Women across the world and across Africa face a multitude of challenges every day, many of which often are not discussed. This topic is incredibly diverse and challenges which women face in one country or region can be radically different from those faced elsewhere on the continent. Indeed, for any topic regarding Africa to be generalised across the entire continent is more likely than not, a gross oversimplification. In a sense the only constant in such an expansive and varied continent is that there are no constants.
While we cannot make generalisations and sweeping statements, we can discuss some of the adversities which women in rural Guinea Bissau and Sierra Leone in particular face and some of the ways to tackle these adversities. These will of course, not apply to every community, region or individual but it can highlight what thousands, if not millions, of women deal with on regular basis.
With many women having to walk several kilometres every day to fetch gallons of water so that their families can drink, cook and clean, a huge number are restricted to domestic duties, having to sacrifice basic education and employment opportunities. This represents a large portion of society who are not being given equal access to the tools which can benefit themselves and society. Whilst water is absolutely essential for everybody, carrying gallons of it every day often has serious long term health implications (for example musculoskeletal disorders and physical injury), and women in these regions often receive no recognition for their efforts. Another cost associated with carrying water, often for more than 30 minutes at a time, is the caloric expenditures, particularly during the dry season. Getting enough food and importantly, protein is far too often a luxury for women and children in many rural communities, with what little protein there is regularly going to the men. This regularly leads to chronic malnutrition for women and children.
Part of solution here is simple but not always easy: build wells within villages. This dramatically decreases time spent transporting water, allowing more time to attend school, work or be active in the community for the benefit of all. Training men on the value of splitting household tasks and of having women active in the community is key. A shift in perspective is a powerful tool. Creating women-led community market gardens and training women in nutrition and sustainable agriculture allows them to grow a variety of vegetables and diversify their diet, enabling them to consume more protein and vitamins and thus tackling malnutrition.
In many remote, rural communities in Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau, education is not an option as there are simply no schools within walking distance, and those that do exist are too expensive for many families to be able to afford sending their children. While on the face of it, this appears to be an issue which would affect boys and girls equally, it actually has a much greater negative impact for girls and young women. A 2012 study conducted by Mocan and Cannonier (Empowering Women Through Education: Evidence from Sierra Leone) in Sierra Leone showed that an increase in education for women positively impacted their attitudes towards issues which directly affected them. For example, it was found that women remaining in education longer radically raised their awareness and intolerance of violence against women. Education also helped develop a deeper understanding and knowledge of women’s health issues as well as decreasing the desired number of children and increasing their desire for contraception and AIDS testing. Investing more in education is the obvious and ideal solution here however if governments are unable or unwilling to make such large investments, education can be brought by other means. Local women can be trained on women’s health issues as well as HIV/AIDS. This knowledge can then be effectively passed down between villages and across generations.
Poor education (for men and women) surrounding menstruation as well as a lack of toilets, means that many women in rural communities struggle with how to manage their periods. With unfair social pressures and expectations in addition to not being able to access latrines and go to the toilet in privacy, many women do not dare practice open defecation during the day (unlike their male counterparts who can go whenever they please). Women being forced to practice open defecation at night significantly increases their chances of injury, from (potentially lethal) snake and insect bites and becoming victims of sexual violence. The incidences of sexual violence towards women in Africa often go unreported and ignored with social taboos preventing more women from coming forward. This has recently been in news in Sierra Leone where the president has declared that sexual violence toward women and children is now a national emergency. Again, education is key here. Workshops can be held in rural communities for men and women which address these issues. Such educational programmes are often not carried out by government programmes or international aid agencies. Without behaviour and conceptual shifts in these issues for entire communities of people, truly sustainable progress cannot be made. Another solution is construction of latrines/toilets so that women have somewhere to go where they can have privacy. This cannot be overstated enough and is something which many people across the globe do not have to think twice about. In Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau however, simple latrines can literally save lives.
It is important to remember that no one person has all the answers and indeed, there is no one answer. There are countless challenges ahead but there are also countless solutions. Solutions which make real impacts for real people and can significantly change lives. Sometimes the situation may seem dire but everyone holds the potential to make a difference. Together we can overcome any challenge, no matter how big or how numerous they may be. There are people making a difference every day. You can be one of them. Volunteer. Donate. Spread awareness. Not everyone has the opportunity to make a difference but, chances are, if you are reading this on your phone, tablet, laptop or computer, then you probably do.
You can make a positive difference in women’s lives. To see how, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 02079987376 for an informal chat.
Special thanks to Funmi Adebayo and Naya Akakwarm for their assistance with this article.