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Waking up to women

With her striking features and her face full of laughter as she shelters from the torrential downpour, the young northern Ethiopian girl has a kind of beauty unusual around here. Under the crumbling Italianate porch, she waits for the squall to pass, her sodden garment of rough cotton cloth showing clearly the outline of her figure. And where does she come in, this teenage girl, to the women’s liberation movement, in either its Western or its Third World form?

At the moment, she is less concerned with women’s rights than with the favourite preoccupations of all girls her age, as she chats and flirts with the young men streaming down the road in the wet. Shrouded from head to foot in the strange hooded mats they wear as protection against the rain, the men whip onwards their laden mules and donkeys. For it is market day in Selekleka, this one-horse town in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigre. She carries in her hands her own produce for market: long dark-green talla shoots with their roots embedded in an old tin can. It is from talla that Ethiopian women brew a thin, bitter-tasting beer in the heavy earthenware jars they use for carrying water. The talla leaves ferment, making an intoxicating liquor, but at least a drinking supply that is no longer contaminated. This is just one of their daily occupations, and today they put it to good financial effect in Selekleka: outside almost every hut flutters the little blue rag that signals a talla house. Yet should the government and UN experts from Addis Abbaba or Axum drive through Selekleka in their pristine Land Rovers, they would probably see those flags more as a sign of country people’s decadence that of ‘economic activity’ on the part of women. The things women do to help their families survive in this rocky corner of a very poor country are unlikely even to be noticed, are certainly not registered in any survey, and probably not remotely considered in any plan for the area’s development.

The young Tigrean girl stands bold and erect, her back not yet permanently bowed from the weight of the great water jars she must regularly carry from the stream. Nor is her body yet flaccid or misshapen from bearing children year after year. But it will be. By the time she is 30, she will look 50 more than likely, and have born 10 children of which probably only four will have lived past the age of five, unless by some freak she is one of the minute handful of girl primary school students who get to secondary school and a life in town – maybe as a servant. Or there is, of course, another kind of life in town for girls with her looks, as Addis Abbaba’s red light district bears ample witness. Would the experts call that occupation ‘economically active’? Who can say.

As in most of Africa, market day in Selekleka is quite an occasion. Most of the buying and selling as far as food is concerned is done by the women. They tend to market the produce because they are the ones chiefly involved in growing it. In the town ‘square’, an occupying force of resolute ladies sit behind a bright array of oddly coloured food-stuffs. There is bright orange beriberi, or chili peppers, yellow cardamom, greyish pepper-corns, chickpeas, beans, greenish berries. Not meat, of course: like almost everything to do with cattle, that is handled by men. So is any skilled craft work – the predictable jobs like blacksmithing and carpentry, but also anything to do with cloth. The women pick, clean, spin and card raw cotton, but it is woven by men, embroidered by men, sewn by men. Its manufacture is an important job in cold, mountainous terrain like this can be. Any job here which carries status – which denotes a skill or a training that can be marketed for cash – is exclusively a male preserve. Which is why the women’s contributions to family welfare are conventionally ignored.

Blinkered and absurd

But even the most casual inspection of the Ethiopian countryside – or the countryside anywhere in the Third World for that matter – shows up this attitude as blinkered and absurd. The number of tasks carried out by women, especially rural women, is far greater than that done by men. Women do the cooking, cleaning, care for the children, fetch the water, gather the fuel. They hold responsibility for agriculture side by side with the men, and often have exclusive responsibility for food-growing. They do the weeding, manuring, harvesting, winnowing, shelling, and storing of the crops. They tend domestic and farm animals – with the exception of the cows which they milk but rarely herd or handle for ploughing. They also usually take the produce to and from market, even when it means walking 25 or 30 kilometres with a baby on the back and a child at the side. And the sight of a woman on a bicycle, or pushing a wheelbarrow, is almost unheard of.

The things women do to help their families survive in this rocky corner of a very poor country are unlikely even to be noticed

There is absolutely no excuse for the consistent failure of those in charge of local administration, or agricultural development schemes, or the siting of schools and health facilities, or any of the other modern innovations of the colonial and post-colonial eras in Africa, to see and take into account the evidence that is in front of their eyes. Except, perhaps, male bias. As long ago as 1930 a German geographer drew a map which showed that in the whole of the Congo region, in large parts of South East and East Africa and in parts of West Africa, women performed every single task in relation to food production, with the single exception of the felling of large trees to make way for the preparation of new land in areas where the traditional agricultural pattern was to farm a patch for a few years, and move on when it had lost its goodness. To be fair, the men did have other things to do in those days: hunting wild game and sending aggressors packing. In many parts of Africa south of the Sahara today, the exclusive concern of the womenfolk with food both before and after harvest still persists, as is shown by the Zaire case study in this issue.

Africa is the extreme example of a place in the Third World where women’s work is never done and, more important, usually disregarded. But even if they do not support the family almost single-handed like many of their African sisters, women in Asia and Latin America also make a vital economic contribution to their family fortunes, even where they are inhibited by living behind the total seclusion of the veil. Certain home industries – batik in Java, hand-woven carpets in Iran, handmade cigars in the Caribbean – have been traditionally female preserves. But the pattern of change – call it modernization, Westernization, industrialization – of the past 30 years has made things almost consistently worse for women, not better. Sure, there are more schools and hospitals, maternity centres and family planning clinics. But conversely the pressure of people on resources means that food is more difficult to grow, or to earn the money to buy; a clean supply of water may be further way, and fuel scarcer. With all the extra work, therefore, that women’s daily round entails, where are the ones who have time for the literacy classes and the nutrition demonstrations?

Legacy of colonization

The legacy for women of Western colonization is mostly heart-rending. In the countryside, it was the planters’ rule which started the process of their downgrading. On the tea estates of Ceylon, women were recruited as a deliberate policy so that wages could be kept low. After all, went the argument, women are dependents – they don’t need to be paid so well as men. On the cotton and palm, sisal and coffee plantations established in most of Africa, the labour recruitment policy was the exact reverse: employment opportunities were offered mainly to young, unmarried men, whose families were able to maintain themselves by the work of the women back in the villages. The system of migrant labour in the South African mines today is a hangover from the days when the extraction of raw materials from the colonies was accompanied by a policy of excluding women even from the vicinity of the place of work. The terrible havoc this wreaked, and still wreaks today, on family life was actually supported by missionary anxiety to keep away the brewers of beer and the sellers of sex from men with money in their pockets.

The division of labour which has kept women away from the job market has meant that they have been forced to hang on to their food-producing role, while being denied the opportunity to grow crops for cash. The lack of access to jobs has also meant little or no access to money – although this has been the very era when people out in the villages have been forced into the cash economy by sheer need. Back in the cities, the officials of the Ministries of Agriculture and the foreign experts breathing down their necks, have been avid to earn more foreign exchange to pay for ever-lengthening import bills. So their concern has all been to promote cash crops, and leave the food crops to take care of themselves. Or rather, for the women to take care of.

Women do the cooking, cleaning, care for the children, fetch the water, gather the fuel. They hold responsibility for agriculture side by side with the men, and often have exclusive responsibility for food-growing

Agricultural extension officers visit the men, not the women, with their advice about new tools and fertilizers. Training courses in modern agricultural techniques have no places on them for women applicants. Intermediate technology inventions – for making bricks, or better ploughshares – have almost all been directed at lightening the male workload. And modern technology – tractors and diggers – actually increase women’s work by putting more land under cultivation for them to weed, and manure, and plant, and harvest. And as women are expected in most societies only to work in connection with the home, parents do not see the same purpose in sending their girl children to school as sending their boys. Girls grow up, therefore, steeped in the old ignorant ways of their mothers. Society and home make rural women into the first enemies of progressive change.

If women have fared badly in the countryside, how has it been in the towns? Part of the answer lies in the appalling factory and sweat-shop conditions that seem unavoidable in the early stages of anyone’s industrial revolution. But as far as women specifically have been concerned, the main result has been for them to lose their jobs. On the one hand, women are relieved by the growth of manufacturing industry from the bind of making all the household necessities – pots, jars, baskets, receptacles; carpets and tents among Middle Eastern nomadic peoples – which they do in almost all subsistence societies. On the other, they can no longer earn: the textile mills of Ahmedabad, or way across the world in Lancashire, have caused them to lay down their bobbins and put their spinning wheels away. For textiles, to take just one classic case, can be made so much more cheaply in a factory. What are the women to do? They weren’t working in the first place for a little extra pin money, or merely for creative joy. A large proportion of women in the labour force in Third World cities are often the divorced or widowed, and either very young or fairly old. For these people, working outside the home was no act of liberated choice, no personal breakthrough, but the desperate resort of those who lack any other means of support.

More work, less money

In view of these vicious effects of modernization on both women in towns and women in the countryside, what have the relevant agencies – governments, the UN and voluntary organizations – been doing to help women since they first coined slogans like ‘Freedom from Hunger’? Firstly, there was the assumption that development schemes were non-discriminatory: everyone would benefit. It wasn’t thought necessary to consider the existing pattern of sex-roles before rushing ahead with new agricultural ventures, for example. One small example where this neglect actually wrecked a development project is at Mwea in Kenya. Families moved from their traditional villages to settle there and cultivate rice under irrigation as a cash crop. But the plots provided for the women to grow the traditional family diet were far too small. It was the women, too, who did most work in the rice fields, but as the men were the ‘members’ of the scheme, they received the cash. More work and less money, therefore, for the women, even though they now needed cash in a way they never used to, in order to buy the food they could no longer grow and the fuel they could no longer gather.

The division of labour which has kept women away from the job market has meant that they have been forced to hang on to their food-producing role

Where development schemes have been devised specially with women in mind, they have usually been concerned with healthcare and safe water. Another way that women have been singled out for attention by well-meaning development workers is in encouraging them to make and sell ‘traditional’ handicrafts. These particular schemes manage to epitomize with dreadful irony the downgraded position of women in Third World societies. Firstly, they invariably reflect Western bias about women’s roles and aptitudes. Often the crafts promoted are in no sense traditional to the particular place, and therefore the materials have to be imported: tie-dying in Tanzania, for example. Secondly, even where they do have genuine roots – jute hanging baskets in Bangladesh, traditionally used for storing food away from infestated floors – they are no longer a central contribution to the local economy. Instead, they are fripperies, made to serve the whims of a tourist or foreign export market, hooked temporarily on ethnic fashion. These totally peripheral occupations reinforce women’s position on the outskirts of the outskirts of society.

It was in an atmosphere of growing consciousness that existing development policies were leaving women out of the picture and actually worsening their lot that 1975 was declared International Women’s Year. There was always a danger that the spectacle of petticoats descending on Mexico City for a World Conference would be held up for ridicule, and in the event it was too much for the media to resist. The resultant publicity obscured the central debate, bitterly fought out between the women of the developed and the women of the less-developed worlds.

Is the first priority development, or is it equality between the sexes? From the Third World, egalitarian aims appear legitimate and justified, but on the whole women are more concerned with bettering their chances of survival. That most Third World societies demonstrate quite terrible inequalities between men and women is unchallenged and unchallengeable. The sale of small girls into prostitution is still common in parts of Asia, and the practices of polygamy and clitorectomy still exist quite widely in Africa. But many vigorous champions of women’s rights from the Third World still feel that the first steps towards women’s liberation in their countries involve life and death matters like minimal health services and fuller stomachs. Trivia like ‘chairperson’ and other linguistic irritations can wait, they feel.

But when someone of the calibre of Elizabeth Reid, a leading member of the women’s lobby in Australia, sounds off about the sexist language used by Robert MacNamara, she is hardly making a trivial point. Referring to his 1976 speech to the World Bank, in which he made some remarks about ‘…the poorest quarter of the population… marginal men…’ she wrote as follows: ‘One cannot but feel that language such as this truly mirrors a perception of reality of a world where many men are, of course, marginal, but where the women, if perceived at all, are perceived as marginal to the marginal. Like fleas on fleas.’

What hope for women?

The debate within the women’s lobby between those who support development first and those who support equality first still goes on. The sisters did not agree in Mexico and they do not agree now, any more than the Population Conference ironed out once and for all whether development follows the pill, or the pill follows development. Resolving the debate is not the main problem. Nor indeed is getting the notion of women-as-a-priority into the development jargon.

Is the first priority development, or is it equality between the sexes? From the Third World, egalitarian aims appear legitimate and justified, but on the whole women are more concerned with bettering their chances of survival

Since 1975, the women’s issue has received a good deal of attention. It is part and parcel of UNICEF’s and other agencies’ strategies for meeting ‘basic needs’ with ‘essential services’. It is part of the rhetoric about introducing a New International Economic Order to readjust the unequal balance between the rich and poor worlds. It is part of the fashionable rejection of economic growth as the way to meet human needs for food, education, shelter, and so on. The goal of ‘integrating women into development’ is heartily endorsed at every international gathering. But what in effect have been the results?

The results, predictably, are yet to come. So far it is not possible to hold out definite hopes to that 15-year-old girl on the road to Selekleka that she is, in fact, travelling the road to the new Jerusalem. But if policies don’t change fast enough to avoid her back being bent, her hands calloused, her body broken by the time she is 30, then maybe they will in time for her children. Under the barrage of criticism that is slowly growing, people are waking up to the needs of women. They are just beginning to see that there is no use in women making jute doilies when they should be making cheap tin buckets. They are starting to realize the futility of learning how to cook new-fangled foods when there is no time or energy left from a daily food-growing, water-carrying, fuel-gathering, child-rearing grind. They may have begun to see and realize. As yet they have not acted. But they will.

New Internationalist issue 056 magazine cover This article is from the October 1977 issue of New Internationalist.
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