Globalization and Ethiopia
Part 4- The Family
(continued from last week)
The traditional family had features common to all cultures of the world. Its composition was not the husband, wife and children
but also included close ties with other relatives .
Moreover, the traditional family was above all an economic unit. Agricultural production was normally an activity of the family
as a whole. Among the upper classes, marriages were forged for purposes of amalgamating great fortunes and transmitting
these to heirs.
In the traditional setting, the relationship between men and women was unequal. Women’s were everywhere subordinating
themselves to men in some way or another. In Europe, for instance, women were the property of their husbands or fathers.
Inequality of spouses extended to the sex life of man and women. Except for certain sections of the upper classes, sexuality was always dominated by reproduction. This was due to nature: in the absence of effective contraception, sex meant having
children. A woman usually had 10 or more pregnancies in her life. Tradition enhanced nature’s restriction of women sexuality.
According to tradition everywhere, men’s promiscuity was celebrated as masculinity. For women, however, promiscuity meant
looseness; their virtue rested on their sexlessness.
In a traditional family, children were not seen as individuals or bearers of rights. They were not reared for their own sake or for
the gratification of the parents but for the contribution they would make to the families fortune's.
These characteristics of the traditional family have been breaking up in recent decades mainly in the West. The women's
liberation movement has meant that women are now equal to men or are becoming so rapidly. Their rights are not only
enshrined in national and international law but also translated into reality.
In general, therefore, women are no longer full-time housewives and economically dependent on their husbands. They are
bread-earners in their own right and enjoy equal pay in most employment sectors. If women choose to marry now, it is no
longer for economic consideration but for considerations of love and sexual attraction.
In addition to the women's liberation movement, the discovery of the pill and other contraceptive devices have had a liberating
effect on women. They have meant that women’s sexuality need no longer be dominated by fear of pregnancy. Sex and
reproduction have been separated. Sexuality, which used to be defined so strictly in relation to marriage and legitimacy, now
has little connection to them at all.
Developments such as these have changed the traditional family beyond recognition. Only a minority of people now live in the
traditional family setting where both parents live together with their children of the marriage and where the mother is a full-time
housewife and the father a bread-winner. In some countries, more than a third of all births happen outside wedlock. The
preparation of people living alone has gone up steeply and looks likely to rise even more. In some countries like the US,
marriage is still popular but the divorce rate is at the same time very high. In Scandinavia, on the other hand, a large proportion
of people living together remain unmarried even when they have children. Up to a quarter of western women aged between 18
and 35 say they do not intend to have children and they appear to mean it.
The status of children has also changed radically over recent generations. Whereas under the traditional setting children used to
be wanted for their contribution to the family economy, they are now a great burden on the family’s budget. Consequently, the
decision of a couple to have children can no longer be guided by expectation of contribution from them, but by psychological
and emotional consideration like love and respect for off springs.
According to some, this has led to children being priced more than they used to be. Their rights are enshrined in national and
international law. Parents have to treat children properly; they cannot inflict corporal punishment on them; and they have to
consult them on matters concerning their interests. If parents breach duties such as these, the children can report them to social
workers or the police or even take them to court.
An anecdote has it that an Ethiopian living in the US was taken to court by his son aged 12 for scolding him. The father
apologized to the son profusely, readily accepted the courts’ reprimand and took his child home. Come summer holidays,
father took son to the grandparents in Wolo and left for the US without him. I don’t think he beat the son up in the traditional
manner when they got to Wolo.
Proponents of globalization insist that the changes to the family took place mainly in the West; that they are already happening in the rest of the world; and that it is a matter of time before they engulf the whole world. For example, in the wake of the Chinese cultural revolution, liberal marriage laws were passed: marriage was declared to be a working contract that can be dissolved "when husband and wife both desire it" or when affection is gone from the marriage even if one of the parties objects. Since then, the divorce rate has been rising rapidly particularly in the urban centers thus forcing the government to restrict divorce and protect the family.
Whether the changes that have taken place in connection with the family are beneficial or not is a matter of debate. Religious
fundamentalists from the US to the Islamic world, certain pressure groups and right-wing politicians see the changes as
unwelcome disintegration of the traditional family which they consider was the pillar of society. They condemn the rising tide of
the divorce rate as contravention of time honored tradition as well as the teachings of pain to the couple and their children.
Further, they fear that the growing number of children who are being brought up without fathers may develop adverse
psychological effects; and they resent single mothers who can't go out to work and, consequently, become a burden on the
national resources. Also, a lot of parents find it difficult to handle their increasingly unruly children and wish to go back to the
good old days when children were there to be seen and not heard.
Proponents of globalization, on the other hand, argue that the traditional family has been permanently replaced by the rise of the couple. Of course, coupledom was also an aspect of the traditional family in that it had within it the married husband and wife. However, as far as social life was concerned, the relationship between the couple was less important than the tie with children and with other members of the family. Today, however, coupledom has taken the center stage in the family set of coupling and decoupling. Whether the couples are married or not is no longer important. Statistically, marriage is in fact still the most important form of family set-up even in the West; however, its basis has changed to coupledom.
The couple came to be at the center of family life because that institution is no longer seen as an economic enterprise and as a
set up for procreation. Instead, it is viewed as being based on love, sexual attraction and emotional intimacy which is something
new to the family. Incidentally, it is because of the emergence of coupledom which is free from the shackles of procreation and
economic considerations that homosexual relations, including marriage, have come to be celebrated as part of the liberation
movement. To the proponents of the change, therefore, contemporary relationship between a couple and between parents and
children are now more egalitarian and domestic and, therefore, superior to what we had in the past.
Whether these changes implied by globalization have affected the Ethiopia traditional family structure requires further
investigation by the experts in the field. For instance, it needs to be established whether the divorce and marriage rates have
been increasing in recent years or not. If they have, we need establish whether they are a result of the emancipation of women
or not. Probably, the answer to these question is in the affirmative.
Even if to a lessor extent than men, women in the modern sector have been attending schools and institution of higher education
for a long time, they are employed in the public and private sectors quite extensively. They have access to contraceptive pills
and devices much like their counterparts in the west. Above all, they have produced activists who fight for the emancipation of
their sex. The rights of Ethiopia women are protected by traditional conventions and national laws. Given these developments, it is more likely than not that modern Ethiopia women are part of the world’s cosmopolitan society which globalization implies.
One of the results of these developments is that members of the clan have become less and less involved in the betrothal,
reconciliation and dissolution of marriage. It is, more than anything else, the consent of the couple that resolves these relations
and their termination. If this is so, it can be said that coupledom is making inroads into the Ethiopia traditional family system.
The position of children in the family is also changing. Ethiopian parents, at least those in the modern sector, have children for
the contribution they might make to the family’s economy but for their own sake. In fact, to have children is more and more a
burden to the family’s income as they have to be educated until they are about 20 years of ago.
Developments such as these make the world’s discourse on globalization relevant to Ethiopia. The basic issue of the debate is
whether the change to the family structure are good and must be encouraged or whether they are bad and must be rejected.
The course of history must in part at least be directed by thought and public debate.
(to be continued next week)