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Mothers and daughters: a better or different world?

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Sunday, February 21st, 2016

I am very much a modern woman – at the intersection of the pathways  between new opportunities and old traditions. Navigating the old to the new, until they become older and very old and not so new.  Mother, wife, career person, a citizen of Islam and of Nigeria. A Person. This is my most prized identity, for, in personhood lies ability and voice. The right to choose, to ask, and expect to be answered. The courage to try new things, make mistakes and laugh at oneself. These values I cherish and strive to transfer to everyone around me whether or not they have requested it. I cannot draw a line because it is, after all my personhood. It is who I am.

At a workshop I attended recently, a question was asked, Will your daughters have a better Nigeria than the one you have known; and how will your sons respond to gender challenges? I reflected on the question and thought, maybe the issue is not necessarily a better future but a different future.

Some things will change for the better. Others for the worse. And some things will be the same as before. Yet others may only lose or increase their intensity. Will my daughters have a better life? Mothering is a very significant part of any young life. It is the first point of socialisation within a family.  My daughters perforce will inherit from me my worldview and a tool kit for negotiating life.

But then, I have got two types of children; my biological daughters and sons sired of my blood and my social daughters and sons born of my passion for women and people’s rights. They are taught to give and demand respect. My daughters will be better negotiators. More equipped to take advantage of opportunities of an economic and political nature. I worry more about their distant cousins, my other daughters and sons.

Let’s apply the logic of difference rather than better with a look at three generations of women:

My mother grew up listening to tales by moonlight. She has no formal schooling, she was married at 18 because her father decreed it. He chose her husband my father.   She had 11 children. She endured abuse and learned to fight for her right to earn a living when in her 40s.

I am her daughter. I went to the best schools in Nigeria which my father could afford. I chose my spouse with whom I negotiated the kind of life we wanted to live. I got married at 25 and have 3 children. I am a few months shy of 40 years and I have been earning an income since I turned 21.

My teenage daughter writes stories. She wants to see the world, she has a huge network of friends on the internet. She reads her books on the internet. She asks me questions around her sexuality which I could never have asked my mother. She challenges her father on promises she expects him to keep.

In real and psychological terms there is a world of difference between my daughter her grandmother and I. Each generation was open to different opportunities and constraints. Faridha will not have to contend with her parents deciding who she marries but there is no guarantee that she won’t have to challenge marital abuse.  She will however be better prepared than her grandmother to negotiate because of the choices that we her parents made possible for her and the environment in which she finds herself.

Implicit in this analogy is relationships with men. So, How will my sons respond to gender challenges?  The sons or their mothers are not the enemy. Rather it is a system of socialisation that tells everyone how best to behave that is the problem. Our sons are taught not to cry because that means they are weak. Similarly our daughters who love the out of doors are labeled ‘tomboys’. Mothers want to be role models so they shoo their boys out of the kitchen and make drudges out of their daughters. These same sons go on to become Chefs earning big incomes cooking for others but not their families.

We the new mothers teach our sons differently. They know that respect is mutual and what counts is the brain between your ears and not what is between your legs.   These sons are already champions of women’s human rights. They are not challenged by gender differences, they are challenging stereotypes. Their wives, daughters and sons will be the truly liberated citizens of the future.

I look at the socio – economic environment in Nigeria  and I see hope for a positively different future for our daughters and sons but only if we get certain priorities right. Especially economic and human development.  Poverty is ever more challenging. Nigeria is a metaphor for the paradox of want in the midst of plenty. Many children; girls and boys grow up in abundant poverty. Their personhood dulled by a tenacious focus on daily existence. Poverty bites hard everywhere but twice as hard in the Northern part of the country. Malnutrition of both an acute and chronic nature abounds in  the north.   At 2000 per 100,000 live births, maternal mortality in that part of the country is higher than the national average.

Rape appears to be on the increase and domestic violence is not abating. But then we do not have the data. Could it be that it is the reporting of rape rather than the crime itself which is on the increase?  This means a break in the barrier on a subject previously considered to be taboo and a social awakening necessary for the protection of persons violated. Now we talk more openly about rape and we are learning not to blame the victims. The laws have also been portrayed for what they really are – inadequate in their subjective insensitivity.

Divorce is on the rise with women choosing to opt out of abusive relationships. As sad as this can be it nonetheless shows the capacity to exercise the right to choose, which the generations before did not explore to this extent. It is interesting to note that this development is higher in the North where women are stereotypically perceived as very demure. This is certainly a different life, which has within it the kernel for a better life.

For those who manage to get into school, few stay in and finish the course. Even in schools, curriculum North or South hardly teaches our daughters to aspire like our sons.   Before year 2000, the secondary school curriculum did not have any modules on sexuality education.  Once too, the trend was to focus on equipping science laboratories in boys only schools while home economics  labs were  a priority for girls only schools. We now have some form of sexuality education on our curriculum. Although it is called family education, that is a good start. Now both boys and girls schools have computer and home economic laboratories.  I can challenge my child’s school when he is taught that only mothers cook while fathers watch football because there are variants of households, and that picture does not fit ours.

Until curriculum is comprehensively addressed, most of our sons will only find the new knowledge they need outside the walls of school or learn the hard way when they meet some of their more empowered siblings.  Our daughters meantime will have to learn in an atmosphere that deepens the order of male superiority.  This is why it is gratifying to see the expansion of gender based opportunity in sports. In the last century, the introduction of female football was one of the most effective levellers of equity of the genders. Gone are the days when women only played handball and volley ball. Now football with all the wealth, prestige  and attention it attracts is open to women and formal education  is not a barrier either.

Increased access to information and knowledge is power. The internet has shaped the way we work and think with unprecedented access to information, most of which is outside the classroom. It has also made this generation of our sons and daughters vulnerable to an alluring but reckless world, which they are little equipped to understand nor navigate – Pornography, extortion, drugs, paedophilia.

It is hard to say one generation will have a better life than the other. Mixed shades of opportunities and threats shape our world. Old vulnerabilities may be diminished or enhanced. Just like the Phoenix, new vulnerabilities or a thing of beauty may emerge from their ashes. There are also some constants. As debilitating as poverty is it is not a limitation that is exclusive to one generation. It is a constant across generations.  but it is the choices we are allowed to make that make the difference as to whether or not we break free or remain shackled.

In my career, I have worked with many young women and men during intergenerational dialogues and women’s empowerment sessions. I am proud to say that those were life changing encounters for them and myself. Our children possess the core ingredients – knowledge, compassion, sense of adventure, self esteem, respect for others – necessary to negotiate Nigeria and the rest of the world better.  Our challenge is opening up the same opportunities to their other sisters and brothers.

Our daughters and sons will be better by the degree of mentoring and opportunities to excel, which they get.


Amina Salihu, PhD, is a Gender and Development scholar and practitioner, a women’s rights activist and community organizer.


7 Responses

  1. I wish most parents would sit and read, and deeply digest this piece, so that they would appreciate the fast mind of the new generation than condemning them to becoming nuisance.

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