Extraordinary Women in West Africa

Photo: Osiwa
Jumama C. Varmah — Liberia
17 April 2019
Content from our Premium Partner
Open Society Initiative for West Africa (Dakar)

Out of the ordinary......comes the extraordinary.

Women make up more than 50% of West Africa's population and are more economically active than anywhere else in the world. Their families, communities, and countries are built off the strength of their labor, and yet, they are frequently pushed to the margins.

So what can ordinary West African women to do to fight theirway back?

Africa is the most diverse continent in the world. The West African region alone contains more than __ distinct ethnic groups and over __ languages. As such, there is no single portrayal of a typical West African woman.

There is, however, one thing that unites West African women – each must fight against the weighty expectations that accompany being a woman in West Africa.

From an early age, women there are expected to care for the young and the sick, they are expected to cook the meals, clean the home, get an education, honor their family name, abandon their education, get married – and often by force – bear children, resolve conflict, keep the peace, keep the home, work to support the home and make food.

It's no wonder that 41% of women in Nigeria are entrepreneurs, or that women comprise 70% of the workforce in Liberia; that some girls in Niger must fight against the injustice of forced marriage, or that a there is a battle for gender equality in Senegal.

The women in this document are not First Ladies or parliamentarians. They do not occupy the highest echelons of society, nor have great wealth. Yet they are extraordinary, because each of them, in her own way, affects positive change in her family, her community, and her country.

Some studies put women's participation in Liberia's workforce as high as 70 percent. That statistic is skewed by the sheer number of women in the agricultural sector, as they perform most of the small-scale and subsistence farming activities in the country. Despite all that, they rarely enjoy ownership of the land they so-thoroughly cultivate. In other words, they do not reap what they sow...

That is largely because land tenure has been governed by patriarchal customary laws throughout Liberia's history as Africa's oldest independent republic. That only changed in 2016 upon the passage of the Land Authority Act, which, among other things, gives women greater access to land and land-ownership. Still, there is nearly 200 years of history preventing overnight change.

One of the major obstacles prevent land access rights for women farmers, and indeed all farmers, is the scarcity of fertile land in Liberia. The best plots attract multinational agribusiness corporations, who lease them by the thousands from a government that is all-to-eager for revenue... After all, this is a country that is trying to rebuild after two civil wars and an Ebola epidemic in the last 25 years. To its credit, the Land Authority Act will give communities more control on how to use their land, as well as greater benefits should they decide to lease... Multinational corporations, after all, can be very persuasive.

"Now I know that, just like education, agriculture also breeds success in a woman."

Jumama C. Varmah

Jumama C. Varmah, 34, has experienced all of these limitations and setbacks. When civil war broke out, she had to leave school like all the other children — though as a girl, it was harder for her to re-enroll. But she went found her way back until a second civil war forced her to leave school and her home. When peace returned, she was not only a girl, but a mother, making it all but impossible to go back to school. Still, she found a way.

It was a slow process, dropping out with each pregnancy and re-enrolling when she found the time and the funds. Eventually she was afforded a plot of community-held land, which she used to support her children and a husband who could not work due to problems with his vision. But the available land was insufficient to realize her dreams, so she started farming on the outskirts of a massive concession to the Sime Darby corporation land — a risky prospect because the company could uproot her work at any moment, but she didn't have choice. She now had seven children and a dream of finishing school to realize.

Jumama's first priority has always been to provide for her family, but she made sure to provide for herself as well. She graduated from high school in August of 2016 (after the following film was produced) but she has not resigned herself to a life in the fields. Rather, she will seek to expand her plots, with the help of Rights and Rice Foundation guiding her through the provisions of the Land Authority Act, in order the keep her children in school and send herself to nursing school to realize her next lifelong dream.

Part 2: The Guardian

Of the 20 countries with the highest rates of early marriage, 17 of them are in Africa and six of them are in West Africa. Topping the list is Niger.

There are many reasons girls in Niger are married before they turn 18: the legal age for marriage is 15 years old — though traditional and/or religious ceremonies allow girls as young as 10 to become brides; the conservative society abhors pregnancy out of wedlock, and frowns on contraception; most girls are not expected to complete primary education, much less secondary or tertiary; polygamy is a common practice; and so on...

But the biggest driver is poverty. Niger ranks 188/188 in the Human Development Index and suffers from chronic (and rising, due to climate change) food insecurity. Combine that with the highest fertility rate in the world — 7.6 children per woman — and a family's decision to give their daughter away to marriage becomes mathematical. It's one less mouth to feed plus the much-needed income from her dowry... Addition and subtraction.

Early marriage is a human rights abuse on its own, but it's even worse when the girl does not wish to be married.

"You cannot talk about early marriage without talking about forced marriage because the two are linked."

Safia Ibrahim

Safia Ibrahim did not protest her marriage when she was 16 years old, but she felt forced because refusing would mean letting down her parents, her niece and nephew, and her recently-deceased sister, Amina.

Amina cared for Safia from a young age and, in lieu of school, Safia went to live with her when she got married to help look after the home and, eventually, the children. They lived happily together until Amina died shortly after the birth of the couple's second child. For the sake of continuity, and to preserve the good relationship with the family, the widower asked for Safia's hand in marriage and her parents accepted.

Safia admits that she loved the man, but as a father figure. She thought perhaps she could learn to love him otherwise, but resolved to leave the marriage when it became clear that she could not. She did not have the support of her family but she counts herself lucky... They could have disowned her. Still, she had to do the difficult legwork of filing for divorce as a girl in Niger. She was mocked, turned away, and encouraged to respect her husband's command, but she persisted and became one of the few girls in Niger to escape their marriages.

She became the guardian of her niece and nephew, who do not remember their mother. And without children of her own, Safia considers herself their mother, along with another child she has adopted from a relative. But with no formal education, she had difficulty providing for her children. She began working with UNICEF to help girls in Zinder who, like her, have never been to school or were forced to drop out early. Such girls are targets for those who would take advantage of them. Safia works to to keep them out of harm's way, and out of early and forced marriages.

Part 3: The Peacekeeper

Most African countries have experienced some amount of violent conflict along ethnic lines in their modern history. In some, such conflicts erupt into full-scale civil war. In others, like Guinea, tensions rise and subside but never seem to disappear as they await the next catalyst.

Usually, political maneuvering around elections provides the necessary spark in the capital of Conakry. But in July of 2013, on the opposite side of the country, the fatal beating of a suspected thief by security guards of another ethnic group was enough to ignite violence.

The initial incident took place in Koulé and led to fighting between the Guerzé and Konianke ethnic groups there, but the news and the violence quickly spread to the nearby regional capital city of Nzérékoré. By the time the military subdued the fighting, nearly 100 people had died and more than 160 were injured.

"There is no problem to which we cannot find a solution."

Jeannette Kebe Lamah

When you ask Jeannette Kebe Lamah — who was then and remains the president of the Koulé Women's Group — what happened there in July, 2013, she will tell you that she was in Nzérékoré at the time and cannot speak on what she did not witness. What she did witness upon her return was the aftermath: houses were burned, property was destroyed, people had disappeared, some survivors would not leave their homes, and reconciliation was desperately needed.

She knew that it was a job for women.

The first step was to gather them together once again, but the Women's Group was not whole... Some had died in the violence, and some in the wilderness fleeing it. Most survived the ordeal but the conflict manifested itself within the group as well, with some women from the feuding groups reluctant to meet with each other. Jeannette, a Guerzé woman herself, brought reconciliation into group and, with partner organization Search for Common Ground, instructed women how to bring it into their homes. But bringing peace back to Koulé was only the beginning. Keeping it became the full-time work of Jeannette and the Women's Group. The best way to do that, she reasoned, was to remove the animosity between groups. In the remote and impoverished Forest Region, grievances are often economic in nature, so Jeannette set out to set up new revenue-generating activities for the Women's Group from which every member — regardless of her ethnicity and religion — would benefit. Through a rice-production contract with the World Food Program, the Koulé Women's Group was able bring back not only peace, but economic security to their homes and the entire community.

To this day, her phone rings incessantly with calls from development partners, government officials and, most of all, women seeking advice on how to resolve the small conflicts around them before they grow into big conflicts around everyone.

Part 4: The Entrepreneur

Nigeria is in many ways exceptional among its West African neighbors, but most notably in terms of its economic influence. Even in its current recession, Nigeria's GDP is nearly three times that of the other 14 ECOWAS member states combined according to 2016 IMF estimates.

It is also home to the region's only (and the continent's largest) megacity. With over 20 million inhabitants, Lagos alone has a greater population than most ECOWAS countries.

Add the famous enterprising Nigerian spirit and you have a business environment unlike any other in West Africa — one in which women do not take a back seat. A recent study by the Clinton Foundation reports that nearly 42 percent of Nigerian women are entrepreneurs... That's about 38 million women running everything from a small "moin-moin" stand in Jos to a Nollywood production studio in Lagos.

"I don't want anybody telling me what I can or cannot do as a woman."

Uduak Isong Oguamanam

Uduak Isong Oguamanam has been writing movie scripts since 2002, around the time "Nollywood" was first overheard around the sets of Nigeria's burgeoning film industry. Back then, she says, women did not have much of a role in film except as housewives, prostitutes and wicked stepmothers on the screen. But because of a few female writers, directors and producers making spaces for strong, intelligent and dynamic roles for women, Nollywood would change into what Uduak describes as a women-dominated industry — which, it's worth mentioning, has grown into the world's second-largest film industry in terms of output.

The reason, according to Uduak, is that women are the primary consumers of Nollywood films and they want to see roles that valorize women. But the fact is that these films reach a large and diverse audience beyond Nigerian women, and that is who Uduak has in mind when she writes her female characters. Those are the minds she wants to change regarding perceptions of women.

Although Uduak is first and foremost a creative, she possesses the Lagos hustle and, as such, had to put her hands in the business end of Nollywood production. She started producing her own films but struggled with the distribution process, which is oversaturated and plagued by bootleggers. So she took that aspect into her own hands as well by creating Afriville, a café/workspace that provides full time electricity and sells books, music and movies — including a few of her own titles... And her entrepreneurial endeavors culminated in 2015 with the creation of Closer Pictures, her own production company.

Uduak admits that she does not face many of the same challenges that plague other women throughout West Africa and she has been able to accomplish much with the support of her family, especially her husband. But a growing middle class in the region is becoming an important part of its development, especially if, like Uduak, they use their influence to elevate others.

Part 5: The Ambassador

Since the independence movement in West Africa, Senegal has long been considered a regional leader in many respects: in democratic governance (three for three in peaceful transitions of power between presidents); in stability (no coups d'etats or large-scale ethnic conflicts); and in gender equality (short of president, women have occupied the highest offices in the land and a parity law requires that half of every party's candidates for local and national office be women).

But in the development of a country — even one that seeks to incorporate ethnic minorities and women — some groups can be left behind. Too often that includes the disabled.

For example, there is no law in Senegal that protects albinos, despite the discrimination and threats that they face. These come most often in the form of alienation and harassment, but physical and sexual violence, committed out of belief that such acts can resolve problems for or cure illnesses of the perpetrator, is a real fear among this community.

Albinos also face serious threats to their health in a country where the sun shines more than 300 days out of the year. And they are further exposed due to discrimination. It is hard for them to find jobs and many are forced to beg outdoors for a living. That combined with the fact that protective products for the skin are prohibitively expensive greatly exacerbates the risk of melanoma in Senegal, which kills more than 30 albinos a year there.

"[My brothers] told me that, in spite of my condition, I can succeed in all aspects of my life."

Maah Koudia Keita

When Maah Koudia Keita speaks of her condition, she means her albinism. Yet being a woman with a disability is even more debilitating in Senegal — which remains a traditionally-patriarchal society in spite of recent steps toward gender equality.

For these reasons, Maah was a shy child. She was teased "like all albino children, except," she says, "when my brothers were around." With the support of her family, especially her siblings, she found the courage to speak out, defend herself, stand on stage in front of thousands, and address cameras that would reach millions.

Maah greatly admired her brother, Jac, and when he started playing guitar, so did she. But when the time came to start a band, the family needed a bass player. She took on the role soon understood why it had a reputation as a masculine instrument. It took more strength to hold and manipulate the instrument than her small frame could produce at the time.

Still, she trained her body, her fingers and her mind to master the instrument to match her brothers' level and complete one of Senegal's most successful musical acts: Takeïfa.

It was from this platform that Maah decided to make her stand. She always felt a humanitarian impulse. While her grade school classmates valorized Barbies and the Power Rangers, Maah begged her parents for a UNICEF backpack. But now that she was in a position to help, there was no question where she would direct her efforts...

Again with the help of her family, she created Care Albinos in 2013 with the aim of providing access to health care, skin care products and psychological support to albinos throughout Senegal, especially children. Using her status as a celebrity (she is the only professional female instrumentalist in Senegal), she also does a lot of media to create a bridge between albinos and the general population.




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