Empowering women in rural Benin
By Sister Radegunda Shayo
In Zaffe, as in most African villages, women do a lot to keep their families going. They care for the children, do most of the farming and house-keeping. These are regarded as minor chores. No one would think of affirming a woman who gathered enough firewood to cook all the meals throughout the rainy season, kept her house clean, or made sure that there was always enough water in the big water jars outside the house for drinking, cooking and washing.
In village gatherings, women are supposed to listen rather than talk, even if the matter concerns them as women. In a mixed meeting, one could easily count the number of women who have the courage to stand and give their point of view.
One woman we know had a burning issue and decided to gather the villagers. She decided to separate men and women, each group meeting on a separate day. The outcome of this was breathtaking! She could hear from women things that she would never hear if she had the two groups together.
Most of them opened up, telling of their painful relationships with their marriage partners, all because they are not given a chance to give their opinions nor make decisions.
ASTELLE'S STORY . . .
Astelle had never been to school. Her younger brothers were sent to school but Astelle was expected to stay at home to help her mother with farming and other daily chores.
A Good Samaritan met her last month and because of her good character offered her a job as a house-girl so that she could earn some money. This person was even ready to go as far as starting Astelle in some kind of apprenticeship to better her future. She was quite excited and was looking forward to seeing a little bit of her country beyond the village where she has lived for the past twenty years.
Astelle's parents were consulted so that they could give their consent. The mother was seen first as she happened to be in the house while her husband had gone to farm. Her response was simple and direct. "Astelle is going to get married to a young man called Idosu, who is her age mate."
Apparently, when Astelle was a baby, Idosu's grandmother saw her and said that she would be her grandson's wife. Since the old woman is now dead, her wishes have to be respected! The Good Samaritan asked to see her father but her mother insisted that nothing would change even if the father were there.
Astelle was very disappointed. Trying to sympathize with her, I asked whether she really loved this young man, who is a secondary school student now. She broke into tears, which grew into a painful cry. When she was calm she explained that she did not like the man and that even the wine his parents brought to her parents was not yet consumed.
In this culture, when a young man wants to propose to a girl, his people bring a bottle of wine to the girl's family. Her parents then ask her whether they should drink the wine. If she says 'yes', it means she accepts the boy. Otherwise the wine is returned to the boy's family.
Astelle told me that she gave no response to her parents when she was asked, so the wine was kept somewhere in her father's house.
I could not understand why she did not respond with a plain 'no'. It was then I discovered that a girl cannot say no to her parents, so she used silence to say it all. No one knows what is going to happen next, especially when the wine is still there.
Astelle is only one among many girls in similar situations. Some of them have come to believe that as young women the only thing to look forward to is getting married and having babies, whether they are happy or not. They end up suffering a lot because they have nothing of their own to hold onto. They totally depend on their partners for everything.
Is there a direct solution to this problem? Your contribution to this question will be appreciated and it will be highly valued. It could be an important thread in the weaving of our strands in the male-dominated society.