The Giving Woman: How much is too much?

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Having read Shel Silverstein’s much-acclaimed children’s book The Giving Tree years ago, I reflect now and can’t help but compare the characters in that book; the tree and the boy, to women and the world respectively. The Giving tree tells the story of a boy who grows to become a man, and a tree; personified “she”, who lean on each other (or more accurately who have a parasitic relationship). This story is largely acclaimed and also largely criticised for its teachings of selfishness, selflessness, and greed. The tree gives too much, and the boy takes it all until the tree is nothing but a stump in place of a strong trunk and flowery branches that once shaded and harnessed the wind.

Whenever I read this book, I am tempted to open a window and toss it out, thinking to myself ‘What utter nonsense!’. To add to my ire, it ends with the words “…and the tree was happy”. I ask myself, who can be happy after giving all of themselves until they are literally a stump to be sat on? Who is expected to give to this extent? Why do these expectations even exist? Why didn’t the tree just say no?

The answer to these questions follows swiftly since the tree is personified as a “She”.

Women and girls are expected and taught to give this way. We are taught to give our time, energy, care, and emotional strength in abundance, to the detriment of our physical and mental health. It begins when caregiving is built into play during our formative years. For many African women, it heightens when domestic labour is gendered and falls to them in their youth, simply because it is socially seen as a girl skill, necessary for securing a husband and therefore a successful future.

Going through the story of the Giving Tree, it was chilling to learn that what is naturally occurring in the tree becomes commodified for the development of a world ‘she’ did not get to partake in and represent herself. It is a reminder of how despite the rise in status and authority of women globally, we are still often left on the side-lines when decisions are being made that affect our well-being and ability to grow as individuals.

The one thing I will give to the Giving Tree is that ‘she’ gave of her free will. ‘She’ gave because ‘she’ chose to give, that is not always the case for women globally.

Oftentimes, these ‘commodities’ including the bodies of women and girls are stolen; like land illegally mined, trees illegally logged, and forest uncaringly burned. The humanity and rights of women and girls are too easily disregarded and commodified for the benefits of their communities, countries, families, or enemies.

Until much recently this has been the disposition of our world towards women and girls; you are inherently valued for your ability to reproduce and grow our species, and for your ability to care, empathise, nurture, while balancing the burdens and well-being of homes and societies.

The global perception of women being the weaker sex certainly hasn’t helped. That ‘weakness’’, real or imagined, has translated into more hesitant ‘yes’, coerced acquisitions, and outright abuse of women and girls to situations and people who only wish to take advantage. A lower position on the social economic ladder, and poor/no education takes more agency from women and girls, rendering their ability to negotiate for self-care, mental health and resources virtually non-existent.

Men are the number one perpetrators and enablers of sexual, emotional, and physical violence against women and girls, on both familial and societal levels. I will not qualify that statement with most/some because, this fact is too often glossed over when we discuss and list statistics of Gender based violence against women.

According to WHO, 1 in 3 women globally experience physical/sexual violence from their partners and non-partners. To contextualise this, let’s say that there’s 7.5 billion people on this planet, 49.5% of them are women, meaning women account for 3.88 billion humans. 1 in 3 women, approximately 1.4 billion humans, have been physically or sexually abused. China has the world’s largest population with 1.39 billion citizens. If all the humans in China were women, according to this statistic, every single one of them would have either been physically or sexually abused by their partners or non-partners.

A huge caveat for this data is that it was collected from surveying only 80 out of 195 countries in the world. Violence against women is a plague that has been largely under reported and its effect on individuals is even more understudied and under-contemplated in the development of policies nationally, regionally, and globally.

Multiple threats of violence confront women and girls when we move through the world, rape; sexual harassment in workplaces, church, mosques, schools etc; human trafficking; FGM; child marriage; verbal harassment; and extortion, the list goes on. These threats of violence are almost always inevitable, and further heightened by poverty, war, illiteracy, disability, sexual orientation, lack of familial support, and marital status.

Awareness of the threat of violence is a survival instinct, but women need to be equally aware of how to care for their physical as well as mental health in the face of these stressors.

As we embark on this year’s 16 Days of Activism campaign against all forms of gender-based violence, the African Women’s Development Fund (AWDF) seeks not only to create awareness about the effects of GBV, but also to create space for better mental health care and wellness for women and girls.

Here are my tips for wellbeing and mental health as we navigate the many threats and dangers that confront us, based on our gender alone.

If you are a woman/girl and are reading this, make space for your well-being and health in your life. Don’t be like the Giving Tree. Share your wealth of resources and abilities with your world, but please don’t exhaust yourself in a bid to nurture everyone else’s dreams, goals, activities, and proclivities. When given the chance, choose to nurture your mental health, when not given the chance, make space for your mental health.

If or when you find yourself in a situation where you are pressured to share your body, livelihood, and intellect, you have a right to say no.

Your life, your choice!

If or when you are exposed to sexual, emotional, physical violence, report your abuser until you are believed, and action is taken against them. Enlist allies where possible. Also know that just as physical scars can heal, mental ones can be healed as well. Use care when communicating with yourself and seek professional mental health care/resources.

You may have been traumatised, but you survived, and you can thrive!

If or when you feel burdened to give beyond the scope of your ability, health, or wellness, by a partner, job, child, friend, or situation; use your voice and advocate for yourself. Your silence causes their voices to drown out your concerns.

If you are a woman reading this, look within yourself, and look around you, notice the state of the women you see.

Are they thriving? Are you thriving? Do you and your sisters give or have more parts of yourself stolen than you can afford to part with.

Are you protecting, nurturing, educating, and advocating for yourselves towards a billowing oak tree, or a sorry stump with no fruits, leaves, branches, and flowers?

In avoidance of a barren landscape of womanhood and girlhood that is littered with stumps and logs, in imitation of the Giving Tree, let’s work towards cultivating ourselves into forests of trees. Let the path for women and girls be one that nurtures growth and development into maturity. It is better to give out of an abundance by choice rather than be cut down by the stressors and takers of the world.

Finally, to the sisters who find themselves in situations, relationships and environments that birth more pain, dependency and despondency, look outward: there are women young and old to guide your path to hope and healing. There are more road maps and signs being put up every day for your sake, to lead you beyond the traumas of violence and abuse.

By Pudu Blamoh, Communications Intern, AWDF

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

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