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View the documentWomen's participation: mostly a mirage

Women's participation: mostly a mirage

Les femmes et le developpement rural by Isabelle Droy, Editions Karthala, Paris, 1990, 182 pp.

Ten years after the inauguration of the United Nations' Decade for Women, Isabelle Droy of the Institut francais de recherche scientifique pour le developpement en cooperation (ORSTOM) asks, is women's participation in development a mirage or reality? Unfortunately, in too many countries and too many development projects, the answer is still: mostly a mirage.

Trying to understand the reasons for so many failures, Ms Droy compares a number of projects, implemented in very different social contexts, which she encountered in three trips to sub-Saharan Africa (Benin, Zaire and Senegal). A major problem, she discovered, is that organizational and structural weaknesses in rural intervention policies too often give rise to a stifling "agrarian bureaucracy". Unsuccessful programs also tend to "forget" women, even when they include various "social measures" designed to benefit them, because these are soon abandoned in favor of production imperatives. Major - and unlikely - changes in both project structure and planner-peasant relationships would be necessary for such projects to succeed, Droy believes. Women, mentioned so often in the speeches, are ignored in the statistics.

One of the basic questions the author kept in mind during her investigations was: "What do (people like) the wife of a Peul herdsman and the Bamileke peasant from Cameroon have in common?" In both societies, she found, there was a precise way of dividing activities and tasks among men and women that was based not on physical factors, but on cultural ones, reflecting that society's specific customs. If it's true that the system set up by tradition, which may vary from one society to another, decrees that men do the land clearing and tilling, that women sow and hoe, that both do the harvesting together, and that women do the carrying, it is also true - and universal across tribal lines - that the work done by women, whatever it may be, is generally despised by men, while taboos and restraints exclude women from male activities. In Zaire, in the Kivu, for instance, a man carrying a load (considered a woman's task) is subject to ridicule. In the Mandingue area of Senegal, men will not work in rice fields, because rice cultivation is traditionally considered a woman's activity.

Despite the divisions and constraints, women's contributions in agriculture are often greater than men's, more varied, and aimed above all at earning the indispensable cash income needed to meet immediate family needs. Activities range from direct sale of farm products to individual consumers, to supplying urban markets in areas where women have both the capital and means of transport. Urban market supply is especially common in West Africa, where women's corporations control the greater part of such transactions.

Reciprocity unbalanced

Development itself is partly responsible for the historic upheavals that have unbalanced the reciprocity and collaboration between men and women, Droy maintains. In sub-Saharan Africa, due to increasing trade and the fact that men are more occupied in commercial activities, the tasks connected with growing food crops are more and more frequently - and burdensomely - left to women. Technical and economic change has also favored this imbalance, even when an advance might have seemed likely to benefit women. The introduction of the power-driven pump, for example, often means that the former traditional women's manual task of watering crops is simply taken over by men. The increasing use of draft animals in farming is also a male preserve. Their use makes it possible to extend areas under cultivation, but increases the burden of the manual tasks left to women, such as food processing. Projects that ignore women in "technical packages" that require the reorganization of agricultural space, or hydro-agricultural development, accentuate women's isolation and exclude them from land to which they had access in traditional systems. This often leads to the failure of the operation.

"Silenced in the programs", neglected by training and agricultural extension institutes, subordinated to their husband's authority (in some societies men prevent their wives from learning new farming methods from "male strangers"), marginalized in procedures for access to credit and allocation of land, women have been forced, in many cases, to go to extremes to compensate their losses. In one project in Burkina Faso, to replace lost kitchen gardens and individually owned fields, they had to clear new bush land beyond the project boundaries. In Benin, the shrinkage of agricultural and artisanal resources as a result of a palm oil exploitation project deprived women of their personal land without substituting any alternative money-making activities. To survive, the women have had to resort to stealing palm kernels, from which they can extract oil for sale. New farming models introduced in projects are almost exclusively aimed at the male segment of the population, and markets in new villages are incapable of absorbing the products of women's non-farm work.

Women's loss of economic autonomy, often in combination with local sanitation problems and a general lack of infrastructure, has sometimes caused them, on their own initiative, to uproot their families and move elsewhere. By leaving, however, they lost the security of a traditional environment in which they at least had a true social role.

Women could be the key to success of projects which make it possible for them to perform jobs not traditionally secured by men. By supporting such activities rather than ignoring them, Droy insists, development planners would play a vastly more effective role in rehabilitating Africa's peasantry.

Fay Banoun