During my just ended June 2018 colour awareness campaign on “Break the Silence… Be A Sickle Cell Voice”, one young warrior lady asked me a very interesting question. That question sent my mind spiralling and it is today, the focus of this article. The #WealthOfWomen wave which seeks to empower women in various ways not only materially, gave fresh impetus to this thought I have been writing over and over in my mind for a while and just wishing I could miraculously blow them into my computer screen.
The intriguing question she asked was if there were any gender stereotypes with people living with sickle cell. I have never looked at it this way though I always know women with sickle cell have a slight disadvantage for the simple fact that they are women and society generally looks down on the womenfolk. Another thing I never looked at it through gendered lenses was because the excruciating pains, the financial burden, the stigma, the discrimination and the hospital stays and near death experiences know no gender. They affect both men and women in equal measure though in varying degrees.
That notwithstanding, when we look at the socio-economic and cultural context of living with sickle cell disease, the stereotypes are very visible, thereby bringing in the gendered lenses. I will pinpoint a few examples of this to explain why I say so.
When it comes to economic empowerment and job opportunities, the male sickle cell warrior is more likely to get that education, that job, that opportunity and why not, an even better pay than the female warrior. This is because the view is that he is a man. Forget the fact that female warriors face practically the same challenges living with sickle cell. The male with get that upper hand, worse if they have to talk about their health before having the job. Many more female sickle cell warriors have to hide their health status than men when looking for a job, have to wake up after a sleepless night to be at work because they are afraid of being fired by their boss, especially if they work with one who isn’t aware of their health status and is not open minded enough. In the educational domain, parents would most likely invest on their male warrior than the female because they believe the male have a far better chance at success. This has led to many impoverished, unemployed and less empowered female sickle cell warriors.
Socio-culturally, though both sexes face stigma and discrimination, the male sickle cell warrior is more likely to get married and raise a family than a female warrior. To be sure, both men and women warriors get married and raise families. However, the percentage of men is far higher than those of women. On the aspect of being their own person, the male warrior is more likely to get the go ahead to cut off the apron strings and embrace an independent life style than the female. In a society where many still believe a single woman living alone is most likely a loose woman, many sickle cell warrior women with no source of income or even with a source of income but no significant other are forced to stay with their families until such a time their prince charming comes to sweep them off. When that doesn’t happen, they may either fight for themselves or live a permanent dependency life on their families. This leads to depression and sadness as the ability to exploit whatever talent they have is permanently suppressed. For the male warrior, he is pushed to pursue an independent lifestyle to prepare him for the future because he is after all, a MAN.
Maybe there are other instances where gender stereotypes come in when we look at the lives of sickle cell warriors. These three instances are the ones that come readily to mind when I think about the question of that young warrior on gender stereotypes in sickle cell. Everything considered, I believe female sickle cell warriors pay double for being female and warriors in a society that already look down on women and people with some form of disability or chronic health situation.
It is for this reason that the more I hear women caring for or living with sickle cell talk about their everyday challenges, the more I think of ways I can best empower female sickle cell warriors as I carry on my break the silence campaign. It is for this reason we have to keep speaking up. We have to join our collective voices to break the silence around sickle cell anaemia and by so doing, break the taboos, the restrictions placed on female warriors, the stigma, and the stereotypes and empower more female sickle cell warriors to find their worth and be productive members of their communities and the world at large.