This piece is a response to the blog, The End Of Men & The Disilliusionment Of Women by one Dango Mkandawire, my little sister’s friend.
First and foremost, I would like to remark that I am proud that he has so eloquently expressed his thoughts – the piece is not only well written it is also quite balanced.
The corner stone of the piece is relayed through an experience that Dango had. Whilst he was in attendance at a funeral a friend of his was presented with a bill and although his salary could not realistically meet the obligation it was the feeling that he would have to “man up” and pay. The moment was more remarkable to Dango in that he knew his friend’s sister was better paid but was not expected to make a contribution.
As Dango has so carefully given his story context, I feel I should do the same before I go into a bit of a counter-argument. I am in full acknowledgement that my family experience is the exception rather than the rule.
My father is a businessman and whilst he had been doing business in one form or another from about the age of six, his “formal” business career began after he saved enough money to send himself to a business school in Zimbabwe. He did a series of diplomas related to business, marketing, sales and commerce then returned to Malawi to start business.
My mother, on the other hand, went to university and completed a traditional degree. She started off as a low-ranking civil servant and worked her way all the way to the top of the organisation over a career spanning three decades. In 1999 she even got the opportunity to complete a Masters degree in Fiscal Economics. Today she is the Head of Customs in Malawi and also the Vice Chairman (VC) of the World Customs Organisation (WCO) for East and Southern Africa (ESA). To say I am proud of her achievements would be the understatement of 2014.
Now, the family situation: yes, up until I was about 15/16 my father was the clear breadwinner. He earned a lot more than my mother and covered all the domestic bills. We had owned our own house since I was about 5 or 6 years old so there was no rent to pay. My father had a mortgage and cleared it within a few years.
Fortunately, like most families that live in towns in Malawi we had a cook and a maid but my mother still cooked at times. She also cleaned the marital bedroom and washed my father’s “intimate” clothing. Whatever spare cash she had was selflessly spent on the kids. In addition to the day job she had a side-line income from selling clothes.
My father was not the type to subjugate a woman so my mother had the freedom to attend cocktail dinners and other events on her own. Nonetheless, if there is one lesson my mother emphasised as I grew up it was, never depend on a man; you must always have your own income so that you have a say in affairs of the household.
With this perspective I went into my marriage expecting to pay 50-50. As I am the economist and my husband a doctor I calculated our monthly expenditures and suggested we both pay £x into the joint account from which all our bills are taken. We started doing this when we started living together – 14 months before my husband proposed and 20 months before we got married.
Now you have a solid foundation let’s discuss Dango’s seminal conclusion: “In our social evolution, women have been granted the right to earn as well as men but the obligation to provide has not necessarily passed.”
There is one gaping hole in the discussion. He forgets to mention where the women were at this funeral. I too recently attended a funeral in Malawi and I too made the observation that things have not changed. The men were kept separate from the women; the “top-ranking” men were sat in sofas and the women, regardless of status, were either relegated to the kitchen or were sitting on the floor.
Some of the boys sat in the sofas were half my mother’s age but as their high-ranking fathers were comfortably sat on a sofa they too felt entitled to do the same. Basically, society was saying to my mother, I know you are the Head of Customs and VC of WCO for ESA but take your Masters Degree in Fiscal Economics and cook the men some food. How is this just or fair, I ask?
Yes, we have caught up in income but you still expect women to take on an unequal burden of childcare and household chores. Just because I push the baby out does not mean I have to change all the nappies and do all the bathing.
If Dango's friend had taken to the kitchen and asked his sister to make a contribution to the bill she likely would have agreed but what man would?
Dango's friend was both too proud to say he cannot pay the whole bill and too proud to ask his sister to help out. If he had been less proud he would have openly said, “Makosana, gentlemen, my monthly salary is x, I have monthly bills amounting to y and over the last few months I have managed to save z. Consequently, the most I can contribute is a.” No one could have realistically argued with that.
At all social events – wedding, funerals and other celebrations – women take on 100% of the catering burden. To ask those same women to also contribute to the bills is a double standard when we don't ask men to help out in the kitchen. I will know Malawi has reached true gender equality when I see men helping in the kitchen at such events. The mere suggestions of such a thing would be met with gasps and disbelief.
So, I say to you my countrymen, if despite our progress in education and income you still expect us, the women, to take on an unequal and unfair burden of domestic affairs, don’t begrudge us our pocket money.
Indeed, if you are too proud to have a discussion on how the domestic bills will be shared and are in turn unwilling to take on 50% of domestic affairs then perhaps the status quo is as it should be.
Concluding Thoughts (added 21-Apr-14)
Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours, produce half of the world’s food, yet earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property.
I would suggest the following steps towards change:
I know friends who leave 100% of the cooking to their husband and they do all their cleaning. I have friends who give all housework to a third-party (cleaner) and eat out almost daily. This is what works for their relationship. I have a friend who's husband does all the baby baths because she does all the feeding.
Different relationship will end up with different solutions but both parties should be happier by an outcome that has been discussed than a defacto status quo.
I have quite a few friends that would prefer their husbands did more but they do nothing about it. Once personal relationships are more equal then community-wide equality can be more easily discussed.
By Heather Katsonga-Woodward
I'm always thinking, debating, considering and revising my views - some of those deliberations will be shared right here.