Jane Austen and Edith Wharton would feel at home in many African villages. They would instantly recognize the low status of women; and they would be familiar with the importance of obeying social rituals and flaunting one’s physical attributes and finery to attract a suitable husband.
Both women wrote about arranged marriages; about the burden of obedience that a dowry or bride-price imposed on young women; about a culture in which greedy or vicious fathers and husbands made decisions affecting the whole family; where frequent child-bearing exhausted — and killed — women; where an alarming proportion of children died in infancy; and where women could not control the title or land they should have inherited in a more equitable society. If Leo Tolstoy were sharing their time machine, he too would see parallels with the Russia of czars and serfs.
Austen, Wharton and Tolstoy are mostly celebrated for their portraits of the upper classes. Yet, they would have understood the scourge of alcoholism and male idleness that afflicts parts of African society, especially in the wake of conflict. They would have known of women who worked all day, and handed their earnings over to their husbands; and men who refused to lower themselves to do ‘women’s work.’
When we hear “life is cheap” in the developing world, we should remember how little life was valued in our own societies not that long ago. If things are “hopeless” in Africa, then the same was true of Charles Dickens’s London or the tenements of New York’s Lower East Side or the slave-like conditions endured on the farms of Russia’s nobility.
At Network for Africa we know that Austen, Wharton and Tolstoy would feel hopeful if they could survey what we see on a daily basis – women and girls gaining confidence, thanks to our local partners’ determination to broaden horizons and offer a helping hand. Through them we provide:
-literacy classes and vocational skills enabling women to earn their own money
lessons in nutrition, health and hygiene; and earning enough to buy health insurance for their families
-training in pooling earnings with others to provide savings to pay for their children’s education, and loans to start small businesses
-setting up cooperatives where women support each other and work together
classes in positive masculinity that encourage husbands to discuss family challenge, to decide together how to space their babies, and to help care for their children
-the use of radio shows and community drama to impart important messages countering harmful traditions
-and explaining that everyone has legal constitutional rights, and showing people how to enforce them.
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