Women were told stories as they breakfasted at Brisbane Convention Centre last Thursday (March 4, 2010) to celebrate International Women’s Day. And women around Australia attended other celebratory events to hear about the situation of women, good and bad, worldwide. Some of the stories they heard were enough to put them off their breakfast.
Tako Ndiayeis, of the African Section, UNIFEM New York, speaking in Brisbane, described the ways in which UNIFEM works to support women in Africa and Asia and why. UNIFEM stands for the United Nations Development Fund for Women.
She said the picture of many women in Africa toiling up and down hills every day carrying heavy and bulky loads of wood in order to provide their families with food and income was appalling. Harsh conditions and heavy weights, however, were only a part of it.
A particular story from the Congo she relates sets the scene: In one family the father asks the woman to fetch the wood because rebels might catch and kill him, but, if she got caught, he says, they would rape her.
“Maybe you should go,” the woman tells their daughter. “You can run faster and may be able to escape.”
The effects of poverty were multi-dimensional, Tako Ndiayeis said. Women had no voice. Power was with husbands and though a woman could attend training sessions, yet she could go home and be beaten every day.
However, UNIFEM studies have discovered that many women in Africa have become self-made cross-border traders and as such, are local entrepreneurs providing income for their families and working to get out of poverty.
Some earn enough to pay for food, television, rent, school fees, health care or building a house. But these women traders remained “invisible” because no statistics have been collected about them and therefore they are not counted or looked after, Ms Ndiayeis said. It is estimated that there are about 2,000 women who are cross-border traders in Africa.
The cross border traders earn a profit from the difference between costs, incorporating currency exchange, between countries. They have to negotiate customs, police and check points. Sometimes they avoid paying taxes by prostitution; sometimes their goods are confiscated. Exploitation can occur because they do not know necessary information even when, in some cases, there is no need to pay any taxes. Sometimes they are beaten or raped; yet their contribution to the economy is huge, she said.
UNIFEM backs cross-border trading and is working to support traders - trying to make sure they are properly informed and made “visible” by collecting statistics, so that they are no longer regarded as smugglers or prostitutes. The women carry loads either on their heads or backs. Women usually deal in textiles and agricultural produce, including cassava, while men mostly deal in watches and radios.
Current hardships and situations, which can also deny girls the chance to get an education, have become a public health issue, she said. It has been estimated that the energy used by women in Africa to fetch 40 billion packets of water each year is equivalent to the energy consumption of the entire population of France. This gave the women no time to rest, improve their skills, get an education, have any leisure or spend time with the family.
Tako Ndiayeis dedicated her talk as a tribute to women in developing countries who every day struggle to get food, water and fire wood to support their families and communities, and who are, she said, “surviving one day to the next”.