Who decides on parenting?
Gender issues, particularly the rights of women to a fair share in the distribution of social roles and responsibilities, have been on the national and global agenda for many years now. While progress has undeniably been registered over the decades, ensuring women’s empowerment remains a challenging undertaking, nowhere more so evident than in the smallest unit of society, viz., the family. It is a man’s world, as the saying goes. In developing countries like Ethiopia where the man is usually the breadwinner, whatever he says goes, and the woman is expected by her spouse (as well as by society at large) to defer to him. One hopes that fostering women’s economic empowerment would result in the upgrading of her status so she would be having a greater voice not only in the upbringing of children but also in decisions that have far-reaching import at both local and national levels. Tibebeselassie Tigabu of The Reporter ponders the topic in this issue of the paper.
“Balegen kassadege yegedele tsedeke,” that loosely translates into, “one would be better of killing a spoiled brat than raising them,” is a shocking Amharic saying that stresses the importance of bringing up a child in a disciplined manner.
This sounds rather like a dark humor, which might create an uncomfortable sensation, but one thing is clear. Ethiopians take seriously the role of good parenting in forming a responsible adult. Nurturing parents try to pass to their offspring moral values, conceptions, norms and perspectives in order to prepare them for later life. This formulation of upbringing children is predominantly archaic. Still, in many households, quiet children who do not express themselves are preferred. Meanwhile, corporeal punishment still exists in many households.
It is not only the upbringing of children; rather the family structure is archaic where a man holds an authoritative sway over the family. Complete obedience and submissiveness is expected from not only children but also from a wife. Even in an urban setting, the responsibility of taking care of children is reserved for women, and there are instances where women give up careers to devote their time and energy to raising of children. Not surprisingly, the man tends to hold the most dominant position in the family as he is the one making decisions on family issues. This has been the traditional family structure but now many are now saying that the concept of the symmetrical family with shared conjugal roles has sunk in.
Mahlet Kebede, a mother of two, is a witness on how crucial it is for a functioning marriage that both parents have a say in making decisions on raising of children. Her first child is an eight-year-old boy and at this age, the most pertinent issues are the various games that he is allowed to play. In addition to that, their decision revolves around if he can attend the school carnival, can eat a cookie in school; balancing play and study times.
These issues, according to Mahlet, are topics of serious discussion between her and her husband. Mahlet claims since she and her spouse had been in a relationship for quite long, they have cultivated such a friendship that enables them to discuss matters in a calm and rational manner. Therefore, they devised a mechanism where deciding the matters after discussion or if one of them decides not to compromise or interfere in each other’s decision. However, Mahlet says that it is not all rosy; and there are instances where disagreements can lead to arguments, even though these do not flare up. One of the issues is that of corporeal punishment, which she is against and her husband is for. Mahlet notes, “On rare occasions when things are out of control and when I am annoyed, I might hit my eldest boy On the other hand, my husband believes spanking is the best disciplining tool,” and adds that “children actually do not respond well to corporeal punishment, and I don’t think it is the best option.”
Though she does not agree with her spouse in this, she accepts their difference calmly and both she and her husband are very careful not to argue in front of the children. Since the children are young, it is usually school and play that are causes of disagreement.
It is easier for Mahlet and her husband to be on the same page on most issues since they share the same social class, religion, and norms but what does happen when marriage partners have different socio-economic background, do not have the same set of values. This can be a "model" for the ideal family but this is not the mainstream standard of what a family is.
There are many who are critical of the essence of marriage and family.
Marxists argue that the nuclear family performs ideological functions for the capitalist system where the family acts as a unit of consumption and teaches children passive acceptance of hierarchy.
They claim that it socializes people to think in a way that justifies inequality; one way in which this happens is that there is a hierarchy in most families, which teach children to accept, there will always be someone in authority who they must obey. Many are critical of marriage because it promotes a patriarchal family structure. According to African American scholar Gloria Jean Watkins (aka bell hooks), "Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominant, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak especially females; and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain the dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence."
With this notion of patriarchy, bell hooks claims that children learn about the assignment of gender roles, and children are given continual guidance about the ways humans can best fulfill these roles. Though the understanding of patriarchy is regarded as it is only executed by men, bell hooks’ thought is different than that assumption. “We need to highlight the role women play in perpetuating and sustaining the patriarchal culture so that we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally, even if men receive more rewards from the system.” However, some people detest the notion of patriarchy as inequality is mirrored in most marriages, which are also reflected in decision-making and raising of children.
Daniel Seife is an electrical engineer and a father of two -- a girl,14, and a boy, 15.
While he is the breadwinner for the family, the mother of his children is a housewife, with raising of children among her responsibilities. According to Daniel, since his wife is not “educated”, he is the one responsible for giving their children advice and for responding to questions they have.
In the process of school enrollment and after-school study, he is the one who decides what is best for the children . Whereas Daniel accepts the Biblical notion of equality of the spouses, he, ironically considers his wife a subordinate. "As a mother, her main duty is taking care of them and nurturing them. We divided these roles equally," Daniel says.
As a Christian, he strongly believes in the Biblical scripture of how a man is “the head of the house.” He draws inspiration from the Bible about obedience, loyalty, and respect for the family.
A man of few words, he strongly believes he is raising his children in a disciplined manner guided by religious morals.
The culture and the religion profess the supremacy of the father in both domestic and religious functions. Children who are raised by a single mother are considered to have loose morals. In Amharic, the degrading term “yesset lij” that literally translates into “a child raised by a single mom,” is used to refer to such children. Many single women face this problem and many more tolerate an abusive marriage to save their children from having this “horrendous” name attached to them.
Widow Genet Gebrewold, a mother of three children, aged 29, 19, 15, did not think that the society would be judgmental about the absence of a “fatherly figure” in her family. She actually did not escape this. And when her second child was involved in a fight in the neighborhood, one of the women saw this and insulted him by saying Yesset lij kechi yata, (a child of a single mother with no one to discipline him). Her heart was broken when she heard this, and from that day on, she tries her best to raise her children properly.
What saddens Genet even more is that when her husband was around, his truck-driving job meant he moved from city to city and he was not often present. “No one understood this but the community thought the children had a father who can discipline them.”
On the contrary, Genet says that she has always been the disciplinarian in the family. After her husband passed, she continued raising her children in a way she thinks is suitable. “For me, the most important thing is to help my children develop a self-sustaining behavior. It is not only the girl, but actually my boys also know how to bake bread, make stew and perform other household chores," Genet notes.
Despite that, she says that she did not escape from the judgment of some on how the boys are not learning how to be ‘a man,’ with everyone reminding her on the need for a fatherly figure.
Apprehensive about society’s judgmental attitudes, many single mothers look for a fatherly figure in their brothers, fathers and other relatives. Paradoxically, the society has an assumption that children brought up by single mother do not learn how to be “a man” or they do not learn patriarchal values. Contrary to that, bell hooks suggests, "The contemporary presence of female-headed households has led many people to assume that children in these households are not learning patriarchal values because no father figure is present. They assume that men are the sole models for patriarchal thinking." She adds, "Yet many female-headed households endorse and promote patriarchal thinking with a far greater passion than two-parent households. Because they do not have an experiential reality to challenge false fantasies of gender roles, women in such households are far more likely to idealize the patriarchal male role."