New Internationalist

Old ideas die slowly

Issue 090

Cape Verde gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. Since then the women of this rocky island nation have done much to win their rights. Nonetheless traces of the colonial past linger on. Susan Hurlich sends this report.

Photo: Susan Hurlich
Cape Verde stonemason Lucia. A positive sign of a new regime. Photo: Susan Hurlich

There are four women stonemasons here,’ said Lucia, a construction worker in Praia, Cape Verde. ‘Before independence women could not be stonemasons or machine operators or many other things. But this is starting to change now. I’m even one of the representatives of the Civil Construction Union. But it’s not easy to get women into the union. It takes a lot of time to convince them that it’s in their interests as workers, and not just as women. We move slowly, but we move.’ Before the small West African country of Cape Verde, 455 kilometres off the coast of Senegal, won its independence from the Portuguese in 1975, words like Lucia’s would not have been heard. Nor would women have been found working on construction sites. The tiny archipelago of Cape Verde consists of ten major and five minor islands. The Portuguese, with slave labour from the mainland, used the .islands for 500 years for sugar cane, banana and cotton plantations. Since Cape Verde was originally unpopulated, the Portuguese had to bring African women from the coast. Their children were then groomed to be ‘honorary Portuguese’ and serve as administrators in the mainland colony of Guinea Bissau.

When the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), the former liberation movement and now government, was founded in 1956, the rights of women were part and parcel of their programme from the start. ‘Before we had a National Women’s Organisation,’ said Co-ordinator Maria das Dores Pires, ‘we had regional commissions on the islands of Saotiago, Sal, Sao Nicolau and Sao Vicente. They were made up of women who were militant and politically conscious. Along with the PAIGC they formed the National Organisation in June 1978. The goal was to help coordinate actions on all the islands and try to deal with problems like illiteracy among women.’

Eighty to 90 per cent of the women in Cape Verde are illiterate, compared to 60-65 per cent of the men. Before Independence women’s education was not a high priority. They rarely had the opportunity to attend school. Instead they stayed home, caring for children, doing housework and trying to feed their families.

With national independence, the education policy in Cape Verde changed. It became a top priority to educate women and mobilize them for productive work. Basic literacy campaigns placing special emphasis on women were set up by the Organisation of Women in cooperation with the new government.

Years of drought, uncontrolled deforestation by Portuguese companies and abusive plantation economies have ruined the land. As a result, there is chronic emigration of men who have no work. Today there are some 300,000 Cape Verdeans in the USA, Senegal, Brazil and elsewhere. Another 300,000 are scattered throughout the islands. As a result women are often the sole support for their families.

‘This emigration of men is very serious,’ Maria said. ‘Because of traditions and a strong Roman Catholic upbringing, women usually have seven or eight children. Most accept that they come second and must be submissive, and that men can do what they want. Many women still don’t know they have rights. For instance, the Organisation of Women and the Ministry of Justice held a meeting in 1979 to discuss the laws which protect women and children. But few women came’

Because of colonialism’s legacy Cape Verde has no lumber to build houses, no means of catching and holding water and no arable land to cultivate food crops and graze livestock. So a major task is to help the earth be reborn and productive. But Cape Verdeans must also develop training centres, schools, clinics, transportation and communication networks and recreational facilities. The Organisation of Women stresses that women must be involved in all these tasks.

One of the most important tasks women are involved in is a massive water and soil conservation programme on four of the islands - a programme supported by Oxfam-Canada and other international development agencies. Cape Verde is in the twelfth year of serious drought. Combined with flash flooding when rains do occur, this means a steady loss of plants and soil cover throughout the year. Last year for the third year in a row the maize crop, one of the main foods on the islands, was lost.

Rolando Limabarber-Zuca as he is locally known - is the government representative on Fogo Island. He explained how Cape Verdeans are losing their land as it is washed into the sea. To prevent this, an intricate system of dykes and little curved stone walls have been built on the islands of Fogo, Saotiago, Sao Nicolau and Santa Antao.

‘These dykes and walls follow the slopes,’ Zuca told us. ‘By trapping water they catch the soil and help keep it in place. The rocks to build the walls are carried by hand, and women work alongside men.’

As Zuca drove us around Fogo, we met many workers constructing stone walls and repairing roads. Each brigade has 50 members, 15 women and 35 men drawn from local rural communities.

‘The men get $1.90 per day while the women get $1.46 for the same work.’ Zuca said. ‘This difference in salary is one of the bad habits left over from before independence. But it’s slowly changing. Already in some areas men and women get the same pay for the same work. Some women are also trained as truck drivers and supervisors of work brigades, though the numbers are still small. Old ideas die slowly.

Adelcia Pires, President of the Pioneiros Abel Djassi - an organisation for children from 7-14 - told us:

‘The Pioneiros is only three years old. We’re looking forward to what will happen when these young girls get older. For us, they represent the new women of Cape Verde.’

‘The new women of Cape Verde’ is the goal. But no one pretends it is achieved. Only that it has begun. Women have become more involved in developing an independent nation and challenging traditional attitudes which before kept them at home. They are learning on the job at construction sites. They are being urged to join carpentry workshops - already in Praia a small toy factory is being run by women. Sewing courses have been set up by the Organisation of Women on the islands of Saotiago and Sao Vicente, and more are planned for six other islands.

These sewing courses are important because they introduce women to an area of work that was formerly a male preserve. Sewing was seen as requiring male technical knowledge to run a machine.

The changes occurring in the lives of women are also visible elsewhere in Cape Verde. Family planning centres have been established for maternal and infant health care. Kindergartens on Saotiago and Sao Vincente provide day care mainly for children of extremely poor families.

‘We try to implement PAIGC ideas on the liberation of women at an early age,’ one of the workers explained, ‘but sometimes the children won’t do something because their fathers or mothers don’t do it at home. We don’t force the children when this happens; we know that doesn’t work. But we encourage them to try new things.’

This December the first National Conference of the Organisation of Women will be held. Problems will be discussed and new programmes hammered out. ‘We want the Organisation of Women to be a mass group - not a party organisation,’ Maria told us. ‘But we are still very short of trained leaders who understand the problems of Cape Verdean women. We have a lot to do and not enough women to do it - yet.’

Susan Hurlich is an Oxfam-Canada Project Development Officer in Southern: Africa. She visited Cape Verde in April 1980.

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