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What’s in A Gift?

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

In commemoration of the 2017 Mother's Day in Malawi.

Every Mother’s Day, the modern family starts with the now mastered art of treating the mother to a fancy breakfast-in-bed. It is delivered ordinarily in coincidence with the time she is expected to be toiling in the kitchen or elsewhere in the ungratifying quest to maintain the welfare of others in her household. In part, the gesture is meant to keep at bay her monotonous anxieties of making sure the kids are fed, the husband is readied for work, and the day’s chores are laid out in line for her attack, one at a time. She smiles with a tear of joy for how others show recognition for her daily mundane labours that, outside of this day, just make the norm of the rest of 365 days of her life in the year.

But the issue often overlooked is how infrequently this sweet display of gratitude is considered as the affirmation of her servitude; how it confirms an expectation of the place where she ought to be. How it encompasses a thank you that is poised to persuade only the continuation of her devotion to a duty no one else is willing to partake of, instead of redressing the reduction of her drudgery and the redistribution of the repetitive toils in the home. This Mother’s Day in Malawi, we re-examine this and other gestures that we have traditionally considered acts of appreciation for these extraordinary protagonists behind our wellbeing. Importantly, we try to shed some light on how such actions may actually perpetuate women’s disadvantaged positions constructed by society’s innate gender constructions.

Exit breakfast, enter gifts. It is typical for us to buy our mothers gifts that befit the gender roles traditionally constructed for women. Gifts that redefine or re-affirm her role in the kitchen, bedroom, the public spaces where they perform within the accepted definition as women – like beauty products that are suitable for their presence at a shopping mall – and, in general, gifts that respond to women’s roles around the homestead. And so, off we go out of our usual ways to purchase pots, tumbler sets, dinner sets, clothing, make-up kits; and for those endowed with more, robots that aid the mother’s (often unpaid) duty at home, like blenders, coffee makers, and rice cookers. They all make their way into flashy wrappers to make the impression.

These naturalized acts have created a branding around the notion of Mother’s Day commemoration that comprehends display of appreciation to mothers in an 'appropriate' fashion. Indeed, according to this website, there may be two issues that help support the stakes in the normalized practice. First is that women are usually in need of many of the material support Mother’s Day gifts deliver to them. Yes, a pressure cooker is an indispensable robot that will ease her kitchen duties by far too much time normally dedicated to the art of cooking. In a way, it is drudgery-reducing. Secondly, the more the world embraces the celebration of Fathers’ Day, the more gift-giving to fathers concomitantly follows gendered norms. We could easily say, Fathers’ Day is every tool manufacturer’s Christmas-come-early!

There, however, remains an important oversight in the advancement of concepts whose gendered motivations lie hidden in the social subconsciousness. Women, just the flip-side of the world’s male humanity, both in terms of interests and ability, also harbor passions, interests and skills that go beyond the kitchen, and far beyond nourishing the appetites of men. An immediate need that statistics support is the disproportionate allocation of their time between work and leisure (we do not want to quote any here due to the vast diversity we seem to observe, globally). Whereas men are seen to earn their fair share of off-work activities and rest, women – both working and stay-at-home spouses – continue to attend to household chores around the clock through the year, year-in and year-out. In turn, this produces what Rania Antonopoulos in 2009, in her work titled “The Unpaid Care Work-Paid Work Connection,” estimated to be anything between 20 and 60 percent of national Gross Domestic Products (GDP). For a low-income country like Malawi, we easily conjecture that this figure is actually much higher.

We need to see women beyond their traditional roles, and to challenge the thinking around distribution of household work that perpetuates the suffrage of one sex over another, a worse-off situation for working women who usually must double up as home-makers every day after work. For both the working woman and the stay-at-home spouse, the hours put into concerns for the home, in our Malawian context, are an important restraint to their full execution of talents and years of training, although they cannot afford to deliver any less at home, lest the family suffers.

In this vein, this website fully endorses the argument published through an article of one of our early publishers, which asserted the connotation of women as relentless investors in households, communities and nations. So is the case for Malawi, where we routinely see men and boys performing work considered productive, with little analysis paid to how they are enabled to advance themselves and to pursue goals that transcend the worry for household welfare.

To promote gender equality, or the welfare of mothers around our small-but-populous country, we need to rethink our validation of gifts and what they symbolize when we celebrate them. In some cases, it suffices to express gratitude for them just for the sake of them being mothers. In many others, it should be about how we alter their situation to enable them to be more than what they are. To challenge them to be a more directly-linked part of progress. Most of all, we should invest in their ability to choose between labour and leisure, so they have the equal liberty to exercise such freedom in full confidence that affairs at home are not under some compromise.

Our government has a role to play, where the investment in social infrastructure that will support, in particular, care work (for children, the elderly, and the sick) is concerned. But for the most part, it will take the tearing apart of norms that are not only heavily permeated in our social norms, but which the commercialization of Mother’s Day, through the flooding of appropriated gifts in supermarkets and shops, has a much bigger upper hand.

So, next time, on Mother’s Day, try offering a promise to shift the division of household chores that will more fairly redistribute burdens. Or better yet, on Fathers’ Day, pass on a state of the art rice cooker to the most celebrated man of the house.


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