Gender equality is a key marker when assessing a state’s level of development.  In the tiny West African state of the Gambia however, a deeply patriarchal culture presents an obstacle to achieving true equality.  

 

Here, as in similar cultures, girls are taught from a young age to aspire to marriage and motherhood, as this is seen as their ultimate purpose in life.  As children, Gambian boys are encouraged to be active and are in general free to explore their interests.  Gambian girls, on the other hand, are expected to take on domestic chores and learn to cook and clean from an early age, often at the expense of their childhood.  Even prior to puberty, these girls’ sexual identities are smothered: whether physically through practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), or psychologically via lectures about the importance of guarding their virginity for marriage - a concept to which both Muslim men and women are supposed to adhere, but a rule that is otherwise relaxed for men.

Thus, Gambian girls grow up to become young women who feel incomplete without a husband, and pride themselves more on domestic talents rather than intellectual pursuits, internalizing the discourse that sex is taboo.  This leads many into a predetermined path of poor education, early marriage, multiple children, and the harmful expectation that she will be the glue that holds the family unit together,… and that the blame for any dissolution of his family unit, therefore, lies with her,  On the other hand, many girls also go down the path of engaging in unsafe sexual practices in secret, often resulting in accidental early pregnancies or worse - life-threatening sexually transmitted diseases - all of which lead to being condemned or even shunned by their communities.

While tradition plays an important role in any society, an open and honest discourse about gender is needed in order for the Gambia to reach key development goals.  A society which sees both genders as equal is a society which works in tandem to eliminate issues such as gender based violence, poor maternal health, child marriage, and a plethora of issues which stifle development.

The current generation of young Gambians are suffering the economic ramifications caused by decades of poor governance.  This primarily takes the form of poor job prospects amongst those who can afford to complete school, despite a poor education system.  Since education is the most effective means of changing poor cultural practices, it is evident that more should be done to keep girls in school, especially during critical stages of their development.

While eradicating deeply-rooted - yet harmful - practices such as FGM and early marriage may take time, this can be hastened by reshaping the mentalities of both Gambian girls and boys through education.  By teaching them the importance of gender equality, and teaching girls to aspire to careers and financial independence, existing issues between genders may be potentially nipped in the bud in the future.

Young girls need to internalise the fact that they are much more than future wives and mothers, and society needs to view them on equal footing to men and boys.  Every child deserves a proper childhood, with equal prospects for the future, as well as chance to grow into well-informed adults who replace damaging cultural practices with attitudes that help propel their country into the future.

 

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