Now, Listen To Me!
issue 227 - January 1992
MARK EDWARDS / STILL PICTURES
Now, listen to me!
'Women' is a buzz word in development circles. So why are so many
African women still so poor? Wanjiru Kihoro gives an inside view.
They were shocked. We were looking at summaries of the agency's projects in Africa. But here was I, an African woman on the grants committee of a British aid agency, suggesting that we scrap a paragraph that dealt with 'gender implications'.
My colleagues protested. The paragraph was very important, they said. At least it forced project officers to consider the role of women. I argued that in most cases it was quite clear that the projects officers had not paid any serious attention to gender issues. So why pretend?
Many of the projects were described as having women participants - but the question of what kind of participation was never addressed. Neither was the question of control and decision making.
Foreign aid agencies are seen to be playing a vital role in meeting the basic needs of underprivileged women, especially those in rural areas. But if planners do not see what the women are already doing in their societies the projects will fail. Let me give you a classic example that happened in the Gambia during the mid 1980s.
It was a rice production project, funded by an array of international agencies and charities. The planners automatically assumed that the households were headed by men - either husbands or fathers who managed the resources on behalf of other members. They also assumed that the rice-growers were men. Credits and inputs were offered to men - who took them. No-one took the trouble to find out that it was actually the women who traditionally grew the rice for domestic consumption and who exchanged the surplus.
Worse still, the scheme was going to develop irrigated rice production on common lands to which women had secured use rights. With the support of project and government officials men established exclusive rights to these common lands, pushing women onto inferior plots to continue cultivating traditional rice varieties. The women had to negotiate everything through their husbands. When finally they were expected to provide labour for free on their husbands' plots the women refused and demanded to be paid in full. The project was a fiasco.
This example shows the weight Western development planners have given to cash crop production (controlled by men) over subsistence farming (done by women). The principle economic activity in Africa is subsistence agriculture done by women - so why did the planners not invest development aid in this area, which would also relieve hunger?
They should know better by now. Already back in the mid-1970s women had been 'discovered' by development planners - who simultaneously discovered that aid programmes had failed to eradicate poverty. Since then much lip service has been paid to the equal participation of women in development. The easy solution was to 'integrate' women into existing development models. There followed numerous income-generating handicrafts and nutrition education projects for women, some of which brought short-term help to a few people. But in most cases the 'double burden' of work already carried out by women was ignored. So was the low status of women which limits women's access to land, credit, machinery, markets for their products and control over any income raised.
Even after the UN Decade for Women (1976-1985) highlighted and publicized the important - but previously unacknowledged - role of women in economic and social development this blind spot covering the role of African women remains.
Colonialism is largely to blame. It established a capitalist economy, created urban migration and left women to carry their own workload in addition to that of the departed men in the rural areas. The perceived inferiority of women to men - which existed in most pre-colonial African societies - was reinforced by the colonists and their religions.
National independence brought changes - but still no recognition of the central role played by women. For example, issues of women and development in most African countries are still dealt with by a Ministry of Culture and Social Development which is also responsible for youth, sports, culture and destitutes. African women are still, it seems, regarded as objects of recreation (as in sports), or art (as in culture) or social liabilities (as with destitutes) rather than assets in the development process.
So what can be done to attain women's real and recognized participation in development? Feminism is crucial for it provides a consciousness and a commitment to change which are the sources of energy that can mobilize women. It may be an emotive word in Africa but feminism is not a new or foreign concept to us. It was not imposed on us by the United Nations or by Western feminists, but has an independent history. As feminists from WIN (Women in Nigeria) have observed: 'One of the most recurrent charges made to and about Third World women is that of being blind copy cats of Western European feminists'. This is 'a divide-and-rule tactic', a 'ploy created and maintained to confuse women, to bind them to their respective men and male systems and to prevent a dangerous comparing of notes and political unity', they conclude.
In so far as they are involved in the struggle for women's rights, African women are feminists. Opinions vary, of course. Strategies vary. Some believe that the battle to obtain equal rights with men within the existing status quo is enough. Men are seen as the enemy. Other feminists go further and ask: 'Has colonialism, neo-colonialism and development as we know it necessarily helped all African men?'
I believe it is unrealistic to expect any viable development to happen while the burden of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank conditions weighs so heavily on the daily lives of the poor, particularly women. The export-oriented policies required by the IMF may have increased women's participation in cash crop production, but at the price of devaluing and impoverishing women who are subsistence farmers.
Poor countries cannot afford to pay foreign debts. They must be cancelled. Nor can we afford unsuitable development models that marginalize women. What we need is to create strong social movements, involving both women and men, who are committed to popular participation, sexual equality, and redistribution of wealth.
There are examples of such organizations growing in Africa. The Organization of Rural Advancement and Progress (ORAP) in Zimbabwe, for example. Or grassroots groups like the Tanzanian Media Women's Organization (TAMWA) and Women in Nigeria (WIN).
Many African women now see no point in being 'integrated' into a mainstream Western-influenced development in which we have no say. Women are the group most harmed by the existing development strategies. So we will have to be the ones at the forefront in defining and creating a new self-reliant, people-centred development.
Wanjiru Kihoro is a Kenyan economist currently working at the Africa Centre in London.
In 1976 I decided to give up being a university teacher in Dhaka and go to a village. I had never been to a village before. That's the way it is if you are a middle-class city dweller in Bangladesh.
Why the village? Because that is where most people live in Bangladesh. If you want to do something for the exploited majority you have to go to the village. And the most exploited of the most exploited are village women.
When I arrived I did a survey. At first the women would offer me a chair. But I would sit on the ground where they sat, explaining that like them I was wearing a nylon sari and it washed easily. They accepted that. We would discuss all sorts of things - ranging from the gender of God to how often their in-laws allowed them to visit their families. In some cases it was only once every three or four years. I began to realize how isolated the women were, working so hard in the house they rarely left it.
I said to them: 'Why don't you form a co-operative? All you need is 10 or 15 women. A small amount of capital on which we can raise a loan with which to do business.' I was adamant that they should not get into activities that kept them at home. They must get out and do work that men do. Petty trade, for example.
'But how can we sell our goods?', said the women. 'If we go to the market they will say we are of bad character.' I turned to the oldest woman there and said: 'If you go will they say that of you?' She laughed and said: 'No, not me!'. So we agreed that the old woman should go. She went - and then the others started going with her. No-one took any notice. The men in the market were too poor, too busy trying to survive to care.
But the powerful landowning family did. They warned me: leave the village or we will kill you. They described all the different kinds of guns they had at their disposal to kill me with. I replied saying: 'All you need is a good stick, properly wielded and that will kill me'. They left me alone after that...
Meanwhile the women were branching out into inter-district trade. They were very good at buying - and very good at travelling for tree. Soon they were travelling all over Bangladesh. Their men might object at first - but they stopped when the money started coming in. And anyway at least a quarter of village women were on their own - divorced or abandoned by husbands who set up new families elsewhere.
But there were problems. One day a woman came up to me and said: 'What are we going to do about rape?'. Good question. We immediately called a meeting. Women travelling on their own, away from home at night, were getting raped. 'But why do men rape,' asked the women, 'when most of them are not able to even satisfy their own wives?' In the end we decided there was nothing we could do about rape - but we must not let it get in our way.
About wife beating we could do something, though. Whenever it happens in the villages now, the women go to the man's house and say: 'Why are you doing this? What has she done?'. There is nothing more intimidating for a wife-beater than to be confronted by 15 angry women!
There are now 300,000 of women in our organization. Sometimes we go to the cities to demonstrate against domestic violence or to show solidarity with women working in terrible conditions in textile factories. The village women love demonstrations. They have changed and are changing still. It's wonderful to see!
Rokeya Rahman Kabeer is the founder of Saptagram in Bangladesh. It receives funding from Oxfam.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.