By Firoza Dodhi
Evidently, sexual and reproductive health of females is an area often negatively affected by gender imbalance. A clinic in Uganda is taking initiative to change this. The Mukono Health Centre rewards couples that attend pre-natal appointments together. The aim of this grassroots-level program is to create a lasting difference in the gender norms perpetuated in the East African country. Men in the region have historically abandoned their spouses during pregnancy, even when one or both are suffering from HIV. Consequently, the mother is left to care for a child who is HIV- positive, with no external support. This clinic in Uganda is hoping to target gender stereotypes, by encouraging more men to be involved in the pregnancy process with their spouses—thus enforcing the concept of a ‘new normal’ in gender relations and eventually paving the way for successful health outcomes.
With this in mind, I do not want to point to issues in gender-equality as being solely a developing world issue. The 2014 World Economic Forum ranks Iceland, Finland and Norway as the top three countries, respectively, in regards to their gender equality index. Interestingly, the Top 10 list, of this same index also included Nicaragua (6), Rwanda (7), the Philippines (9). These countries as noted by Fortune Magazine’s late-October 2014 issue scored well ahead of universally-regarded ‘developed’ nations-such as the United Kingdom, which scored 28! This got me thinking about some of the issues of gender equality that can be found a little closer to home.
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, implores in her award-winning book Lean In, it is vital that we improve gender diversity within the workplace. Just because a workplace hires some women, or even for the sake of argument is comprised of 50% female employees, it does not mean that those women are being given equal opportunity within the workplace to showcase their talent. I think my interpretation, if not too much of a generalisation, encapsulates what Sandberg is pointing to within North American society. We want to be able to make both women and men, feel liberated against the bounds of so-called societal norms. An interesting idea I am currently exploring is that of “normalcies”- it’s such an interesting question, of what dictates and defines a social norm. It is hardly fair to consider a standard a norm, when it is used as a method for confining people. Let us examine the concept of women being permitted to take maternity leave only under the knowledge that doing so will jeopardize the trajectory of their career in future years. Sandberg refers to this when she notes: “guilt management can be just as important as time management for mothers.” To my mind this quotation is indicative of the reality faced by women in the workplace who are also mothers—they face a catch-22—misunderstood by fellow professionals about pausing their careers to stay home with their children and simultaneously rejected by full time parents in their community for leaving their toddlers in day-cares, to return to their careers.
One of the most important aspects of Sandberg’s memoir that comes to mind, is her belief in providing men the opportunity (free from societal constraints and commentary) to contribute actively to their family as they can to their careers. Sandberg notes the difficulties many men face in this regard; especially in the consumer-capitalist society we have in North America.
While we hear about pregnant employees being fired in many parts of the world, or father’s not being afforded the luxury of paternity leave, we can alternatively turn our attention to Scandinavia where there is a systematic effort to change gender dynamics and parental roles. Sweden is an example—paid paternity leave is available. According to Swedish legislation a minimum of 60 days of leave must be taken by fathers, and up to 480 days of parental leave is available after the birth of a child for parents. Interestingly, Swedes are becoming more aligned to the system: one father (Goran Sevelin) interviewed for Johan Bavan’s documentary on the legislation said: “I think it’s important to share the responsibility of staying at home with your children, even if you lose out financially. We have less money because I stay at home, but at the same time I will have more time to bond with my daughter and that is what is most important for our future together.” Iceland has similar legislation as well. More importantly, both private and public sector organizations in the region encourage parents to take parental leave, ‘topping up’ the parental allowance from the national governments so parents generally earn 90% of their salaries while on maternity or paternity leave.