The world is changing. People are demanding their rights. Centuries and millennia of gender discrimination against women are being reversed.
In some countries, especially Western ones, women even have the upper hand on many issues. For example, in marital disputes, men get the short end of the stick. The law protects women more than men because it is generally believed that nature and the environment confer more advantages on men than women. Many organisations also have programmes and grants dedicated to women and the girl-child to the exclusion of men and the boy-child because of the belief that the female gender is naturally disadvantaged and needs to be helped to rise to the level of the male gender.
In ensuring that human beings are treated fairly despite their gender, there are calls for gender equality in all things. It is a call every person of conscience should support because people don’t have a choice over their gender. Treating one gender better than the other is unjust and unfair. People should be treated first as human beings before any consideration about gender as well as other factors.
However, it becomes a challenge sometimes to know where to draw the line on issues of fairness between the genders. For example, is it gender discrimination to keep female soldiers away from war and all forms of combat? When the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine began, the Ukrainian authorities allowed women to flee the country but prevented men aged 18 and above from leaving. Is that not an instance of gender discrimination? Since there is equality between men and women, shouldn’t women and men be treated the same way on such an issue?
Let us look at some Nigerian cultural practices and how they are interpreted. If a man goes with his family and friends to take a bride in Yorubaland, for example, the Yoruba tradition demands that he and his male folks must all prostrate (lie down fully) before the bride’s family until they are asked to stand up. In some cases, they are asked to roll on the floor for a while. It is celebrated as a positive tradition and a thing of pride. It is not called debasement of men or matriarchy.
Similarly, if a man wants to propose to a woman and kneels on one knee to do that, he is celebrated as a modern man. It is also not seen as debasement of the men or matriarchy in action.
In the Igbo culture of marriage, a bride is supposed to kneel down to offer palm wine to the bridegroom to identify him as her choice. But this tradition is attacked by some people and termed patriarchy and the debasement of women. Note that in comparison to the Yoruba tradition where the man is made to lie down fully on the ground and even roll on the ground, the woman is meant to kneel down. She may even choose to bend down on one knee.
Similarly, in some ethnic groups, communal meetings are held according to gender and age. There is a meeting for the men alone. There is a meeting for the women. There is a meeting for unmarried males. There is a meeting for unmarried females. It is believed that these sections of society have peculiar things in common that will be of interest to them. However, some have condemned this as discriminatory against women. They believe that it is an act of exclusion. They ask that issues concerning the community should be made open to all genders.
However, a similar thing happens in sports globally without getting the same reaction. In most sports, men and women have their respective competitions. It is hard to remember any game in which men and women compete together under one banner. In 100-metre races, the men’s competition is used to determine who is the fastest man as well as the fastest human being in the world. The female competition produces the fastest woman. In tennis, men have their competition, while women have theirs. The same thing happens in football, boxing, swimming, wrestling, marathon and other sports.
In line with equality, should men and women not compete against one another to compete against one another? Should a female boxer not be paired against a male boxer? Should men not compete against women in weight-lifting or long jump or judo? Is it not discriminatory to create competitions based on gender despite the fact that men and women are equal? Should human beings be allowed to pick and choose when to demand equality and when to demand exclusivity?
That brings us to the question of equality versus equity. How do we draw a line between equality and equity or between equality and peculiarity of a particular environment or situation? There is a photo illustration of equality versus equity that makes it clear. Under equality, the picture shows three people of different heights trying to watch a sports competition from across a wall of about six feet. Each of them is provided with a platform of the same height. The first person, who is less than three-foot tall, could not see above the wall. The second person, who is about four feet, was of the same height as the wall. By straining his neck or jumping up, he could see across the wall. But that would be at a heavy cost to him. The third person of over six feet could see over the wall conveniently even without standing on any platform, yet he was given a platform to stand on.
The second half of the photo illustrated equity. The first person got a platform that was much higher. By standing on it, he could watch the competition effortlessly. The second person got a platform that was not as high as that of the first person. He was able to watch the game. The third person was not given any platform. Standing on the floor, he could watch the game conveniently. That way, each person was attended to based on peculiar needs and circumstances. Each person ended up satisfied.
Men and women are equal as human beings but their needs and circumstances are not equal. If you want to treat them with equality in all circumstances, you will end up putting their lives in grave danger. Imagine sending a woman into the same ring as Mike Tyson for boxing. Her corpse may be retrieved from the ring. Unlike in law or medicine where women are rising to meet the men and even surpass them, there will never be a day when women will be producing the fastest human beings or best weight-lifters or boxers.
Therefore, equity is what will ensure that women get a good deal in the world. Equity ensures that issues are treated based on peculiar circumstances that meet the needs of individuals. Equality is aloof and generalised; equity attends to the individual and the peculiar.