My Body, Your Money: Women surviving the gender economic gap with their bodies as currency

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I’m very familiar with relationship dynamics. By this I mean I know a fair bit about the sexual politics in relationships. Gender roles in relationships is a heavy one to digest; there’s a lot to unpack but for now let’s focus on the ultimate trade off — financial assistance for sex. It is not always that blatant but there’s that exchange.

Ever heard of the phrase “women are gold-diggers?” Yea! I honestly don’t know how the term technically came to be, but it’s generally inferred from women’s expectation of their male partners to support them financially. I’m talking about heterosexual relationships. This entire article is drawn from the heterosexual context. Women being called gold-diggers has an intended derogatory connotation and men are advised to stay away from women who are interested in their money. Like every stereotypical tag that society puts on women who do not conform, people generally hurl this “insult” at women without pausing to consider the underlying issues that birthed this phenomenon. Yes, it’s true that the average woman wants her partner to provide for her financially; but why? That should be our concern, and that’s what I am interested in exploring.

It is easy to go on a rant and play the blame game, but having a nuanced conversation on issues like this is what drives the change process. As a feminist activist, I have women’s economic empowerment at the heart of my activism because I believe most of the other forms of oppression are rooted in women’s economic deficiency. A good number of domestic violence victims continue to stay with their abusers because they lack the needed financial resources to survive on their own. The silence of some rape survivors is bought with money. Others are unable to seek legal action because they simply cannot afford it. There is currently a campaign in Ghana calling for the abolishing of the compulsory medical examination for rape survivors to enable survivors from marginalised economic backgrounds to seek justice. So really, we cannot overestimate how women’s economic liberation is linked to their total liberation and why it’s essential to critically analyse this money-sex dynamic.

It is no secret that the very formidable union between Patriarchy and Capitalism has resulted in wealth and power being heavily concentrated in the hands of men. Women are therefore basically forced to seek financial support from men. This has over time become a transaction in which women’s bodies are the exchange currency. I am not talking about sex work. I am talking about romantic relationships, including marriage. According to the World Bank, women in Sub-Saharan Africa aged 15 and above form 61.5% of the labour market. Ideally, this should be good and consequently reflect in women’s economic status, but majority of these women are employed in the informal sector with as many as 60% of them being in the agricultural sector. As written by Andinet Woldemichael; a Principal Research Economist at the African Development Bank, “nine out of 10 employed women in sub-Saharan Africa are in the informal sector” The problem with this is that the informal sector is labour intensive but characterised by low payment and generally poor remuneration. What this means is that women work more but earn less. Thus, men dominating the formal sector earn more and consequently have more money than women.

Another factor that contributes to the gender economic gap is women’s unpaid labour. Globally, women spend up to 10 times more time doing unpaid care work than men. Domestic work is generally perceived to be women’s specialty. Women in both the formal and informal sectors spend more time doing unpaid domestic work like cleaning, cooking, caring for children, doing grocery shopping. A 2014 report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, states that a proportion of 71% and 54% of women in Ethiopia spend over seven hours fetching water and firewood whilst only 20% and 28% of men do same and for less than six hours. The average Ghanaian woman spends only about 40% of her time doing paid work. The rest is spent on unpaid work like cooking, laundry, taking care of children, running errands, doing dishes, among others. This amounts to more than twice the time men spend doing same.

The Ghanaian labour force is made up of 60.3% men as opposed to 39.7% women. The global gender wage gap is pegged at 23%. An employer is more likely to pay a woman less than a man for the same position requiring the same amount of work. Discriminatory practices in the labour sector such us harassment and abuse, unfair treatment of working mothers including loss of employment as a result of taking maternity leave, lack of social protection among others keeps women at the bottom of the wage-earning barrel, giving men an economic upper hand.

All the above aside, the gender educational gap and socio-cultural norms and practices contribute to women’s financial constraints. These include the idea that women belong in the kitchen, that certain jobs are for men only (these are usually the jobs with high wages), that girls should aspire for marriage whilst boys are to be career oriented, employers preferring to hire men over women, women not allowed to inherit property, land title challenges faced by women, among others.

Considering all of these barriers, we cannot in good conscience point accusing fingers at women. So instead of tagging women as gold-diggers and throwing tantrums like we did when the Moesha- Christiane Amanpour interview was released, we must reflect on why women like Moesha live the way they do. I am not in any way saying women should depend on men financially; I’m saying until we critically analyse these fundamental contributing factors and address them such that women can achieve full financial liberation, we cannot judge women for it. The energy we invest in name-calling and slut-shaming women should be invested in getting more girls into higher education, creating a harassment free working environment for women, dismantling stereotypical gender roles, ensuring equal wage, not punishing women for their choice to have children, making participatory paternity leave a norm, among others. That’s how we ought to address this issue. According to the African Union, United Nations statistics and every woman, Patriarchy is indeed expensive.

By Sarah Benewaa Fosu, Knowledge Management Assistant, AWDF

African Women’s Development Fund supports autonomous organisations on initiatives for transformation led by African women.

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