The message that we invariably get about women in African society assumes that her true dignity is based on her submission to their male counterpart, being good wives and on their ability to give birth, particularly to a boy child. This perspective not only affects the dignity of African women but also hinders their development and contribution towards society. However, this attitude has been challenged by John Paul II in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem, on Dignity and Vocation of Women, when he stresses:
“A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary person, and the demand is increasingly made that persons should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty.”
The Pope challenges us to accept the truth that a woman is a person equally created in the image and likeness of her creator. “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” A woman is a unique and distinct creature and will remain so for all eternity. For this reason, a contemporary African is challenged and encouraged to no longer see femininity as a source of discord, but rather as the possibility for collaboration, and something to be celebrated and respected. Admittedly, a woman’s dignity as presented in Mulieris Dignitatem is based on a new culture that respects and welcomes femininity. For a woman has a responsible autonomy to lead her own life. This realization will open up new perspectives for a deeper understanding of the dignity of women and their role in human society and in the Church. It challenges traditional limitations placed on women and instead announces their due respect and dignity. It places emphasis on her self over things, on her being over what she has or can offer. Again in Mulieris Dignitatem 30, John Paul II affirms that her dignity is closely connected with the love which she receives by the very reason of her femininity and the love which she gives in return. No wonder Benedict XVI in his message of the Bishops of Africa, points out that Jesus wants each one of us, women included, to stand up on her/his feet to rediscover the courage to ask for what belongs to her/his dignity.
Indeed, the apostolic letter, Mulieirs Dignitatem, empowers and calls upon the African girl and woman to realize her worth, a dignity that comes from being created in the image of her creator, God.
Sr. Veronica Jemanyur Rop is a member of the Assumption Sisters of Eldoret, a local congregation based in Kenya. She is currently undergoing her doctoral studies in Sacred Theology with a specialization in Moral theology. The topic of her dissertation is “Gender Equality: A Study of the Participation of Women in Integral Human Development Among the Kalenjin in the Catholic Diocese of Eldoret-Kenya.”