At school, in their family relationships, in hospital or in court, women in the Global South face inequalities on a daily basis. Despite the significant progress observed in the areas of education, healthcare and legislation, they are fewer in number than boys in universities and salaried employment, are subject to social imperatives, and are more vulnerable than men to illness and health risks. Yet, in Latin America, Asia and Africa, they are joining associative networks and local groups to demonstrate the value of their activities, assert their social role, and contribute to the development of their community. The research carried out by the scientists of the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development and their partners sheds light on these constraints but also on these hopes.
Does educating girls deconstruct inequalities?
In 2000, the 181 countries participating in the World Education Forum in Dakar under the aegis of UNESCO made a commitment that all children would benefit from primary school education, and to establish equal access to education for boys and girls. The education of girls must enable them to be independent and gain access to the job market and the economic development of States.
20 years later, where are we? According to the Gender Parity IndexRatio of female to male scores for a given indicator , calculated from school attendance rates, equality has been achieved in primary and secondary education globally, according to UNESCO. The GPI increased in primary education from around 0.91 to 0.98 between 1995 and 2019, from 0.90 to 0.99 over the same period in lower secondary education, and from 0.85 to 0.99 in upper secondary education..
More girls in primary education…
While parity has made progress generally throughout the world, there are significant regional differences: in India and in Latin America, the school enrolment rate for girls has increased greatly and is sometimes higher than that for boys. On the other hand, in certain African countries (Chad, Guinea, etc.) and Central Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan), despite the commitments made, the GPI has made less progress and has levelled out at 0.9.
“New public policies, investment by governments and international sponsors of educational provision have enabled these developments”, explains Marie-France Lange, a sociologist at CEPED. “Political democratisation, especially in Africa, has offered parents a period of stability and peace which has allowed them to feel more confident in the future and to educate their children. With the increase in the number of private and community schools, they have also had greater choice with regards to education. Schooling now appears essential, including for girls, even amongst the most underprivileged populations.“
... but obstacles still exist in secondary education
Although access for girls to primary school has improved, obstacles still exist however in access to secondary education and in particular to high schools. While 51% of countries achieved parity between the sexes in lower secondary education (middle school) in 2018, compared with 45% in 1995, only 24% of countries achieved it in upper secondary education (high school) in 2018, compared with 13% in 1995.
Reasons for this include insufficient public educational establishments to accommodate a large number of pupils, particularly in rural areas. Free access to education for girls is essential: if there is a charge for it, boys will be favoured over their sisters. Access to water within the household can also be a problem. For instance, studies carried out in Mali demonstrated that a water source within the compound increases the likelihood of children attending school by around 25%, and girls in particular. The time which is no longer spent fetching water is spent on new activities, of which education is one.
This issue of water is also a crucial one at school. Teenage girls have to cope with infrastructures which are not very inclusive: separate toilets for girls / boys are rareOne fifth of primary schools did not have basic separate bathroom facilities in 2018.1. Difficulties of access to water points and shortages of the precious liquid in educational establishments also cause absenteeism when girls have their periods. There are thus 335 million girls in the world attending primary and secondary schools that lack the essential facilities for menstrual hygiene.
“The issue of security is also a major one”, states Marie-France Lange. “In some countries, and depending on their social class, parents are frightened that their daughter might be harassed or raped on their way to school or on site, by their male classmates or the educational team. While there is no political will to counter this gender violence or legal penalties, parents will prefer to keep their teenage girls at home to protect them rather than educate them.” Finally, in certain regions such as Central Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa, social pressures often act as an impediment to the educational aspirations of young women. “School is not necessarily seen as essential and positive for their future role as wives and mothers”, adds the researcher. “So, some families prefer to marry them off early rather than educate them. In countries where the marriage of very young girls – under 16 years of age – is authorised, the enrolment rate of girls in secondary education is very low.”
Education of teenage girls does go hand-in-hand with a deferment of the age of first marriage and leads to the beginning of empowerment, in terms of choosing a husband and the possibility of accessing paid employment. So, in Senegal, where girls receive more primary and secondary education than boys, the median age of the first marriage increased from 16.4 years to 20.4 years between 1986 and 2018.
Construction of gender
Despite these positive effects, mass education has not necessarily reduced gender inequalities. Even when they are at school, girls are reminded of their place in society. For example, young girl pupils in Benin are responsible for cleaning the classroom and the yard during their recreation time. The schoolmasters ask them to go and fetch water and give the little ones snacks while the boys play. To this can be added gender stereotypes about the role of men and women in school textbooks, whether it be in Africa, Asia or Latin America: they often present boys as heroes, in highly-valued activities, with girls in a supporting role, mainly in domestic activities or activities linked to childcare or care for the elderly.
“School legitimises and reinforces the gender construction which begins very early within the family”, explains Bénédicte Gastineau, a demographer at LPED. “It trains girls to fulfil their future role as wives. With very limited access to higher studies – in Cotonou, 75% of students are boys for example – the educational glass ceiling is very low. In this sense, education alone does not enable girls to become emancipated. The social and economic context is crucial: a teenage girl from a wealthy family in a large city will be able to pursue much more advanced studies than a young girl living in an isolated village, in a low-income household.”
Migrating for education
In Sub-Saharan Africa, many teenage boys and girls living in rural areas choose other methods of training. They move to cities to learn a trade, most often manual: dressmaking, catering or mechanics. The geographic distance from their family home frees them from their everyday family obligations: boys no longer have to spend time on agricultural work and young girls no longer have to take care of their younger brothers and sisters. However, the girls most often live in cities with other members of their family, and are nevertheless assigned domestic tasks, in particular in exchange for food and lodgings.
“This domestic and care workload is specific to teenage girls and restricts them, in particular in relation to their training”, says Mélanie Jacquemi, a sociologist at LPED. “For example, they only spend a half-day in the dressmaking workshop while boys, who are exempted from these chores, can work there all day. Although they are not challenging these domestic tasks”, continues the researcher, “by coming to train, they still imagine themselves enjoying the signs and avenues of social success that are more expected of boys in these social environments.”
These very young migrants express more egalitarian opinions about the roles of men and women in society, considering that girls could become mechanics and boys do the cooking or carry out domestic tasks.
“However, the older they get, the stronger the social pressures become, and their elders (men and women) constantly remind them of the social rules and the need to comply with them”, she emphasises.
“International donors wished to use mass education of girls as a development tool. However, these programmes are sometimes too far removed from the social and economic realities. A smaller-scaled approach would allow concrete solutions to be introduced: in East Africa, for example, one NGO offered menstrual cups to girls who were absent from school once every month, allowing them to attend permanently. This type of initiative is more closely based on reality and is one way to facilitate access to education for girls, and to deconstruct gender inequalities, step-by-step”, concludes Mélanie Jacquemin.
En In Sub-Saharan Africa, emancipation and compromise within the family
At the end of the 1970s, African economies suffered the shock of the world oil crisis. The IMF and World Bank imposed Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) on developing countries, with economic austerity, privatisation of public enterprises, and liberalisation of foreign trade, among other things. These measures were quick to hit African societies. Civil servants, the majority of whom were men, lost their jobs and could no longer provide for their families. “Being unemployed meant that men lost social status”, explains Agnès Adjamagbo, a social demographer at LPED. “So women took up the baton: the income generated by their mostly-informal activities became essential for paying the bills from day to day: rent, children’s education, healthcare, etc.”
Today, in western and central Africa, women still work for the most part in the informal economy, as they have fewer qualifications than men. Although on the increase, access to higher education for young women is still in the minority in these regions. Women mainly work for themselves or as employees in small family businesses in female-oriented sectors: catering, craftwork, agriculture, street trading, etc.
Even so, although many of them operate on a hand-to-mouth basis, others are better educated, obtain higher-paid salaried jobs in public or private enterprises, or rise to positions traditionally reserved for men. In coastal cities, such as Lomé or Cotonou, women business leaders who have graduated from European or American universities are taking their place in greater numbers in the business world.
Double the workload
Has this access to the job market brought women equality with men within their own families? Not necessarily: still today, they face a “double workload”: as well as their work outside the home, they are also responsible for the domestic chores. The financial independence they have acquired does not automatically give them more power within the home.
The management of water within the household can be an indication of this inequality, for example. When homes have a tap in the yard or in the house, women can sometimes find themselves dependent on the good will of their husband. As men generally take charge of the biggest household expenditure items, they will often control access to the tap to avoid overly high bills. “For example, they might install a padlock on the only tap in the yard if they consider that water is being wasted”, explains Stéphanie Dos Santos, a socio-demographer at LPED. “Accordingly, women have to organise themselves to manage their water stocks. Despite these responsibilities within households, they are still insufficiently involved in the management of water at the community or more global level, despite the stated wishes of international donors."
Although financial independence allows better-off women to entrust their domestic obligations to household staff, mostly women, only the man can legitimately hold the status of head of the family, whatever the social class. In the social ideal, he should have a good job and support all of his extended family. Within their family circle, women therefore conceal their contribution to household expenditure in order not to offend him.
“Male dominance over women remains”, continues Agnès Adjamagbo. “The family institution is the guardian of this normative system. A single woman who works, earns her living legitimately and takes charge of her family’s expenditure is subjected to strong pressure to marry. In fact marriage is seen as an essential route to self-fulfilment for young women: while they are unmarried, they feel neither respectable nor respected.”
Once married, the imperative to have children has a significant impact on women’s professional ambitions, and they struggle to postpone motherhood. “Proving their fertility and bringing three or four children into the world is still very much valued socially”, the researcher points out. “In this situation, medical staff are reluctant to prescribe contraception to young brides, who are expected to produce a child in the first year of their marriage. Women are also reluctant to use the pill or the coil, often associated with sexual licentiousness and with harmful effects on health.”
Emergency contraception sometimes offers an alternative to those who do not want children, as does abortion in the event of an unwanted pregnancy. However very restrictive legislation in this area in these regions makes the situation dangerous.
Strategies to try to exist
To circumvent gender inequalities, women adopt resistance-based approaches, avoiding head-on confrontation. Very much aware of the pressures they have to cope with, they use certain levers in order to attempt to exist as an individual.
For instance, women traders in Senegal join religious associations and organise events to grow their network, build relationships at the highest level, and benefit from the support of religious dignitaries. “Business and financial networks are reserved for men”, says Sadio Ba Gning, a sociologist at the University of Gaston Berger in Saint Louis (Senegal). “So women use religion as a source of identity: the church and the mosque offer material resources, such as premises for a shop for example, and relational and symbolic resources. Having access to prayers and blessings can also be perceived as psychological support.”
Finally, some single women who are highly committed to their professional career are quite prepared to marry a polygamous man and accept becoming a second or third wife. In this way, they are fulfilling the social requirements and can continue to work and travel, as their husband is seldom present. Women's economic success is thus built via a balance between their need for freedom on the one hand, and compliance with imposed marital and maternal standards on the other. Emancipation is real but remains very much a compromise.
Health: gendered vulnerabilities
Health is a major issue in social gender relations around the world, but even more so in the Global South. Male/female inequalities are highest there, whether it be in access to healthcare or coping with illness. It is usually women who take care of the sick in their family, children, adults and the elderly. They are in charge of careA social science concept incorporating both responsibility with regard to dependent and vulnerable persons and the fact of taking part in looking after them. . In the field of health, this care is traditionally opposed to cure, treating the illness. So, they visit medical centres, purchase medication and manage healthcare-related items.
“In Africa, as part of the fight against malaria, mosquito nets are distributed free of charge to pregnant women and children aged from 0 to 4 years old”, explains Marc Egrot, an anthropologist and doctor with UMR LPED. “It is mostly women who come to collect these mosquito nets and manage them on a daily basis. Similarly, when health care teams organise vaccination sessions, the majority of attendees are women. Healthcare education messages are mainly addressed to them and reinforce their responsibility for the good health of their family members."
This responsibility is reflected in an additional daily workload, in particular in relation to access to water, for example. The women and daughters are generally in charge of the quality and quantity of this precious liquid within the household, and organise their time around the possibilities of finding it. “In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 33% of urban households have access to water in their home”, says Stéphanie Dos Santos, a socio-demographer with LPED. “When water is only available at a communal supply point, women must sometimes get up in the middle of the night to go and fetch it. These demands are stressful for their body, and also cause anxiety for women living in notoriously dangerous areas.“
Difficulties of self-protection and self-care
In addition to the mental stress of responsibility for the health of their household, women are weakened by increased vulnerability to illness and infection. For example, they have more difficulties obtaining safe sex, and therefore protecting themselves against sexually transmitted diseases – AIDS, human papillomavirusor HPV, a virus which can cause cancer of the cervix infection, hepatitis, syphilis, etc. Faced with a man who does not wish to use a condom, they very rarely haggle over protection.
And when they do fall ill, they are often dependent on their husband for access to healthcare. If a woman is financially dependent, her husband must agree to pay for the consultation, and give them time off them from domestic tasks, so they can see a doctor. Yet, HPV screening is essential to limit its development into cancer. “90% of cervical cancers are found in Sub-Saharan Africa”, states Alexandre Dumont, a doctor and reproductive epidemiologist. “Few men are familiar with this illness and yet they have a role to play in helping women get screened. To gender relations can be added socio-economic inequalities: it is the poorest women who go for screening the least and who develop these cancers. “
Trying for a boy
Once married, women are encouraged to give birth to boys under twofold pressure from society and the family. By bringing a male child into the world, they are in fact responding to the demands for patrilineal linesMode of filiation in which only paternal kinship counts . It guarantees the inheritance and therefore gains them acceptance with their in-laws. “In countries where the birth-rate is high (Africa, Central Asia), births follow on in quick succession until the arrival of a little boy”, explains Christophe Z. Guilmoto, a demographer with CEPED. "Little girls are neglected: they are less well fed and cared for than little boys, and fewer survive.”
In Asia and Eastern Europe, this passive behaviour has changed since the 1980s: in these regions, the birth-rate has been greatly reduced, and pregnancy has become medicalised. Access to ultrasound scans has become general and abortion has become legal. In this context, sex-selective abortions are on the increase: as soon as a scan allows parents to know the sex of the foetus, they decide whether or not to take a pregnancy to term. “The “natural” ratio is 105 male births to 100 female births”, continues the researcher. “With this selection in utero, the ratio could go up to 120, still in favour of boys. This deficit of girls produces an imbalance over several generations and affects the population as a whole. For example, in India, China and Vietnam, women have become scarce on the marriage market. Young men, in particular the poorest, have problems finding a wife and are discredited and excluded from society. “
To counter these measures, governments forbid doctors from divulging the sex of the foetus during ultrasound scans or carrying out sex-selective abortions. Campaigns promoting the role of women have been launched and States are attempting to reform family law, specifically to offer girls the possibility of inheriting. “But it is very difficult, as they come up against strong societal pressure”, adds Christophe Z Guilmoto. “Currently, the situation is stabilising in these countries and the imbalance between men and women will narrow in years to come. But the phenomenon could affect other regions in the future, in Africa and the Middle East for example, where the birth-rate is falling increasingly and sex-selective abortion could guarantee families a boy.”
Caesareans, a double penalty
The medicalisation of pregnancy leads to other consequences. In Latin America, Asia, and in certain wealthy social classes in African cities, it leads to women no longer giving birth vaginally, but by Caesarean section. One in two women thus undergoes surgery to give birth in the Dominican Republic (58%), Brazil (55%) Chile (50%) and Ecuador (49%). In Asia, the contrasts are regional: barely 6% of women resort to Caesarean section in the state of Bihar in the north of India, but 58% do so in the more prosperous state of Telangana in the south. Yet, on average, only 10% of births are thought to need a Caesarean section for medical reasons.
So why suggest a Caesarean section, which is a risky surgical procedure? “For the medical profession, it allows a birth to be scheduled,” replied Alexandre Dumont. “It is also more profitable than a natural birth. With regard to society, in certain Asian countries, the in-laws, and the husband might push for a Caesarean section in order to preserve the future mother’s perineum. Finally, for the women themselves, it may seem more reassuring to give birth in a highly medical environment when they are rarely accompanied by a loved one during the event. “
The risks are many, whether it be for the mother – haemorrhage, cardiac arrest, venous thrombosis, problems linked to anaesthesia – or for the child: respiratory distress, poor development of intestinal microbiotaBabies born vaginally ingest their mothers’ secretions which feed their microbiota, microorganisms which live in the digestive tract1, breastfeeding more difficult to establish, etc.
The situation leads to a “double penalty” for women: those who live in countries with an underdeveloped medical infrastructure have very little access to Caesareans - 28 countries do not even reach a ratio of 5% of Caesareans – while others suffer the consequences of this over-medicalisation of pregnancy. To respond to this ambivalence, an international network of researchers has been established, coordinated by the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development – Quali-decThis network financed by the WHO and the European Commission brings together researchers and doctors working in Argentina, Burkina Faso, Thailand and Vietnam. 1. It proposes concrete measures to reduce the number of medically-unjustified Caesarean sections. “Including women more in decision-making about their pregnancy, allowing them to be accompanied by a loved one during the birth, and providing caregivers with information tools, are all approaches which we hope will help achieve care which is more adapted to women’s needs”, concludes Alexandre Dumont.
With this mental stress, over-exposure to illness, and risks linked to maternity and sexuality, among other factors, it thus appears essential that we take account of women’s gendered vulnerability today, in order to provide the most appropriate responses to health issues, whether they concern only women or the population generally.
Men, victims of their masculinity
At the beginning of the 2000s, a study carried out on access to antiretroviral treatments in Burkina Faso highlighted the pitfalls of social representation, in particular with regard to men. “In several healthcare centres, our research demonstrated that very few men came to seek the necessary treatment for an HIV infection, although its prevalence amongst men and women was identical”, says Marc Egrot. Being ill would in fact signify that you were incapable of protecting yourself or your loved ones from the illness. Moreover, as the distribution of medicine was often combined with that of food, it would reveal men’s inability to provide for their families. This representation of male strength and virility, so highly prized and championed by men themselves in this society, in fact makes them vulnerable with regard to their access to healthcare services and reduces the possibility of them receiving effective treatment for the illness they are suffering from.
Law, a potential vector for equality
How can we reduce inequalities between men and women? For women’s rights activists, passing new laws or repealing others is an essential part of their struggle. The rights of individuals are in fact governed by different legislative texts, including family codes or personal status codes which address issues of marriage, inheritance and divorce, the criminal code, the nationality code and the public health code which deals in particular with abortion. In the Global South, these laws have undergone many changes since being introduced at the end of the 19th century. v
Codifying private life in Africa
“In the Middle-East and North Africa, family law issues were managed until the 20th century by “fiqhIslamic jurisprudence” drawn up by jurists who had put down in these works what they thought to be the will of God”, explains Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron, a legal expert and specialist in Arab law at CEPED.“States subsequently incorporated these norms from Islamic law into codes based on the French legal model, also used in English protectorates such as Egypt. Revisions were made in order to ease the severity of certain rules and so improve the status of women. These codes differed from one country to another depending on political will and the societal contexts peculiar to each of them.”
So, in Tunisia, in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba imposed an innovative family code by decree, banning polygamy and establishing equality between men and women in divorce proceedings, among others. In contrast, Morocco and Algeria introduced very conservative family codes in 1959 and 1984, respectively. Under pressure from feminist movements, they were revised in 2004 in Morocco and in 2005 in Algeria. Further south, in the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of the population is of the Muslim faith, family codes are also inspired by Islam.
A status which remains unequal
Whatever country they live in, women are affected daily by these laws: they restrict their independence and their ability to make choices. When their husband wants to take another wife, for example, they cannot contest it: polygamy is authorised in North African countries (except in Tunisia), in the Middle East and in several African countries, even though it is now subject to prior authorisation by a judge in Morocco and Algeria.
As regards financial independence, the matrimonial regime in Africa is commonly that of the separation of property: each spouse retains the belongings they have acquired before and during the marriage. However, real estate property is generally registered in the name of the husband, in particular the family home. And the wife rarely has any resources of her own before their marriage. These provisions weaken the position of wives who, in the event of divorce, cannot claim the right to remain in the family home or to have one half of the property purchased jointly during the marriage.
An internalised role
This economic insecurity is reinforced by the issue of inheritance. In North Africa, the rules on successionSet of rules identifying persons who inherit from a deceased person, and the share of each of the heirs. It defines the order of inheritance are governed by Muslim law, and rule that daughters receive one half of the amount received by sons. “Contributing to economic life, investing and working are very difficult for women in these conditions, as they cannot be independent”, continues Nathalie Bernard-Maugiron. “In fact they are financially dependent on their husband, who must provide for all household expenses in exchange for their obedience. So they do not dare go against his will, as they have no personal resources.”
While the obligation to be obedient has been abolished in three North African countries, for example, and the legal status of women has improved – access to divorce, the option of adding clauses to the marriage contract in favour of the wife, and the abolition of matrimonial guardianship – the social environment often makes it difficult for women to exercise these new rights which have been granted to them.
In Burkina Faso, for instance, even though legislation has offered women a more favourable, more egalitarian status, they do not always take advantage of their rights: “They have internalised their role. In the event of divorce, for example, they often do not call on a judge as it is inconceivable that a woman would drag her husband before a court”, emphasises Bilampa Gnoumou Thiombiano, a demographer at the Higher Institute for Social Sciences (ISSP) at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University in Burkina Faso. “Relationships between couples are less unequal due to the earnings of wives who use their financial independence to negotiate about certain aspects of their life. But women are not really challenging the role that has been assigned to them since childhood.”
Court of Human Rights
All the same, the law does seem to be a vector for women’s equality, despite social pressures. In 2003, 49 of the 54 Member States of the African Union signed the Maputo Protocol.Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa This protocol safeguards women’s rights, including social and political equality with men. Women’s associations in Mali have seized on this text ratified by their country to challenge the new Family Code adopted in 2011 by the Malian State.
“The first Malian family code was enacted in 1962 and included discriminatory measures against women”, explains Marième N’Diaye, a sociologist (CNRS/LAM). “In 2009, a new code more favourable to women was adopted. But under pressure from religious groups, the government reversed the decision, and a new version of the text was enacted in 2011. Women’s associations consider that it reinforced the discriminatory nature of the 1962 code, which prompted them to make an appeal to the Court of Human Rights of the African Union.” Indeed, these women consider that the new family code breaches the commitments made by Mali when it ratified the Maputo Protocol. In 2018, the Court of Human Rights found in their favour and ordered Mali to revise its family law to comply with the aims of the protocol.
Since then, Mali has still not revised its family code. Even so, the Malian experience provides an example of a legal struggle for other African women. Senegalese women, for example, wish to obtain the right to abortion in a country which has banned it completely – with the exception of therapeutic abortion, which is extremely limited and complex to implement, even in the case of rape or incest, in violation of the Maputo Protocol. Indeed, the latter provides for the legalisation of abortion in certain circumstances: “in the case of sexual assault, rape, incest, and when pregnancy endangers the life of the mother and the foetus”.
“The State has made progress in this area via the creation of a “task force for safe abortion”. Women’s associations have taken a major role in this committee and proposals have been made to remove the criminal penalties. Unfortunately, no reform has been passed due to pressure from religious movements. Today, Senegalese female activists consider that an appeal to supranational courts could be the solution to make progress in this struggle”, according to the researcher.
Latin America: to have or not to have the right to abortion
In Latin America, women are also fighting for the right to abortion. On this continent, laws on this subject differ in terms of degree and permissiveness, from countries where it is authorised at the request of the woman (Cuba, Guyana, Puerto Rica, Uruguay and Argentina) to others where it is totally forbidden (Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Surinam). “Legalisation has been imposed at different times”, indicates Agnès Guillaume, a demographer specialising in issues of reproductive health at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development. “In Cuba, for example, abortion was legalised in 1965, whereas Argentina only made it available to women on demand in 2020, after an unsuccessful attempt in 2018. Approaches also differ by country. So, some of them consider abortion solely as a public health problem to be solved, while for others it is a women’s rights’ issue. In others, the influence of religion, conservative movements and a strongly patriarchal culture are an impediment to legislative change.”,
So, some countries – such as Honduras, whose Parliament voted for a reform of the Constitution on 21 January 2021, incorporating a total ban on abortion into organic law – are introducing constitutional reforms imposing the right to life from conception. “In this case, abortion is considered as a crime or even a homicide punishable by prison terms for the women or the people who help them to perform abortions. So feminist movements play a very important role in changing legislation, such as the Green Scarf movement in Argentina, which brought about the legalisation of abortion on 30 December 2020”, added Agnès Guillaume.
These restrictive laws lead women to undergo risky procedures by carrying out abortions themselves or using the services of poorly-qualified healthcare personnel. They use medication, in particular misoprostol, a hormonal medication known for its abortive properties. Women obtain it through informal channels and pharmacies, but do not always have the necessary information to use it correctly. At the same time, and to remedy this, some NGOs and associations distribute this medication and explain how to use it safely.
Even so, only legislation could allow abortion to be recognised as a women’s health right, a sexual and reproductive right, and finally to be performed in satisfactory and safe conditions. This is what feminist movements are campaigning for in southern developing countries where legislation on abortion, but also on their personal rights, restricts their freedom.
India : equal inheritance rights can improve living conditions for girls
In 1994, the states of Karnataka and Maharashtra reformed the Hindu law of succession in order to establish equality between men and women in the area of inheritance. A study by the World Bank reports greater investments by parents in their daughters as a result of this legislative change. Its effects on the second generation of girls are even greater: mothers who have benefited from the reform spend twice as much as before on the education of their female children. The empowerment promoted by the law can thus give women greater bargaining power within the household and can help to improve their educational and financial prospects. This reform has been extended to the whole of India since 2005.
Where are we with female empowerment?
In Africa, but also in Latin America and Asia, many women have struggled throughout the 20th century to improve their existence. They have taken action through collective, inclusive initiatives to challenge the relationships of domination which marginalise them. These movements embody the concept of empowerment which emerged at the beginning of the 1980s.
At the time of colonisation, African women played an important economic and political role. They managed large businesses, and took part in the struggle against the colonisers in Egypt, in Ghana and in Ethiopia where some led the war against the Italian armies that occupied the country between 1936 and 1941. “But the normalisation efforts of the colonial administrations and gradual establishment of centralised states redefined these gender norms”, explains Pierre Guidi, a historian at CEPED. “In Nigeria at the beginning of the 20th century, for example, women lost their political and economic power as the colonial authorities recognised only men as intermediaries. In the 1920s, many Nigerian women took part in multiple protests, accompanied by the looting of stores, and protested in front of colonial government buildings to demand an end to these discriminatory measures.”
Rallying against dictatorships
In Ethiopia, after the departure of the Italian armies, women could no longer become landowners or take up military careers. The State introduced education policies with the aim of educating women to become model mothers and wives through the teaching of care and childcare. They were also prepared for what were seen as female professions, such as primary school teachers, midwives and nurses. Few teenage girls benefited from education in 1960s and 70s – they represented only 20% of secondary school pupils and mainly came from wealthy backgrounds – but they used it to reclaim their place in society and get involved in activist movements. During this period, there were many women in the countries of the Global South fighting to improve their existence. .
They rallied against the authoritarian or dictatorial powers that be and violations of human rights, like the South African women who organised the resistance to apartheid in the townships in the 1970s. In Argentina, mothers protested every week from 1977 onwards on the Plaza de Mayo opposite the presidential palace, in an attempt to find their children who had "disappeared" under the military dictatorship (1976-1983). Around the world, they became known as the “Madwomen of Plaza de Mayo”, taking up the expression that had been attributed to them to discredit them.
Empowerment, a bottom-up transformation process
Although women were becoming involved politically, only the economic aspect was taken into account in the “Women and Development” programmes rolled out during the “United Nations Decade for Women”, from 1976 to 1985. These projects claimed that gender inequalities could be reduced by increasing women’s economic power. At the beginning of the 1980s, many feminist associations and networks in the Global South, notably DAWNDevelopment Alternatives with Women for a New Era. It was created in India but its reach is worldwide, a network of feminist researchers, activists and political leaders, denounced this purely economic and individual approach. Women were seen as being dependent on a husband who provided the income, and the projects were restricted to dressmaking, livestock farming, etc.
For the feminists of DAWN, women’s power would on the contrary be strengthened through “a radical transformation of the economic, political, legal, cultural and social structures which perpetuate gender-based domination, but also ethnic origin, class and age”: that is empowerment. Researcher Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès, a sociologist at the University of Montreal, defines this concept as follows: “It’s a multi-dimensional, bottom-up process which enables women to become aware, both individually and collectively, of the relationships of domination which marginalise them, and which builds their capacity to radically transform inegalitarian economic, political and social structures.”“Empowerment”: the genealogy of a key concept in contemporary discourse on development1
“The concept of empowerment can be genuinely transformative if it allows value to be reassessed”, says Isabelle Guérin, a socio-economist at CESSMA. “Gender inequalities are based on a mistaken conception of value in which only monetary and commercial activities are valuable and "productive", which neglects a whole range of activities which are essential to life and often performed by women. Looking at feminist struggles from the viewpoint of value allows us to grasp their transformative potential more effectively.”
For instance, lower-caste women in rural India have organised themselves since the 1980s to fight against sand mining and protect the value of the soil in their region, not out of a concern for “nature”, but because their survival depends on it. Their actions have helped to bring in regulation of sand mining by the State and to raise awareness among local populations of the need to reassert the value of their local territory.
Also in India, in the state of Maharashtra, women waste collectors unionised in the 1990s to convince their municipalities of the value of their work. They costed the savings made by the municipality and were successful in their demand for payment.
In Latin America, women have been coming together for some forty years to work in community canteens and daycare centres. Their aim is to reduce the time spent preparing meals or looking after children individually and to demand payment. Thanks to their joint action, they have obtained public grants for this work of public interest to feed the population and raise children in satisfactory conditions.
These initiatives, which are still relevant in these different regions of the world, were the subject of a documentary produced by the Gender Centre from Graduate Institute of Genève :
A feminist and solidarity-based economy
It was in the economic crisis of the 1990s that a solidarity economy was forged on the South American subcontinent. As the formal job market came to exclude more and more people, new forms of work emerged. “Under the dictatorships, everything that was perceived as ‘informal’ and ‘traditional’ was devalued”, explains Isabelle Hillenkamp, a socio-economist at CESSMA. “In Brazil, with the return of democracy, the solidarity economy was confirmed as a social movement then, under the governments of Inacio “Lula” da Silva (2003-2011) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), found a place at the highest state level with a National Secretariat for the Solidarity Economy within the Ministry for Labour and Employment. Although it still has little visibility, it largely concerns the areas of careA social science concept incorporating both responsibility with regard to dependent and vulnerable persons and the fact of taking part in care, and agroecology. Women are in the majority in this sector but unlike men, they were not beneficiaries of the green revolution Policy for the transformation of farming in developing countries from the 1960s onwards, based on intensification, inputs and the use of high yield cereal varieties programmes and preserved their traditional know-how.”
Since the 1990s, these women have been supported by local NGOs which have established public education programmes: women farmers have gathered together in networks, such as the RAMARede Agroecológica de Mulheres Agricultoras, Agroecology Network of Women Farmers local network within which they participate in support groups. There they learn to express themselves in public and gain confidence in themselves: thanks to which they gradually succeed in convincing themselves and their families of the value of their production. Initially intended for self-consumption and local aid, this activity can also generate income when the surplus is sold via commercial channels.
MonetisationCalculation of monetary equivalent of the women farmers’ production is a strategy for highlighting the value of their work. From a practical point of view, they note down in agro-ecological notebooks what they have sold, given and bartered. They gradually realise that their total production, both monetary and non-monetary, has a value which is often higher than that of the minimum wage. “However, this non-monetary share for self-consumption and bartering must not disappear”, adds the researcher. “Selling should not destroy food security or family and community support. “
These women’s movements, which are gradually growing, in particular in Brazil and Argentina, contribute to this economic and political empowerment. The women farmers increasingly travel around their country, organising their action network and training new members, and thus experience a significant personal and collective process of change.
However, there is great resistance, in particular within families. The latter can perceive this change as a threat and still not accept that these women contribute less to domestic tasks. Some women farmers thus prefer to withdraw from these groups for fear of reprisals within their household. Obstacles also continue to exist at the highest level: during the Brazilian Agroecology Conference in 2017 in Brasilia, only men took part in a plenary session on the memory of agroecology. The women present protested against their exclusion and then created a memorial frieze on the role of women in agroecology.
The end of empowerment ?
At international level, although the concept of empowerment was adopted progressively in the 1990s by intergovernmental institutions, it has gradually been stripped of its meaning. Despite the multiple indicators for measuring progress in male-female equality, from the Gender Development Index to the Gender Empowerment Measure, they fall far short of the multidimensional definition of empowerment. “Empowerment is gradually becoming a vague and falsely consensual concept, which depoliticises the collective and is instrumentalized to legitimise existing top-down policies and programmes”, emphasises Anne-Emmanuèle Calvès.
However, far from this global and depoliticised version, local initiatives continue to flourish, drawing on memories of activism. For instance, the young generation of Ethiopian feminists has sought to take inspiration from the experience of their elders. “In 1996, lawyers and campaigners imprisoned by the dictatorial regime in the 1980s founded the Ethiopian Women’s Lawyer Association to defend female victims of violence”, recalls Pierre Giudi. “The association today is a place for the transmission of information between these activists and the young lawyers who are employing new methods for taking action, media-based amongst others. Elsewhere, in middle schools and high schools, the female teachers who grew up during the 1970s influenced by the message of emancipation are forming clubs just for girls. They are important resources for their female students and fight with them against harassment so that gender-based violence is not repeated.”
Agroecology in Africa, a tool for community development
In Africa also, agroecology offers women opportunities for economic independence, allowing them to increase their contribution to their community. In Senegal, since 2006, the Caritas NGO and its partners have supported more than 2,000 women in two rural areas of the Fatick region, on the borders of Gambia. These women farmers employ practices similar to those of agroecology: mixed cropping, the use of compost, fertiliser plants, etc. The aim of this project is twofold: to improve living conditions for households by increasing their food security via production for family consumption, and to increase their income and purchasing power by selling their surplus crops. “Thanks to the income from their sales, these women farmers feel more independent from their husbands”, says Marie-Thérèse Daba Sene, a doctoral student in sociology at Gaston Berger University in Saint-Louis in Senegal. “While this economic independence is limited, it still opens up prospects for emancipation from men. They are not seeking to escape patriarchal structures, but are committed to more solidarity-based social relationships and wealth creation. For this, they rely on their income and their ability to negotiate strategies for circumventing gender-based restrictions and to reconcile their productive and reproductive roles.” The majority of them have thus been able to improve their children’s nutrition and enrol them in school in greater numbers. Some of these women today occupy posts of responsibility within their village or are members of health centre management committees.