Born The ‘Wrong’ Gender: Women in East Africa

As women in the West who still struggle to reach equality with our male peers, it can be easy to forget that many of our sisters living in developing countries are still deprived of the most basic rights and amenities that we so often take for granted. Some still struggle to get an education, to access basic sanitary provisions, and many are married off at a very young age in order to ‘lessen’ the financial burden on their families. Practices such as ‘detoothing’ are a much too familiar part of the lives of young women and for them, their greatest priority is survival. In this post, Laura McDonald reflects on her experiences in Ethiopia and Southwestern Kenya, where she witnessed firsthand what it means to be an unwanted female child and the devastating consequences of being born the ‘wrong’ gender.

For a long time I self-identified as a ‘not-very-good-feminist’ (‘not very good’ in the sense that I wasn’t very active and I laughed at Lad Bible jokes once in a while). Then, in the most colossal of all clichés, I ‘found myself’ during my stay in East Africa. In the twelve weeks I spent in Ethiopia with VSO, a charity, and the month I spent visiting schools in rural Southwestern Kenya with Education Partnerships Africa, I didn’t really find anything out about the position of women that I didn’t already know as such, but I did find my militant, angry-young-woman feminist that had been dormant for quite some time. The one that, ironically, was pretty bloody strong at twelve, thirteen, and fourteen, but got lost by the time I went to university – the point at which most people become politicised.

Living and working in Ethiopia and Kenya, I was forced to come to terms with my perceptions about the ways people are treated because they are female and to ask myself why many women face disadvantages within their own communities. It wasn’t until some very probing questioning from pupils in a Kenyan school that I understood. They were born the ‘wrong’ gender. On a visit to an all-girls school in rural Kenya I was asked by the pupils if my parents were ‘disappointed’ that I wasn’t a boy. My friend, one of two girls, seemed a very strange phenomenon also. Why had her parents not ‘tried harder’ to get the all-important male child? The girls, aged from around fourteen to eighteen, looked incredulous at the idea that I was of equal value to my brother, and that my friend and her sister make their parents proud.

They shrieked with glee.


Imagine being a girl who is wanted!

Imagine not being.

I never really believed that girls were actually a disappointment – I knew, of course, that many families in rural parts, in particular, of developing countries keep trying and trying for a boy. But all the same, that is very different to being a ‘letdown’ because of your sex organs. Being a disappointment means that your parents do not push for you to succeed. It means they don’t mind that much whether you succeed or not. They don’t care whether you ever leave the village, whether you reach your full potential, academic or otherwise. Therefore girls do less well at school than boys. Research by Professor Paola Sapienza of North Western University in the US published in 2008 suggests that the greater the gender equality of a society, the more likely girls are to perform at least as well as boys across the board at school, including in maths and the sciences. Tell pupils in schools in Kisiiland, in Southwestern rural Kenya, that in the UK girls achieve better grades at school than boys and you get much the same reaction as saying that your parents are happy you were born a girl.


Sure, in rural Kisii boys are not always encouraged academically either, often because they are needed to work on the family shamba (small plot of land). But in the majority of cases, a boy gets home from school after 6pm (the Kenyan school day is up to twelve hours long) and may do some homework if his family has electricity; otherwise his day is over. A girl, if she manages to get home without incident, and I’ll come onto this later, has no time for ‘prep’. She must help with the cooking and cleaning; she gets up earlier than her brothers for further chores. More tired than the boys in her class from the extra labour that has been demanded of her, she has also been unable to complete the work set for consolidation. So she falls behind. It’s not rocket science (another thing she will never be able to do because schools tend to do badly in the sciences anyway, and because she will never be encouraged to pursue such a ‘masculine’ area of study).

Then there is menstruation. I don’t mean in the women-are-unclean-when-they-bleed sense, because whilst this sentiment does still exist amongst some ethnic groups, it is not the main issue that girls face around that ‘time of the month’. I hate my period, most women do. I drink huge amounts of hot chocolate and tea, and on the first morning of a particularly bad month, I can’t get out of bed because of the pain. But that’s just one morning every once in a while if I don’t take painkillers soon enough. I have never missed school or work because of it (although I was nearly sent home once when my boss thought I was going to pass out on the shop floor). The reason? I can afford sanitary pads and ibuprofen.

Girls from disadvantaged backgrounds in developing countries don’t go to school during their periods because they do not have access to what most of us consider very basic amenities. I had never even considered this. Some schools have bulk-buying schemes, so that girls can purchase pads cheaply (but they still have to pay for them). I went to one school, however, at which the headmaster suggested it would be impossible simply to give out pads, because pupils would come to expect it. Ok, these schools often have limited funds, but this is surely a small price to pay to ensure girls actually attend? There are schools in Kisii in which girls’ attendance is half that of boys’. This is not entirely down to menstruation, but ask any headteacher and, even if shy to talk about it to begin with, he will cite their periods as a major reason for low attendance rates amongst girls. I am sure this is the same in many developing countries.

Some girls find ways around it. They sleep with taxi drivers in return for lifts to school or money for sanitary towels. And some of them wind with STIs or HIV; some get pregnant and leave school. There are schools that force them out, through ‘reasons’, or rather excuses, such as ‘you can’t have students wearing different clothes, and when girls are pregnant they have to wear baggy dresses’; some girls choose to leave. To their credit, and, arguably, the schools’, some girls take only a short time off to have the baby and then return. But even this disrupts their studies. The long Kenyan school day increases the risk of sexual assault, as pupils often have to travel to and from school in the dark. A thirty-minute walk is a comparatively short journey to school, but nonetheless, perhaps in those circumstances, sleeping with one motorbike driver seems a safer option than risking rape between home and school during that walk.

Yellow Taxi Ethiopia

Sexual favours in return for other favours continue at university. In Uganda they call it ‘detoothing’, whereby a student will give companionship to an older, often married, man. In return, she gets a good phone, new clothes, nice halls of residence. And that’s fine. Until he demands sex. Girls report feeling unsafe and trapped by the relationship. It happens in Ethiopia too. I was told by my host dad in the family I stayed with for three months, that university drop-out rates among girls are much higher than amongst boys, especially poorer girls from rural areas. Perhaps the strain becomes too much. Perhaps they get pregnant. Girls who have done so well and get a place at University, against the odds, leave. They probably go back to their village.

Maybe the strangest thing about the position of girls and women in developing countries, and here I speak mainly from my experiences in Ethiopia, is that affluence is far from a guarantee of independence. It could be. For some it will be. For others it already is. But my host dad told me he had advised his daughter to start looking for someone she is ‘life-compatible’ with… at sixteen. His reasoning is that since sexual attraction has begun, it makes sense to look for a life partner; this serves as a sort of guarantee that she will not be played by boys her age. Like it or not, sexual attraction begins much younger than sixteen for many kids, I pointed out.  And people change. The person you think you could marry at sixteen may be very different to the person you want to be with at eighteen, let alone twenty-five. Ok, some people marry their childhood sweetheart, and that’s great. But most don’t, at least not in cities. And my host sister has grown up in a city. In all probability she will go to university in another city.

He has no such advice for his son of course. Boys don’t need it, he explained: if they have some money at the moment and prospects for the future, girls will flock to them. What if, I suggested, you encouraged your daughter to ignore boys (not saying she would listen – knowing my host sister she wouldn’t, but all the same) and to focus on her education instead; to focus on becoming an independent woman, so that she can pick whoever she wants as her ‘life partner’. Why choose a boy for his bread-winning potential when she could put food on the table herself?

I’m not saying the way we deal with sex and relationships in the UK is perfect, far from it. But encouraging girls to put work above boys is surely a good thing, even if we have not moved very far in terms of the values attached to sex for girls. To his credit my host dad accepted my position, and didn’t even mind my all too obvious anger at the fact that he was encouraging his very intelligent daughter to undersell herself by looking for a husband. But what shocked me was that this was coming from a very liberal guy, who has treated his son and daughter equally for the most part, and who generally does want his daughter to excel academically. This is where subjugation is embedded, though, and in a coffee morning organised by VSO-ICS volunteers about gender equality, I got a really clear picture of where it can end.

It can end with a bright young woman in an unhappy marriage to a man who controls her every move. Of course this happens in the UK too. But it is arguably less prevalent. Whereas one in ten women in the UK considered abuse or violence against women to be acceptable according to a 1998 study by the Zero Tolerance Charitable Trust, a government study in Ethiopia found that well over 70 per cent of women in the Southern Region, where I was staying, believe that a man has the right to beat his wife under certain circumstances. Burning the milk was one commonly cited example. Whatever complaints we still have about the position of women in Western culture, female subordination is not inculcated to anywhere near the same extent.

I am not arguing that men in developing societies are monsters who want nothing but marriage and motherhood (of boys, of course) for their daughters. Of course they are not. I have had the privilege of meeting some incredibly strong women who have forged successful careers for themselves against family and community discouragement. I have also met many girls and women who have got where they have with the full support of families who have funded their educations and who push them to aim high. But this is far from the reality for all too many females in the developing world, whose families put their girls a miserable second to their precious boys.

3 thoughts on “Born The ‘Wrong’ Gender: Women in East Africa

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