New Internationalist

Wives and Daughters

Issue 389

Women mean business… An FGM-free zone… Men marrying more than one wife – and how women feel about that…

Chat, support and income: the Kobenka Women’s Group under their spreading tree. Félicité and Rianatu are in the centre wearing bright green and orange.

‘A man cooking a meal? You’re joking – he wouldn’t know where to start!’

I am sitting in the spreading shade of a tree with the 22 members of the Kobenka Women’s Group. Ten years ago I met a recently formed women’s group in the Bidiga district, but there was then no such equivalent in Sabtenga proper; the Kobenka group started meeting under this tree twice a month about seven years ago.

Women’s groups here tend to come about less through an awareness of marginalization or oppression by men than through manifest practical need. Men take primary responsibility for the main food crops – mainly millet, but also some sorghum and rice – that will see the family through the year, and will tend to regard a depleted granary in a drought year with a sense of some shame, as if their own masculinity has thereby been impugned.

Women are also required to work in the fields on these crops, in addition to taking responsibility for gathering water, pounding and winnowing grain, preparing food. These domestic duties are well known but it is less recognized that in a subsistence farming community it is generally the women who need to find the money for all the small expenses required to keep a family going, from bits of meat or condiments to enliven the basic food, to money for clothes and even school fees (see ‘A Tale of Two Girls’, page 14).

This is why so many women are now interested in income-generating opportunities. The Kobenka women pay 50 francs (about 9 US cents) a month to be members, which effectively gives them access to microcredit, and all of them of have used this to fund their own business activities – usually selling a foodstuff like peanuts or haricot beans in the market.

The motivation for coming together may be individual need but that does not mean the group has no collective life. The women have planted a hectare of trees in the village, for example, up near Bidiga, evidence of the relatively recent awareness in the village that ‘trees bring the rain’. And any regular meeting of women under a tree for the afternoon is bound to involve some sharing of gripes about men as well as sheer enjoyment of each other’s company.

Their goal, they say, is to cultivate their own field of peanuts – perhaps in two years’ time – and thereby generate more significant amounts of money that will make their lives easier. To make this happen, they will have to ask the Chief for a patch of land. Might he refuse, I ask? ‘Just let him try,’ they say, with heartening faith in their own collective power.

They will also have to hire two oxen from one of their menfolk, and plan to work the field on Fridays, a day on which the Muslim men tend not to work the land because they need to pray so often – not that women are not also devout, but formal prayer is definitely seen in the village as more of a male preserve. I suggest that they will perhaps be able to see their work on the peanut field as a labour of Allah, which they find an amusing idea.

Here’s looking at you, kid: seven-month-old Nasiru faces the camera’s challenge bravely as proud mother Bintu looks on.

The Kobenka group is another sign of significant progress compared with 1985 and 1995. Twenty years ago the main theme of our film was the crushing nature of women’s work – it was a dramatic visualization of statistics that showed women in Burkina were spending an average of 4 hours a day fetching water, 2-3 hours a day pounding grain and another 4 hours every 2 or 3 days gathering firewood. One memorable shot from the film showed a woman from a distance, labouring under the most immense load of firewood carried on her head – one that was twice as wide and almost as tall as she was.

Thank goodness for donkeys

Today, donkey carts have reduced women’s workload hugely, bringing back crops from the fields and water from the pump as well as firewood. Even the time spent pounding and winnowing grain has been potentially reduced by the presence of mechanized mills in the villages, though many women still choose to do this work themselves rather than hand over a fee to the miller.

It is effectively this reduced time spent on routine daily work that has made it possible for women to pursue their own income-generating activities – and earn themselves a measure of material autonomy.

Small wonder, then, that when I ask the Kobenka group if women’s position is better than it was 10 years ago there is a vigorous nodding of heads. None of the women, though, is young enough to have benefited from another major revolution in the lives of girls and women in the village – one that was already well under way on my last visit. The vast majority of girls in Burkina Faso still suffer genital mutilation – the removal of the clitoris (and sometimes also the labia minora) by a razor cut – as they enter adolescence. In 1985 I found that Mariama was the first woman in the village to have taken a stand against clitoridectomy and was refusing to let her eldest daughter Memnatu go under the knife. When I returned in 1995 it was with my heart in my mouth – would she have been forced to conform by pressure from traditional forces in the village?

Instead I found what seemed like a miracle – though one with very practical, political roots. Far from caving in, I found that Mariama and other women like her had effectively won the argument. A mixture of their persuasion and the Government’s radio campaigns had convinced the Chief that the practice urgently needed to be discontinued (mainly because of its dreadful implications for health, which can leave girls infertile, disabled or even dead). He had held village-wide meetings to announce his conversion and promised that he would notify the authorities if he heard of any further cases in the area under his jurisdiction. By the time I appeared on the scene the whole community seemed to have been won round – with the single exception of the ancient imam, who refused to be swayed by this new orthodoxy.

Resisting genital mutilation

Naturally I announced this triumph in the magazine 10 years ago, in a piece called ‘The Razor’s End’. I am happy to report that the revolution has been maintained and that another generation of the village’s girls have not been harmed in the interim. But the story remains remarkable in the sense that Sabtenga appears to be an isolated island of safety.

National campaigns against female genital mutilation (FGM) have, if anything, been even more omnipresent and unequivocal over the last decade. It was formally outlawed in 1996 and Burkina was, as of 2002, one of only four African countries that actually had punished offenders. Those who practise it risk a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment and a fine of about $1,700 – and anyone knowing about excisions but failing to report them can also be fined around $190, which gives real teeth to the Chief’s promise to turn offenders over to the police.

Yet covert ‘operations’ still undoubtedly go on – probably still afflicting the majority of girls even in the villages immediately surrounding Sabtenga. The village women have an understandable pride in their own achievement in maintaining an ‘FGM-free’ zone. And the health benefits to their daughters are indisputable. But I wonder also what impact this revolution is now having on women’s enjoyment of sex, which is inevitably vastly diminished in those who have been mutilated.

I push my luck rather by raising this question directly in the Kobenka group, amid a group of mainly Muslim women. But I’m pretty confident they will be intrigued rather than offended and I am proved right – mass hilarity erupts and there ensues a series of lively interchanges. Naturally I would love to know what was said but tell them that I won’t ask for a translation and that they are lucky I don’t understand much Bissa, which provokes more laughter.

In my experience the people of the village are as keen on making jokes about sex as anyone else in the world – I still remember my shock 10 years ago when a woman pointed to my crotch and told me, chuckling, that the Bissa word for what she was indicating was weri and that her equivalent was a bidi. So much for concern about local sensitivities…

Western interest in questions of sex also inevitably impinges on the question of polygamy – still the norm in the village. Two of the women in the Kobenka group, Félicité and Rianatu, are married to the same man, Ousmane, and I do my best to get to understand the view of polygamy from both male and female sides through talking to them.

A bigamist’s view

As is perhaps inevitable, I make more headway on this with Ousmane, the good-humoured and intelligent 42-year-old who is pictured talking into his mobile phone on Page 9. His photo also appeared in the magazine 10 years ago, showing him fishing in the nearby lake. At that point he had not long returned to the village following an unsuccessful attempt to set himself up as a car mechanic in the capital, Ouagadougou. Soon after, as one of the village’s most literate citizens, he was offered a job in the clinic selling prescription medicines, though he accepts he may soon have to relinquish this if his 65-year-old father becomes too infirm to fulfil his role as head of the family and primary food-provider. And, according to Ousmane, it was this reality of life as a subsistence farmer which governed his decision to take a second wife.

‘If you’re a farmer here and you only have one wife, it’s more or less impossible to manage the work in the fields. If you had only one wife, what would happen if she was ill? And who would look after the children anyway when the work needed doing in the fields? For me, it’s not a question of religion, it’s just practical.’

I ask if sex has anything to do with the decision to take on a second wife.

‘No, it’s not a question of sex either – you don’t need more than one woman for that. Do jealousies creep in? Yes, they can do. But that’s why it’s vital to treat them both equally – to spend one week with one wife and the next with the other. This principle is very important, and is backed up by religion. The Qur’an says: “love them on the same footing of equality.”’

I ask if he sought his first wife’s permission before marrying a second time.

‘Comrades, there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence.’ - Thomas Sankara, March 1987..

‘No – and if I had she would have said no. But that made it all the more essential that I did it without consulting her. It was necessary and I’m sure she now has a better life as a result – and she would tell you so too.’

I try to put this to the test by interviewing both Félicité and Rianatu a few days later but am fascinated to find that Ousmane insists on being present, despite my suggestion that his wives might be more comfortable talking if he were not there. He looks very ill at ease, too, which is most unlike him, so he is clearly finding this experience a touch threatening. In the circumstances I can’t expect to get much out of his wives.

As her name implies, Félicité came from a monogamous Christian background and had to convert to Islam to marry Ousmane. This indicates the relaxed way in which inter-religious marriage is regarded locally – Christians and Muslims often co-exist within the same concession. She says she understood clearly that Ousmane might one day take another wife. I ask if she would have said no if he had actually asked her permission but she does not want to say. Instead, both Félicité and Rianatu come out with the standard line on polygamy of the co-wives in the village – that it’s good to have help with the domestic work and childcare as well as the support of a friend in the household. They say, when pressed, that there are occasions when they band together against their husband if he is in the wrong – and Ousmane chips in, agreeing that this certainly happens and that there is much more give and take than there used to be in the old days when the man’s word was final.

Ousmane’s notion that polygamy is an essential concomitant of the subsistence farming lifestyle is still widely held in the village. Ten years ago from my talks with teenage boys I had something of a sense that polygamy was coming to be seen as an outdated institution and was likely to fall into disrepair. But there is little sign of it yet.

The Government line on polygamy

In the course of my stay the most important political official in the region, the Haute-Commissaire from Tenkodogo, comes to Sabtenga to explain to people that their village has been selected as part of a UNICEF-sponsored pilot project gathering population data such as births, marriages and deaths. The question-and-answer session afterwards is dominated by (male) villagers’ concern that if they formally register their marriages they will not be allowed to marry again, rendering (they say) the life of a farmer impossible. The Haute-Commissaire’s line is interesting: polygamy is discouraged but ‘tolerated’ by the Government. If at the point a man and woman are married they say clearly that a second, third or fourth marriage is planned, there will be no problem. If it has not been mentioned from the outset then the first wife’s permission must formally be sought.

Relations between men and women are changing very slowly – peu à peu (bit by bit) – the Kobenka women conclude. Women’s daily work burden has been reduced, though they are inevitably tending to fill the time with other kinds of work that will benefit their families. But there is no sign at all that men are sharing any more of the duties around the home. I tell them that if I return in a further 10 years’ time I shall expect not only to see their own peanut field but also to eat a meal cooked by one of their husbands. They laugh – and it is not at the idea of the peanuts.

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