A Letter to my Gambian Sisters on International Women’s Day: Women and Girls Pressing for Progress around the World!

Friday, March 09, 2018

Since 1975, and as part of the International Women’s Year, March 8th continued to be recognized, observed, and celebrated in many parts of the world. Concisely, it is a day that is reserved for celebrating the successes of women and girls, but moreover to identify and address persisting gender inequality issues, structures, and institutions that limit the female capability.

In the world all over, women are principal actors in the development processes from the political, to the social and economic. Their participation in those critical areas, although mostly sidelined on the fringes of the necessary bureaucratic procedures, figure tremendously in ensuring global peace, security, and justice. 

In this short reflective note, I will outline the areas of progress and trials to global female empowerment and conclude with a message to my fellow Gambian sisters on some tips for subverting the gendered gender memo.

Despite the fact women have been able to make incredible gains by shattering deeply entrenched glass-ceilings in some critical areas of human development such as education, for the most part, they continue to experience setbacks in attempts to gain access to essential resources and institutions where decisions that affect their daily lives and life chances are made. 

In the development sector of education- which is the most noticeable area of global female progress, the world has closed 95 percent of the educational attainment gaps (World’s Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, 2016), with women in some countries having more presence than men in higher education. However, the tides are still high and rising in Sub-Saharan Africa where girls continue to face barriers in accessing formal schooling. Based on the 2016 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, girls in Sub-Saharan Africa face significant obstacles in education with fifty percent who are of school going age having no chance of enrolling in school, compared with 41percent of out-of-school boys.

In The Gambia as an example, senior secondary school completion rates are dismally low for both female (28 percent) and male (32 percent) students (UIS, 2016).  However, and clearly, more boys are completing secondary schooling at a higher rate than girls. Problems of teenage pregnancies, early marriages, and poor learning outcomes are often the factors behind the gender gap in enrollment and completion rates in secondary education.  Alternatively, in regions with comparatively higher years of educational attainment than Sub-Saharan Africa such as Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe and Northern America, males attain fewer years of education than females (UNESCO, 2016).

As a general trend across several countries, however, girls tend to be segregated in fields that are traditionally considered to be feminine occupation leading to the global gender movement for STEM education that advocates for the presence of more girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math fields.

Globally, the pay gap is increasing; men are paid higher wages than women. Further, men’s earnings are growing more rapidly.  In 2017 the average pay for a female was $12,000, compared with $21,000 for men (World’s Economic Forum Global Gender Gap report, 2017)-of course, this average pay figure is not reflective of the earning capabilities in low-income countries but shows the extent of the wage gap as a global occurrence. Even in most economically prosperous societies, women are receiving lower wages than men. In the United States, women earn on average 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, in some cases for doing the same work. The gender wage gap is explained by a gamut of factors from low educational qualifications, gender barriers that segregate females in low paying jobs and limit their opportunities for rising through the ranks in their professional careers or even bar their access to employment opportunities within the formal sector.

 It is instructive to note here that countries such as Iceland have been making notable strides in closing the gender gap. Currently, Iceland is one of the countries with the smallest gender wage gap in the world, and its government is shooting at eliminating the gender pay gap by 2020.  

Participation in politics is another of the areas where women’s access and control has been limited globally. As of 2016, only 23 percent of the global gender political gap has been closed, with Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Rwanda achieving the boldest, most remarkable results in that area. Rwanda, in fact, ranks number eight out of the 144 countries in the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report for the indexes of economic participation and opportunities and political participation of women. Currently, Rwanda is the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa with over 64 percent of female parliamentarians, outperforming even the United States (22 and 19.3 percent in Senate and House of Representative, respectively) and The Gambia (19 percent) in this significant measure of female empowerment.

I have discussed above the global trend in gender inequality in several factors: educations, economic and political participation indicators used as standard measurements for evaluating women and girls’ empowerment to demonstrate that the gender obstacles to the socio-economic progress of females abound and the disadvantages are, overall, a global challenge. Notwithstanding, the progress made in several quantifiable and non-quantifiable areas are sources of tremendous inspirations to many, myself included, of the high potentialities for gender inequalities to be neutralized over-time.

I am convinced, based on the transformative social processes I have witnessed while growing up in The Gambia and to date that the gender landscape will continue to morph into the ideal environment that supports the enlargement of the potentials of both boys and girls alike.

I am encouraged by women in both rural and urban areas whose economic struggles in their breadwinner function are tied to their daily chances from participating in the informal economy. From the farms to the gardens, sidewalks and the markets, women are making small proceed from their income-generating activities to provide for their families’ basic survival needs. These women, deserve our attention and commendations and the government of The Gambia must center the challenges they encounter in their economic policy decisions in both the micro and macroeconomic planning for expanding their earning potentials.

I continue to be encouraged by women who are making their marks by using their talents and qualifications for gaining access and entrenching themselves in positions and occupations that have been closed off to females, not because of their inability to handle such work demands and responsibilities but are disqualified by gender stereotypes. The recent rise in the number of women holding and those vying for political positions across the local, regional, and national levels is a force to be reckoned.

I continue to be encouraged by all young girls in the classrooms, who are excelling in school against all the invasive and addictive gendered messages that are transmitted continuously to them via both the formal schooling and the societal curricula. Despite being told that in the case where they could not get through formal education successfully, they may be lucky to be married to spouses who will give them a comfortable life, they continue to persevere in their jihad to seek out more sustainable alternatives for life opportunities.

I continue to be encouraged by young women who are choosing hard-work, dedication perseverance and dignity over cheap fame, and the instant gratification from a source of wealth that is not theirs.  These young women are living on the surest hopes that someday, and if only they continue to preserve and deliver beyond their gendered limitations, they will reap the fruit of their labor with poise.

I continue to be encouraged by parents who are raising their boys to respect, value and appreciate their sisters as equals, allies, and supporters. I am equally inspired by men who continue to influence policies at the household and national levels in support of leveling the playing field for their sisters, wives, mothers, and aunts to be able to utilize their God-given potentials to the fullest. Just within The Gambia, there is genuinely a lot to be inspired by!

As I conclude this piece, however, below is my message, outlining essential elements I believe should be in the toolbox of girls and young women who are finding their voices and developing strategies to navigate the gendered contours our Gambian society efficiently:

First: BELIEVE, BELIEVE, and BELIEVE in yourself! The reason is, it is most likely that people will believe in you if you first believe in yourself. Having faith in your abilities to rise above your limitations is not to be confused with being self-absorbed. I have learned from my short-lived experience thus far that having confidence in your capabilities can empower you to move mountains.

Second:  LOVE and ADORE yourself-appreciate and value who you are as a person. Your self-confidence should not be based on your looks; be grounded from within. The reason for this again is simple and loving yourself is not to be confused with being a narcissist. You can only exude self-confidence and spread love to the people around you if you have sufficient love and adoration of the person within you - think about it this way: you can’t give what you do not have.

Third:  Be Humble. Humility can sometimes get you through life’s most challenging episodes. Learn to accept your mistakes and failures; it helps you to be able to acquire valuable lessons from those errors and assist in building the resilience necessary to carry on in your journey.

Fourth:  Find the right MENTORS to sit on your life’s dining table. Find a life coach who can bring out the best in you, provide guidance that will fit your needs when faced with critical decision-making situations and lead you to resources that will be of value in your journey.

Fifth: RESPECT everyone- young and old- but do not allow that to become a sign of feebleness, thus giving others the allowance to debase you. Remember, you deserve as much respect in return as you are giving out to others-- it is your right to not accept any lesser treatment from others.

Sixth: Remember to not place yourself in any vicious COMPETITION with anyone; your goal is to become a better you, undeterred in your originality to becoming the best vision of yourself.

Hope you will find these few nuggets to be as resourceful as I have experienced them in my life thus far. Go out and be the best you possibly can!

Happy International Women’s Day; #PressforProgress; #PressforChange

Author: Haddy Njie, Raleigh, North Carolin