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new internationalist
issue 192 - February 1989

Freedom's front-runners
Peasant women are at the bottom of the pile in Mozambican society. Yet they are a great source of inspiration to women all over the country. Teresa Lima talks with their leader.

When I have an electrical fault in my house I prefer to ask a woman to fix it,' says Celina Cossa. 'A wife should be able to leave her husband to do the housework and look after the children while she goes to help a neighbour.'

The words of the 34-year-old peasant leader, dressed in a brightly coloured traditional robe, are quietly revolutionary. To suggest that men look after children while women go out and fix fuses challenges the deeply rooted tradition of machismo that lives on even in post-Independence Mozambique.

The machismo takes many forms. Traditions such as polygamy, lobolo (bride price) and premature marriages may be frowned upon by Frelimo. But their practice is still widespread. Whatever the political rhetoric about emancipation, the general rule is that the man has the first and last word. Women, especially in rural areas, are rarely consulted. And their place is in the home or tilling the family plot.

But in the Union of Agricultural Cooperatives in the 'Green Zones' - the rural belt around Maputo that can be protected from MNR attacks - something quite different is happening. A genuinely grassroots movement, 97 per cent of whose members are women, it is challenging sexual inequality in a profound and direct way.

That was not the main aim of the Government when it set up the co-operatives in 1980, as an alternative to inefficient State farms and 'people's plantations'. The goal then was simply to boost agricultural production in the areas which could be protected from MNR raids, This was achieved and there are now 210 co-operatives with around 10,500 members.

But other forces had been set in motion. Firstly the co-operatives attracted a lot of women - most of them poor, many of them widowed. For the first time these women were not only producing but also marketing the fruits of their labour and earning money over which they - and not their menfolk - had control. Moreover each co-operative provided child-care facilities as well as adult literacy and numeracy classes.

'At first the men did not believe that women could manage economic affairs,' recalls Celina Cossa. 'A woman could only have children and keep house. The women themselves had this mentality. But when they began to see that they were capable of supporting themselves, they grew in self-confidence. And they felt dignified by the work they were doing the co-operatives.'

There were struggles, naturally. Many of the men would complain that their wives came home late from work. Or that, in the early days, they were not earning enough money to justify their being out of the home, away from their domestic duties. But gradually the men's attitudes began to change.

A good example of this is the l00 houses project. Funded by NORAD (the Norwegian Aid Agency), this scheme involves building 100 houses on the outskirts of Maputo and distributing them among co-operative workers. At first the workforce for the construction was almost exclusively male. Then the women started working alongside the men - mainly on tasks such as carrying bricks and water.

'When they had completed the first 24 houses the women came to me with a complaint,' Celina relates. 'They said the men were saying that there were jobs which only they could do. The women wanted to start building by themselves. They had already learned the basics and they felt able to do it. I agreed they should go ahead with it and as a demonstration, they built a creche, a kitchen, and a store. Everything was done by the women themselves, including the electrical wiring.'

The project challenged Mozambican tradition in other ways. For instance, if a man goes to live in the house of a woman he is considered a 'bucket of water', that is, she can take him wherever she wants, she can dominate him.

But the majority of the 100 houses will belong to women and remain in their names. 'The fact that a husband will agree to live in a house acquired through a woman's enterprise indicates that there has been an important transformation in the mentality of many men,' says Celina. 'It's a slow process, but we are getting there.'

Central to 'getting there' is confidence-building - and this is helped by education and training. Apart from literacy classes, the Union also runs practical courses such as electrical engineering or carpentry.

'A woman who has a poor command of reading and writing may learn one of these other skills. This will give her more confidence, will make her feel stronger, more capable.'

Celina Cossa is for many women a symbol of a new confidence and strength. But she does not let her role as President of the Union blur her sense of herself as a peasant woman. She would, she says, 'always rather be in the field with a hoe' than 'shut up in some office'.

'The women who elected me told me this: "You can never forget where you came from. You will continue working with us." I am committed to this purpose.

The toughest test of whether she can keep in touch with her roots is yet to come. Nominated by the President himself, there is a good chance that Celina Cossa will be elected to the Popular Assembly (the Mozambican Parliament).

Meanwhile, Mozambican women from all walks of life continue to draw inspiration from the peasant women of the Green Zones.

Teresa Lima lives in Maputo and works with Radio Moçambique's international section.

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