Loverage Nhamoyebonde Features correspondent
Gender, gender, gender! Calls for gender equality are heard all over public spaces in this country. Yet those who champion gender equality and the need for it usually do not have it in their own family. It is all grandstanding. Which Zimbabwean family really treats sons and daughters as equals?
Charity begins at home, so they say. As far as gender equality is concerned, the socialisation that one gets from a family after birth leaves a lot to be desired. It remains fact and not fiction that in modern day Zimbabwe, if a daughter comes home late at night, her parents will not treat her the same way as her twin brother who arrived home at the same time. Why?
In many families across Zimbabwe male children are socialised to be masculine, hard, tough, combative and confrontational, while girls are socialised to be fragile, delicate and feminine. This has a direct bearing on how we perceive women and men later on in life.
Stereotyping affects people at a tender age. In most cases parents ignorantly expose their children to stereotypical views — the kind of views that will later be passed on and spread like veld fire. Society adopts these values that emanate from the family set up. One can thus conclude that Zimbabwean society is collectively guilty when it comes to issues of gender stereotyping.
The father, as the head or chief executive of the family, is expected to put in place policy, rules and regulations that govern the family. Most mothers are mandated with the duty of enforcing or implementing these sets of rules and policies. Punishment meted on offenders is expected to be administered by the mother and failure to do so, more often than not, results in the mother being held accountable for the offences of the children.
This does not mean that parents are always at loggerheads, because they usually join hands when creating inequalities among their children. One way this is done is through the distribution of toys and dolls usually bought as gifts for children. These materials are usually distributed in a manner that conveys and reinforces stereotypes.
Girls usually receive figurines that resemble babies and boys receive guns, cars and aeroplane models. From a young age this sends a message to the girl child that she is expected to grow up and bear children and take good care of them. The boundaries and limitations of the girl child will be clearly marked within the kitchen. She will always be reminded to be happy within these set boundaries or she risks becoming a deviant.
The boy child’s horizons are wider because of the toys he receives. If a boy child is found holding his sister’s doll he is usually subjected to ridicule or punishment. Mothers also do not approve of their boy children playing with toys that resemble babies. In most families boys are not allowed or expected to play with “girly” toys and they will be cautioned not to do what is supposed to be done by girls.
Similarly, girls are not allowed to play with cars and aeroplane toys. Girls might even receive a beating from their parents and brothers if they are caught playing with “boy” toys. They will hear questions like: “Are you a boy? Why do you want to do things that are supposed to be done by boys? You are an undisciplined girl, why do you play with boys’ toys?”
Thus the current scenario in many homes will result in boys who develop into men believing that fathers must not play with babies. To these men, providing care for a baby is the duty of the mother. Isn’t that why only girls play with dolls? Some men will not even babysit while their wife is occupied with household chores. This is the reason why most women carry out multiple chores with crying babies tied to their backs.
Meanwhile, fathers will be relaxing, chatting with friends, sleeping or watching television. Yet blaming them is an injustice because this type of situation is a direct result of the instructions these men received from their parents. If boys are given the chance to play with dolls, they might not grow up to become men who laugh when asked to spend five minutes with their children.
As Shakespeare said: “The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves”.
We need a paradigm shift in our attitudes towards the family and raising children, in our societal ethos, values and beliefs. We need to stop being high sounding loudmouths who say lots but signify nothing.
It should start in our homes, then cascade to our workplaces and elsewhere. Let issues of gender equality be part of our culture, part of our food and part of our thinking. Let these issues be part of our actions, not only part of our talk.