More challenges, fewer choices: Rural women are still in survival mode

Rural women and girls across Africa are more likely to be victims of harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage than their urban counterparts.

This year, the Commission on the Status of Women, held annually in New York, explores the empowerment of rural women and girls and aims to shine a light on the challenges they face as well as the opportunities available to them.

Ugandan gender activist, Mabel Sengendo Nabaggala explains why she hopes that this year’s Commission on the Status of Women will speak to rural women themselves – and in so doing make a real difference in their lives.

I was born and raised in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. Growing up, my mother used to take me and my siblings to our granny’s home (a two-roomed madhouse in Kawanda) during the long December holidays, to allow us to connect with our paternal relatives.

Since my father’s death, when I was just seven years old, we had been raised by my mother’s side of the family and so lacked regular contact with them.

It was always an exciting time for the first few days when our cousins enthusiastically showed us, their city relatives, off to anyone who cared.

This lasted a couple of days until the reality of rural life set in and we had to join our cousins to fetch firewood and water from distances we considered unbearable (looking back now it was probably 1km or less).

We cooked food over firestones as opposed to the gas cooker we had back home and constantly complained about the smoke and ashes, which would be the cause of teary eyes and coughs. By 8pm the kerosene lamp had to be puffed out to save fuel and the only source of entertainment was gathering around my grandmother’s “Sound Solo” radio to listen to the evening programmes – we had a 30-minute time limit to save batteries.

However, unlike my relatives who lived in the village permanently, I knew there was a way out, because soon the holiday would be over and I would be back home to mummy and the relatively comfortable urban life of Kampala.

So I cannot pretend to understand the plight of rural women – it is not my lived reality.

However, through my work with MenEngage Africa, particularly a project implemented by Children’s Dignity Forum, a member of MenEngage Africa in Tanzania, to address female genital mutilation and child marriage, I have had many interactions with rural women from the district of Tarime, one of the seven districts of the Mara Region of Tanzania.

This is the story of Salima*, who after undergoing female genital mutilation at 14 years of age, was forced into marriage with an older woman (yes, a woman) in a traditional practice called “nyumba ntobhu” (house of women). This is a Kuria practice where a wealthy older woman, often a widow, enters a marriage with a younger woman who takes on the “traditional” role of a wife, including farming, cooking, child bearing (the children born in this marriage belong to the older woman).

This arrangement mirrors a conventional marriage in all forms, except for the absence of a sexual relationship between the two.

Female genital mutilation includes any procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia or other injury to the female genital organs whether for cultural or any other non-medical reasons. It is practised as a rite of passage, after which a girl is considered a woman and ready for marriage and will thus leave school. Tarime is one of the areas infamous for practising female genital mutilation.

Young survivors of the practice often organise and meet in clubs where they share experiences and collectively implement income-generating activities as a means of economic empowerment. During a visit to one of these clubs, I heard several stories from young women about how their lives had changed as a result of female genital mutilation.

This is when Salima told me that one night, that visitors leading a number of cows, had come to her house and had intense discussions with her father. The next morning, she was told to pack a few belongings and to go with the visitors. She had no idea where she was heading or how long she would be gone for. Her destination turned out to be the house of a woman who had paid her dowry and had married her.

Salima’s first and most urgent task in that marriage was to bear children. Her wife offered her older son to have intercourse with Salima, who refused. This infuriated her wife who then began to bring strangers to the house to have sex with Salima. Her first child was born within the first year of marriage.

By the time she was telling me her story, Salima had escaped from her marital home with her youngest child. Besides being forced to have sex with numerous men for the purpose of procreation, Salima said she felt she was a slave, being forced to perform domestic activities including farming and chores, even while heavily pregnant.

The story of Salima paints a vivid picture of the plight of rural women and girls across Africa, who are more likely to be victims of harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation and child marriage than their urban counterparts. They are also more likely to drop out of school and be exposed to gender-based violence. Many, like Salima are denied their sexual and reproductive health rights. Salima couldn’t decide who her sexual partner would be, she didn’t have the voice to demand to know his health status before engaging in sex, meaning she was exposed to sexually transmitted infections. She couldn’t negotiate for safe sex, or decide when and how many children she would have. And this is a vicious cycle, because the female children of young women like Salima are likely to face the same challenges as their parents.

While my own culture doesn’t perform female genital mutilation, I know that my cousins had fewer opportunities than me. Before going to school they had to wake up early to fetch water and firewood, weed the garden and do other chores, then walk 2km to school. In comparison to urban children, the rural girl gets to school late and tired with low concentration levels. She arrives at schools that are under-equipped, to teachers who are unmotivated.

So, she can’t compete favourably and this is usually evident once the results of national exams are released, indicating poor performance in rural areas.

As distressing as this reality is, most of us know all of it.

This year’s Commission on the Status of Women aims to shine a light on the challenges faced by rural women and girls, as well as the opportunities. While it’s important to hear the experiences and challenges from women like Salima who live in rural areas themselves, or from organisations that work directly with rural women, what I really want to hear about are the opportunities that can be made available in terms of access to quality services like health, education and infrastructure like electricity.

I am looking forward to the government delegations from African countries making measurable commitments that civil society can use to hold them accountable. I am looking forward to organisations at country level making commitments to open up administrative centres in rural areas and getting their services, including legal aid and health services closer to rural women.

But most importantly, I hope to hear a language devoid of jargon that is accessible to rural women – I want to hear this from the deliberations to the outcome documents. I look forward to a Commission on the Status of Women that will make a difference.