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The Gender of Necessity: Beer and Lipstick in Rural Uganda

An array of ordinary goods used to test whether the notion of “necessity” is an expression of gender power in Uganda.

People often talk easily about the difference between necessities and luxuries in a way that implies we all can agree about what goes into each category. These kinds of judgments have been particularly problematic on several of my projects because when consumer goods–sanitary pads, lipstick, whatever–are involved in an economic empowerment idea, critics immediately imagine you are corrupting the poor by introducing them to “things they don’t need.”

In fact, the idea of what is necessary varies a lot over time and around the world. For instance, in the United States, it is illegal to lease housing that does not include plumbing, electricity, or heat. Such spaces are said to be “uninhabitable.” Yet most of the people around the world live without any of them. Less than 100 years ago, most Americans did, too.

Even in the same place and time–even within the same household–there are differences in what people consider necessary. Who gets to decide, inside the home, what is necessary–and therefore will be financially supported–is the one in charge.  It’s a matter of power, on a micro-scale. My student, Laurel, and I thought we could demonstrate gender power differences by looking at what people thought was necessary for a household and what was not.

These ladies were quite sure their households “never” bought beer. The men reported buying it every day, but they don’t tell their wives.

We were in a very remote area of Uganda. First, we did a little reconnaissance, led by our friends from Plan Uganda, to get a sense of what items were commonly bought. Then, we went shopping in the market center, purchasing items that seemed likely to be acquired daily (paraffin, cooking oil), things that we thought were purchased less often (toilet soap, toothpaste), and “luxury” items that we thought were heavily gendered (cigarettes, alcohol, and phone cards versus sanitary pads, hair extensions, and face cream).

These guys, very solemn in front of the camera, were full of laughter as they did the “necessity exercise.”  They told us candidly that the average man spends $2 a day for beer.

Then, we traveled out to villages where small groups of men and women had agreed to meet with us. We would set the goods out on a long bench or table in front of a gathering of males or females. Then we would ask them to group the goods according to several schemes. First, we would ask for them to group things by what was purchased frequently versus seldom (or only on special occasions) versus never. Then we asked for things the men bought versus what women bought. And so on. Perhaps our most interesting grouping was “things men think are necessary but women don’t” and “things women think are necessary but men don’t.”

First, let me say that this turned out to be a lot of fun. People laughed and joked and played. We learned as much from facial expressions, body language, and arguments as from the final groupings. The groups with both men and women present were perhaps the funniest of all.

But what we learned really wasn’t very funny. Women had little control over currency–the men work for cash, the women just work–but the real issue was mobility. Women not only seldom had money in their hands, they simply could never get to a place where the “luxury” items were sold. They were held down by work and by small children. The men, however, went into the towns often–sometimes to work–and so had both access to goods and the cash to buy.

Without realizing what it was, I walked into a tavern while men gathered around the communal pot of brew, drinking through long tubes. They were as shocked as I was (you can imagine the 6′ white lady walks, alone, into this preserve), and we all laughed ourselves silly. They then kindly let me take this picture.

Beer was seen as a necessity by the men, but not the women. Nevertheless, beer was probably the most frequently purchased item:  we were told men spent an average of $2.00 a day.  Sanitary pads were never bought, even for menstruating girls going to school (they cost about $1.00 a month).

Men explained to us that the ritual of beer-drinking, done each evening around a pot of home brew and purchased in rounds, was essential if a man was to be considered a member of the community. The men shared the cost so that each could go home most nights and tell his wife that someone else had bought the beer.  Some wives denied their husbands bought beer. Most knew they did, but believed little money was being spent because their spouses were being “treated.”  In truth, of course, the ritual practice averaged out to a considerable daily expenditure for each individual man.

Rituals of group membership should not be casually dismissed.  Especially in an impoverished rural setting, people are dependent on each other and solidarity is necessary to survival.  Men play specific and important roles in traditional groups.  We “moderns” may not like this, but it is nevertheless a fact that must be engaged. Participating in the beer ritual is a basic element of what it is to be a man. It is necessary for dignity.

However, a teenage girl’s dignity is not worth much in such communities.  And her value is still tied to issues of sexuality, rather than education. Neither the girl nor her mother have much power over purchase decisions, even if they earn some money through farming or selling.  Their income is thought insubstantial (though seldom actually calculated) and so their power remains equally insubstantial.

Here is our team (except for Laurel, who took the picture): from left, Rebecca, Carolyne, Tinah, me (looking awful, but oh well) , and Joyce.

All our respondents agreed that girls in secondary school needed sanitary pads.  But, in Uganda, this stage of education is usually done away from home, in a boarding school that will likely require the parents to provide sanitary pads.  The women said the men just didn’t think about the fear their daughters had of being embarrassed in school, nor did they consider that this fear might keep them from going to school at all.  And mothers were afraid to bring up the topic, partly because of the taboo on discussing menstrual matters, but also because they had to choose their battles.  Since wives had to beg for anything that was purchased, they only did so for very important arguments they thought they could win. The men admitted they did know the lack of pads was a problem for their daughters, but since no one asked them, they could simply ignore it.  Shrugs all around.

And I guess they could afford to be cavalier.  Few girls make it through primary school, in part because of this problem. So, the whole cycle becomes self-fulfilling.  The men say education isn’t important for girls, the girls don’t get financial support for education, the daughters drop out of school, and the community proceeds with the shared wisdom that learning and femininity simply don’t mix.

We found a consistent chasm between the things men thought were necessary but women did not (beer, phone cards, batteries, but not usually cigarettes) and things women thought were necessary but men did not (always sanitary pads but sometimes toilet soap, face cream, hair extensions, and lipstick).  However, money was spent frequently for the first group of items, but not for the second.

Much as beer was necessary to being male, the “female necessities” were seen as basic to being female, even though the women went without these goods most of the time. As a parallel argument, the women said that grooming products were a matter of dignity, a sign someone valued herself and was valued by others.  So, it was easy to see that beer and hair extensions somehow sat in the same place among the gender hierarchy of goods, but the purchase frequency was determined by the greater power of the males.

I was reminded of how often buying cosmetics is seen as a corruptive influence by development experts.  These folks turn a blind eye to the beer-drinking in such moments, though this phenomenon is well known in such circles.  They behave as if beer were more necessary than sanitary pads (or, for that matter, lipstick). They seem not to know that a bigger amount of money is “wasted” on beer than on anything else.  And they act as if beer did not do more damage to the family than a packet of pads (or a tube of lipstick). These moral judgments are the traces of our own gendered hierarchy of goods.