HE women of Burkina Faso represent a mass of contradictions.
Subjected to forced marriage and polygamy, excluded from education, denied personal income and property, bound tightly by grinding poverty and rigid traditions, and valued almost exclusively in terms of child production, they are the least powerful people in one of the world’s least developed countries.
And yet it is becoming increasingly clear that it is they who hold the key to their country’s progress, both socially and economically.
“If you give a woman credit, she will send her children to school,” says Aisseta Kabre of development agency Christian Aid. “If you give a man credit, he will take a second wife.”
It is a generalisation, Aisseta stresses, but not too far from the truth.
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She is meeting with the women of Saye village in northern Burkina Faso and explaining why their Gainful Activities Committee’s microfinance project lends only to women.
Committee chairwoman Aminata Traore takes up the issue.
“The school year starts on October 1 or sometimes September 15,” she says. “At that time, the main crop is about to be ready but it is not yet harvested.
“You don’t have money to buy the school uniform, to pay the fees, to provide the copybooks, and if you don’t pay for these things, your child has no access to class.”
The committee lends the money to the women to tide them over until the crops can be turned into cash and they pay it back with simple interest of 500CFA for every 10,000CFA borrowed — about 75 cent for every €15.
Loans are also given for small enterprises such as buying salt, sugar, or spices in bulk in the market and selling them in the village in small portions.
Out of the interest gained, support payments are made in the case of a death or other family crisis. However, the emphasis the women place on using their loans to fund schooling is particularly strong and could make a vital change to their children’s futures.
Burkina Faso has a very poor record in education. While officially at least 80% of children attend primary school, the figure hides the fact that, for many, particularly in the poorest parts of the country and most notably for girls, their attendance is sporadic and short-lived.
A 2009 government report showed that, in this part of the country, the average school life duration for girls who got to school at all was just three years and two months. And it is just one of the many barriers women face. Polygamy is legal and while forced marriages — arranged marriages, the women prefer to call them — are outlawed, there is little a woman can do to object.
The shame a protest would bring on her family is so great that she is likely to be put out of the home and, in a country where women have no land or property of their own, that’s an impossible scenario to contemplate.
It’s not that women are forbidden to hold assets — in fact the law states they have equal property and inheritance rights — but the law of the land and law of the courtroom are very different.
Men have always passed their land to their sons and, even if a husband dies long before his wife, his widow becomes part of his legacy and will be ‘given’, along with his land, to one of his brothers or cousins.
By law, girls must be aged 17 to marry, but just over half of Burkinabe women are already married by the age of 18 and one in 10 by the age of 15.
Female genital mutilation is outlawed, but an estimated 76% of women have been mutilated. The figure falls to 65% for teenage girls, which shows the practice is on the decrease but it is still widely inflicted.
Women make up 16% of parliament and a quota system requires that at least 30% of party candidates are women, but few Burkinabe women are registered to vote. Even if they do get registered, they are unlikely to be able to read any election material and will generally vote as their husband tells them.
As they are the first up in the morning and last to bed at night with non-stop physical chores in between, it is likely they will be too exhausted to think otherwise.
Against such an entrenched background of disadvantage and disenfranchisement, the very idea of empowering women seems an impossible goal, but the Gainful Activities Committee in Saye village begs to differ.
Belem Salamata is 55 — a very senior citizen in a country where life expectancy is just 56 — but she began taking literacy classes a few years ago, has started breeding her own poultry and sheep, and has become an adviser on the committee.
She has grabbed with both hands these small opportunities that have come her way with the help of Christian Aid’s local partner, Reseau MARP, the Network for Participatory Approaches to Research and Planning.
It hasn’t been easy because she had to assure her husband that her new ventures were worthwhile and wouldn’t interfere with her workload at home. Even though he is in ill health and Belem is the main breadwinner, he is still very much in charge.
“The basis of everything is good communication with the husband,” she says. “If he agrees totally with what you are doing then there is not a problem.
“For example, in the morning I could cook very early and then go to my classes without any problem. He knows where I am and what I am doing.”
She tries to pass on the delicate art of negotiation to the other women.“I advise them to explain to their husbands exactly what is the objective of our association.
“Generally, men fear their wives would go with other husbands — that is what they fear first. Secondly, they think their wives may go out and become friends with women with difficult characters and then bring new ideas into the home.”
She laughs at the suggestion that she herself may be seen as a woman of difficult character.
“In fact, the regularity with which I attended the literacy classes has been a step from which they started trusting me and my capability of being a community organiser,” she says.
Belem’s maturity and the fact that she has experience of two husbands — she was given to her brother-in-law when her first husband died — has possibly given her the confidence to assert herself but she is determined that the next generation won’t have to wait until they are in their 50s to do likewise.
“The handicap with me is that in the past our generation did not have the opportunity to go to school,” she says. “Now my daughters are going to school and their life will be better.”
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There is another place in the village where you won’t find men — around the cooking stoves. But here too is an example of how, with a little support, women can make changes to benefit themselves as well as their community.
Traditionally, women cooked on open fires, fuelled by scarce wood that took a huge amount of time and energy to gather, and denuded the already near- naked landscape.
Exposed to the ever-present wind, the flames rapidly consumed the firewood and children were often burnt from wandering too close to the erratic flickers and sparks.
In Saye, they now use enclosed stoves made from a mixture of termite mounds, straw, water, and monkey faeces and left to cure in a process repeated several times over until, after three weeks, the stove is ready for use.
“The quantity of wood needed to cook daily was double in the past,” says Binto Ouedraogo, a proud convert to the new stoves who carefully stirs the day’s fare with her large, hand-carved wooden spatula. “It’s an easier job now.”
What would make it even easier? She doesn’t hesitate for a moment. “A gas cooker,” she says. “I saw one once. If we could leave all this firewood gathering, we would have time for gainful activities. We could make bread and sell it.”
Bintou, at 55 years old another respected senior, a mother of seven who mourned the loss of three others, makes for a powerful symbol as she sits in momentary rest with her traditional spatula in hand, speaking of very non-traditional ambitions.
Last October, during a brief popular uprising against the Burkinabe president, who was trying to change the law so as to extend his 27-year reign, women thronged the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, holding their wooden spatulas high.
It was an act of defiance that traces back to an old tribal tradition. When there was dissatisfaction with a village leader, it would often fester until the women emerged from their huts and gathered in front of him, brandishing their spatulas.
For a man to be struck with a woman’s spatula was considered to demean him beyond redemption. The most lowly had defied the most lofty and there was no way back to his former status.
The gesture still carries resonance today, although the ‘spatula revolution’, as it is known, that is taking place in Saye and other villages is targeted not at any individual but at the traditions and conventions that stifle women’s development.
Aminata Traore has staged her own revolution courtesy of a pair of sheep and a training programme provided by Reseau MARP.
She now breeds her own livestock, passing a certain number of lambs to other women so that the scheme continuously expands.
The sheep feed on the husks of the beans she grows; they provide manure for the farm, meat for the family, and cash when sold at market.
It has been a transforming experience for her. “Being someone who did not have any animals before and now being the owner of these animals, it’s really a feeling of happiness. I think I am more respected now,” she says.
At the market garden in nearby Danaoua, mother of seven Salamata Sawadogo, 40, has also seen her life transformed.
Reseau MARP and another Christian Aid partner, ATAD, the Alliance Technique d’Assistance au Developpement, have been establishing market gardens around traditional wells, as a way of using the land in the long barren season between the October harvest of the main cereal crops and the June rains.
The well at Danaoua can usually provide enough water to keep the garden growing until the end of February, producing lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, and other small crops for home consumption and the market.
Just one hectare in size, 41 women and 10 men have plots in it, and it is under constant threat from animals and insects but, with careful cultivation, production can be high.
Salamata grows mainly lettuce and onions, coming morning and evening from her home a kilometre away to haul water from the deep well. In a good season, after paying for seed, fertiliser, and rent, she can make around €60 from her produce — a small fortune in a country where annual per capita GDP hasn’t exceeded €660 in recent years.
The money helps buy more nutritious food for the family and sends the children to school. Salamata had no schooling herself but is adamant her children will have a good education.
“I do not dream of what I would have become without this activity,” she says. “The children’s lives are different. This is what I am begging the Lord. I think if they are successful at school, then their living conditions will be better than ours.”
Already her success has been an education for her husband. “He appreciates the work I am doing and he is encouraging me to continue. He is seeing the profit for the family,” she says.
At Louda in the centre-north of the country, Alizeta Sawadogo, 50, a mother of eight and grandmother of seven, has a heart condition but has no choice but to work both the ATAD-supported market garden and the household’s main farm, as her husband is losing his sight. Reduced rains, exhausted soils, and her own ill health have made the task more difficult in recent years, but she says in other ways life has improved.
Alizeta has seven daughters and one son and she recalls the anxiety she felt each time she had another girl, knowing that they were not valued like boys.
She feels differently now but knows opportunities are still limited for young women. One daughter completed secondary school, but even if the family could afford to send her to university, they feel it would be unsafe for her to live alone.
However, Alizeta feels things are changing for women. “There is more light on human relationships now and on the place of women,” she says. “So in my house I have a say. I can give my opinion to my husband and he will give it consideration. Now if he says something which is not acceptable, I say no.”
Back at Danaoua, Maryam Ouedraogo, 38, a mother of five who shares her husband with a second wife, muses that no wasn’t part of her vocabulary in the past.
Placed in an arranged marriage with a virtual stranger at the age of 17, she was very unhappy. “Love comes after,” she says.
She says her relationship with her husband has improved since she started work at the market garden.
“I cannot say I am equal to my husband but my life is different than before,” she says. “In the past, it was difficult for me to have a say because I could not bring anything into the house so I was cautious. But now things have changed because I have started contributing.”
She has three daughters and wants them to have a better start to married life. “We wish they will enjoy better respect from their husbands,” says Maryam. “We have not been educated but they are, so I hope their life will be better.
“I think with the level of education our children will have they will have the opportunity to choose their own husbands.”
While Maryam regards their future with hope, she is concerned for her contemporaries who don’t have opportunities to build a better life for their daughters.
She looks at the adjoining hectare of land that could be used for market gardening by more women if there was enough chain link fencing to keep grazing animals out.
“We would like to gather the money and try to see if we would be able to fence all of it. Iron fencing is really expensive but maybe after some years...” she ponders.
An iron fence to set more women free. A contradiction worth pursuing.
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Watching Aisseta Kabre make an entrance is disconcerting for the unprepared.
She sails into a gathering of women in the village meeting area, a tall ship of elegant strength in vibrant robes, and inquires peremptorily: “Are you taking good care of your husbands?”
The women answer yes and laugh heartily, understanding that what she really wants to know is if they are taking care of themselves.
As some men join the assembly, instinctively taking over the front row benches, Aisseta nudges them to move over for their still standing female neighbours.
“Why do you not want women to sit next to you during the day but at night you want them close?” she chides them.
Later, when visiting an extended family on the edge of the village, she strides into the middle of their tree-lined air prayer square, the most sheltered spot amid the sun-scorched dwellings, lies down on the bare ground, stretches out, and declares it the best place for a chat.
In a staunchly patriarchal, deeply conservative, majority Muslim country such as Burkina Faso, such behaviour — particularly by a proud Catholic given to wearing scenes from the life of Jesus woven into the fabric of her dresses — could be seen as outrageous or at the very least provocative.
But Aisseta is no loose cannon. She has been on a long journey with the people in Saye village and it is a measure of the distance they have covered together that she can joke and tease them without fear of causing offence.
She doesn’t joke frivolously, however, but uses humour to remind the community of the progress they have made towards gender equality.
Smiling at her audacity in lampooning old ways of thinking reinforces for them how much they’ve challenged their own thinking too.
It is perhaps an unconventional approach to championing women’s rights but then very little about Aisseta Kabre is conventional in a Burkinabe context.
She was born in poverty to a large family in a small village not unlike Saye but in the centre of Burkina Faso, about 40km from the capital Ouagadougou.
“When I was a small child my father said it is not necessary for girls to go to school because girls must get a husband and must cook and must make children. It is your destiny,” she says.
Destiny was working off a different map in Aisseta’s case, however. By chance, her father’s younger brother and his wife moved to Ouagadougou and they took Aisseta, their favourite niece, with them. An opportunity came up to try classes at a nearby school but Aisseta was already 10 years old — four years over the starting age. A little white lie was told, Aisetta went to school and never looked back. She still enjoys being able to shave four years off her age without being accused of vanity.
At school, she found she was a natural student. After a first-place exam performance, she remembers a French NGO came and presented her with the prize of a bicycle.
“I only sat on it for a photo,” she says. “After that I took it and gave it to my father because he didn’t have anything.”
Her father was happy to have his theory on education for girls disproved — even more so after Aisseta won a scholarship to study in Paris where she graduated with a degree in agronomy.
“When I return to the village, he likes to tell people ‘she studied in the town and she is a big boss’,” she says. “Now when there is a problem in the village, they call me and I always go. It is a way to show example, to encourage other people to put their girls in school.”
Aisseta has worked with NGOs for more than 20 years, the last four of them with Christian Aid, where, while she is still chiefly an advisor on agriculture and resilience, the empowerment of women is part and parcel of every project, goal and task she takes on.
“No woman, no project,” she says of her guiding mantra which requires that women be involved in the planning, organising and execution of the various initiatives supported by Christian Aid and its local partner organisations.
But while it makes a good slogan, it took a while to catch on. Aisseta found women were as wary of asserting themselves as men were of allowing them to, and she realised she had to rethink her approach.
“In the beginning, we tried to explain to women how they shall have their autonomy while we should have started with the men,” she says.
“We should have told the men how women’s empowerment could improve their community life as a whole. It is the same if we take the case of family planning. We should start with the men and show the husbands the benefit of family planning before moving on to the women.
“It is like a contradiction. We want to empower women but we go first to the men, but this is how we make the change.”
Aisseta is inspired by her own father’s willingness to let go of his traditional beliefs about the role of women and she never has to look further than her own home for encouragement in her mission to achieve gender equality.
Married for more than 30 years, her husband, an electricity company employee, never had a problem with his wife’s superior education and career, even though others did.
“Some people said: ‘Why do you want to marry this girl? She has a degree and you have not. Do you really think you can live in the same house?’
“My husband said ‘yes, we can live happily together’. He supports me. He is happy to tell people, this is my wife, she works in big NGOs.
“Some people say ‘why do you let your wife work like this? It is not normal’. My husband says ‘yes it is normal. I have my work. She has her work.’ It is not a problem.”
Nor is it a problem for him that their sons are no strangers to the kitchen. “In my house, boys work the same as girls — washing, cleaning, cooking —everybody does equal work,” says Aisseta.
But how does this progressive urban family scene translate to the subsistence farms of the Burkinabe bush?
The process can be slow, Aisseta says, but she recalls how she started in the village of Saye by inviting all the village’s men and women to sit together in the prayer square for discussions about how women were considered and ranked in their community.
“I ask if they think women are equal and they say yes. But the men were sitting in front and the women behind,” says Aisseta.
“So I ask them: ‘You say God has created women as he has created you so women are God’s creation?’ They say ‘yes’. So I ask: ‘How, while worshipping this god, do you say that women should sit behind? Do you think, in front of God, that this is right?’
“One old man said we should change. So then we change how we are seated — man, then woman, then man, then woman.
“Then I say, once we agree that we are complementary, then in our lives as couples, anything we undertake together is already blessed by God.
“Sometimes discrimination against women is attributed to religion and maybe that is true in extremist cases but if you take the example of the Muslim religion, it is a religion where women are well respected.
“Everything else is tradition. So they can change tradition without offending their religion.”
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Like many rural Burkinabe women, Sore Habibou aims to have seven children — but she is using contraception to help rather than hinder her goal.
The second of three wives in a polygamous marriage, she already has two boys and two girls aged from 12 to two but the first wife has nine children and Sore, 33, doesn’t want to pale by comparison.
“I want many children because I think I will be criticised if I only have four,” Sore explains. “People will say that this woman is not a good one. How can she only get four children and stop?”
So why use contraception — an option that is still denied to the majority of Burkinabe women and that is not without controversy in many traditional households?
For Sore, like many other women who are availing of contraception, it is not about limiting the number of children but about spacing them so that she has them at manageable intervals.
In Burkina Faso, childbirth is a risky undertaking. In about one in every 330 births, the mother dies. In Ireland, by comparison, the figure is about one in 11,100.
In every 1,000 births, around 28 babies die during delivery or soon after, 66 will not reach their first birthday, and 102 will die before the age of five. In Ireland, the loss is three.
The reasons are multiple but Sore is aware that many pregnancies in rapid succession take their toll.
She speaks of a relative who gives birth every year and a half, struggling to supplement one child at the breast as well as provide milk for the newborn – all the while carrying out physically demanding household chores and maintaining her market garden.
“If a woman has a small baby and she is pregnant again she will be sick and she will not be strong enough to do the garden activities,” she says.
“If she is sick, she will not have money in her pocket and when she goes to husband to get money and he doesn’t have the money, this will result in quarrels.
“Also, if she has two small children, she will not have enough milk. One of them may be sick and if they are sick, it’s now the duty of their father to take them to hospital to buy the drugs and it may happen that he doesn’t have money to do this. This may result in the child’s death and many troubles.”
Sore heard about family planning when she attended a midwife clinic during her second pregnancy. She receives an injectable contraception every three months that costs her 500CFA — around 75 cent — each time.
It is her responsibility and she carefully counts four Mondays, then another four and another four to remind herself when to go for her injection and she pays for it with her market garden proceeds. But her husband is supportive.
“When I informed him, he realised it would be helpful and he agreed,” she says. “I am lucky. There are places where husbands don’t agree.
“I could have done this without talking to my husband. Some of the women do it secretly because some men would refuse to let their women engage in this.
“We discuss it with other women now. In the beginning it was something we were hiding but now we can openly discuss it.”
Those talks with other women on the trips to collect firewood or in the garden have opened up wider issues for Sore, including the idea of limiting family size.
“I think a woman should be able to decide the number of children she has,” she says. “She is the one who carries the babies, she is the one who suffers. Women should be able to take decisions on their own life.”
Putting those thoughts into action may be further down the road but in the meantime, Sore and her youngest child, two-year-old Rihana, are in good health, which means there is time and energy for the market garden and a chance to enjoy the small financial freedoms it brings.
Somewhat ironically, the garden enables Sore to join in the celebrations when another woman has a baby.
“When there is a newly born child, the women each buy soap and put it all together and go to the naming ceremony,” she says. “In the past, to get the money to buy the soap and follow the other women was not easy.
“I always had to beg money from my husband. But with this activity I have money to solve these very simple problems.”
Christian Aid Week this year runs from May 10-16. Information and details of how to donate can be found at caweek.ie and donations can also be made by phoning 01-9015035.