For most women in the African country of Burkina Faso, where approximately half of the population lives below the poverty line, life is a daily struggle. Typically living in rural areas, most women have little access to ongoing education or potable water. Yet because they are the majority of farmers and are responsible for child care, Burkinabe women spend much of their day performing field work, growing food and crops for their families. However, despite this often grueling work, most Burkinabe women are not allowed to own the very land they farm, because customary law excludes women from land ownership, preventing them from investing in the tools, irrigation, and seeds that would make their families better fed and their children better off.
Last week, I traveled to Burkina Faso where I tried to learn more about what life is like for women farmers, what their governments are doing to empower them, and what U.S. assistance programs can do to help. The first three days from my trip diary are below. To read my full diary visit WomenThrive.org: RituInBurkina.
Day 1: Arriving in Ghana
Yesterday, I arrived in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Next week, my team will return to Ghana to meet with women in agriculture and trade. Tomorrow we leave for Burkina Faso, just to the north of Ghana, but I know I’ll be back in Ghana before too long.
We have met with various U.S. government officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the West Africa Trade Hub. They all say they work with women “by default,” which sounds too much to me like a salesman saying, “Yeah, we’ve got that.” Still, we’ve barely scratched the surface and we cannot judge something we know so little about. We also met with various women who make a living selling food in markets in Accra. My team will be back in Ghana next week to work with more local women’s organizations. Tomorrow we leave for Burkina Faso. My next update will be from there.
Day 2: Burkina Faso
Going from Accra, Ghana to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso is like going from Miami to Waco, Texas in a day. Same continent, so so different. Ouagadougou, or “Ouaga,” as residents call it, is smaller, drier, and much, much poorer.
We met Women Thrive’s partner organization, Coordinator Coalition Burkinabe pour Le Droit du la Femmes (CBDF), a coalition of fifteen women’s associations that educates Burkinabe women and helps them advocate for better economic rights, at the airport. We are very much looking forward to spending the week with them, traveling around the country and meeting with women in the rural villages they work with. I’m sure I’ll have many stories to tell you about them over the next few days.
The hotel is very modest, but does have A/C and wireless, and I think sleeping under a mosquito net is incredibly romantic, but that’s probably because, unlike so many, I don’t have to do it everyday.
The impacts of extreme poverty can be seen even in the comfort of our hotel, at the table next to us at dinner. Two, possibly French, men, engaged in business or perhaps development work, were sitting with a very pretty Burkinabe girl, probably not over fifteen. They treated her to dinner, showed her a movie on their laptop, and then took her back to their room. As a mother of two, the scene made me sick to my stomach. Our colleagues from CBDF says it’s a big problem, so much so that many hotels have trainers come and talk to the girls about how to, at the very least, keep themselves safe from STDs and AIDS. It will be good to get out of the hotel and start our work tomorrow. More tomorrow with pictures. Good night.
Day 3: The Farms
Catalina (Women Thrive’s Director of Global Partnerships), Toni (Women Thrive’s African Partnerships Manager) and I all agreed that today was about as good as it gets in life. We visited two women’s farming associations. The first we initially met up with under a tree in a semi-urban area, the second in a small compound owned by the government, but used by the women’s cooperative.
Next they return to the plots or to another task to earn income. Several hours of work later, they return home again to prepare another meal for their children, if there is food available. And if they didn’t get a turn at the community well in the morning, they return back to their plots to carry water, two watering cans at a time, to their crops. Finally, after a day of literally non-stop work, they go to bed at 10 p.m. I truly cannot imagine raising my two children while working such a long, grueling schedule in such extreme heat.
One group of farmers had received a little bit of help from the Burkina government, and they were MUCH better off than the other cooperative (less than a mile away) that had received none. It never ceases to upset me that we can’t get a little aid to EVERY group like this. If I can fly to Burkina Faso and get in a truck and visit this group, how can it possibly be so hard for the U.S. government to deliver such a small amount of assistance to local groups that are such great investments for reducing poverty throughout their entire community? CBDF has a network of over fifteen women’s cooperatives and I believe they’d make a great conduit for getting assistance to the right women. It seems pretty straightforward to me, and yet, it rarely happens.
What would they do with the extra income if they had it? I asked. They told me that they would first buy some land as a group so they are not always worried about losing it to men in the community, or discouraged from improving it (because it could be taken away from them at any moment). Next, they said, they would dig communal wells, so they could access better water and avoid the hours of travel that take away from time farming or caring for their children.
We ended the day with a surprise: we were invited by our partners to attend the second day of a Burkinabe wedding. The clothes, the drums, and the dancing were all very different from weddings back home, but the feeling of the excitement and giddiness in the crowd was exactly the same.
For my full diary with more pictures and links visit WomenThrive.org: RituInBurkina
By Ritu Sharma is Women Thrive Worldwide’s Co-Founder and President