we live in which has historically placed women in a disadvantaged position.
In Africa, as in other parts of the world, women are disadvantaged by what we called the unwritten rules of society. In the past for instance, there were many things that women were not allowed to do. Women were not allowed to eat chicken which was a delicacy reserved only for men. The fear was that since women did the cooking they might eat the chicken during the preparation so the safest way was to forbid women to eat it.
If you look closely at these so-called cultural practices you will find that in many cases they keep women in a subordinate position. A clear example is the requirement that women should kneel when greeting, and is seen as a sign of good manners. However, kneeling only serves to reinforces the plot of patriarchal authority, especially in the domestic homestead.
Society denotes certain stereotypical roles that women are expected to fulfil. These include the role of women as mothers, carers and social organisers. Women who don’t adhere to or fulfil these roles are often stigmatized. Women’s roles as carers results in them remaining in the home looking after the children or the sick. They are prevented from going out to work to achieve their potential.
Women are also seen as having the role as social organisers. For example in Uganda now it is common for funerals to be organised by women’s groups who do the cooking, the fetching of the firewood and water and making sure everybody is fed and washing up the plates afterwards.
Some of these current practices are helpful to society but others are centered on women’s oppression under a patriarchal society. It is a recurring theme of women’s oppression and discrimination. As Ato Quayson, in his book Calibrations: Reading for the Social, (2003) writes, “There is an inescapable sense that the redefinition of the female roles comes at an incredibly high cost”. The worst affected category of people in the world are female and poor, uneducated and black. These are the kind of women MIFUMI has made it her mission to support.
Why have harmful norms taken so long to be understood and appreciated? Part of the reason is that there is a big divide between the experiences and places in which these practices occur and those making the laws and policies to safeguard women. Most women in Africa live in rural communities and are subject to customary law which as we have discussed places women at subordinate position to men. However, the laws and policies that govern women are often established in the corridors of the United Nations during high-level conferences such as at the Commission on the Status of Women. These meetings are attended by people who are not always aware of the experiences of women, particularly in rural areas, and what such women have to grapple with on a daily basis, i.e. the lived experience of survivors.
This is why many of harmful practices are often ignored and policy makers fear to tackle them. Instead they are swept under carpet in the guise of not wanting to interfere with the cultural practices of people, or with the sovereignty of nations, when the harmful practice is perpetuated by the State. In the case of inaction, it is the women who end up paying the price for these practices.
MIFUMI was able to unearth and tackle the harmful practice of bride price and violations arising from it because it is operating in rural communities and is in close contact with the women. For example MIFUMI became aware of the need to do something about Bride Price which was a cultural driver of violence against women.
You might ask yourself why so many women favour bride price. The reason women, especially poor women in rural areas, favour bride price is because this is one of the main ways that society values them. A woman’s is valued for the number of cows she can fetch as bride price rather than that she is a unique individual with unique skills and aspirations. She is not valued as a human being deserving of respect but as a commodity.
Sally Engle Merry, in her book, Human Rights and Gender Violence, (2003) articulates the important role that NGOs such as MIFUMI and local activists play in advancing women’s rights. She writes:
The division between transnational elites and local actors is based less on culture and tradition than on tensions between a transnational community that envisions a unified modernity, and national and local actors for whom particular histories and contexts are important. Intermediaries such as NGOs and social movement activists play a critical role in interpreting the cultural world of transnational modernity for local claimants. They appropriate, translate, and remake transnational discourses into the vernacular. At the same time, they take local stories and frame them in national and international human rights language. Activist often participate in two cultural spheres at the same time, translating between them with a kind of double consciousness.