May 21, 2011

“Insights into Women in Africa” - UCLA African Activists Association Conference

UCLA’s African Activist Association held a conference on May 21st, “Women Agency in Africa: Role, Motivation & Voice.”  As a speaker, I was happy to have the opportunity to let African activists know about the dramatic impact of drilling a clean water well has on improving the lives of women.  Not many people make that connection.  We tend to assume that providing a well helps everyone in a community, and while it does, the positive impact on the lives of women and girls is so much more dramatic.

As the founder of Wells Bring Hope, I am, perhaps, an example of someone who took up a cause based upon a very specific need in an area of the world about which I knew relatively little.  Spending the day listening to primarily female academics thoroughly immersed in the culture and life of women in Africa, was an incredible learning experience.  Here are some nuggets of new learning:

Have you ever heard of “Nollywood?”  No, not “Bollywood,” but the Nigerian version of it, an industry that employs one million people, primarily working in Nigeria.  They make films that go direct to video and the market in Africa is huge.  The storylines, however, have become more focused on women’s sexuality, films such as “Girl’s Cot,” which focuses on transactional sex on university campuses.  In a fascinating way, Elinam Dellor, a graduate student in Public Health at UCLA, gave us a close-up look at four university women who engaged in transactional sex.  She explored their motivations, specifically the different sources of power that these women derived when engaged with their clients, each other and their friends.  One major source of power was the contacts they had developed, who they could call on when they needed help or a favor.

Another fascinating and not surprising piece of learning was the way in which male writers in Africa criticize and marginalize female writers.  They are undervalued and repressed, negating everything about being a woman.  They are dismissed as writers and it is very hard for them to work.  These women are creating valuable stories about what it means to be a woman in African society today and it is difficult for them to find an audience for their work.  It was noted that ancient African cultures didn’t marginalize creative women; current attitudes that prevail today are seen as one of the “leftovers” from the colonial era.

I was extremely impressed with the work of Anakazi, a Los Angeles-based non-profit founded by Yareka Mhango, dedicated to mobilizing business development for women in Africa.  She stressed that the greatest obstacle for women entrepreneurs is financing.  Since women don’t own property, they have no collateral and the banks are not female-friendly.  Typically, women start small businesses but reach a certain level and they cannot grow.  These women also lack business support services and skills that are necessary for them to grow.  In Zambia, one of the countries where Anakazi is working, most women don’t even ask for outside help.  They may ask their husbands, who know little more than they do.  Anakazi, tries to connect these women with investors or other markets, sometimes inviting the women abroad for training.  They have established a very effective Joint Rural Development program where women in a given district can call in to a local radio station and there are people on the line who offer help or advice.

I found the personal experiences of Amanda Silver-Westrick a UCLA Geography major, with a minor in African Studies, most fascinating.  She worked in northern Senegal for two months studying gender roles surrounding water acquisition.  Why do women have the responsibility to carry water?  According to Amanda’s interviews of 250 people in two districts that didn’t have clean water, it is Koran-based: women must “oblige their husbands,” bringing them the things that they need.  Also, carrying water on one’s head is a culturally female thing to do.

Curiosity motivated me to do some online research and I found that in primarily Hindu India, where women are also responsible for getting water, the men get water for the specific purpose of providing it for their animals.  Women’s needs for clean water are more diverse, and include a strong need for the cleanest water possible for their children and so because of their greater need, the responsibility falls on them to fetch it.  Sad to say, whatever the culture or religion, it seems that the burden likely falls upon women to get water.


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