Friday, December 28, 2012

On the Cusp of Change: The Future of Africa's Working Women

On the Cusp of Change: The Future of Africa's Working Women

By Abbie Saunders
The International

Last week the Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke out about the importance of self-sustaining economic growth in 2013. The withdrawal of certain charitable aids from the country came after Kagame criticized reliance upon international organizations. The President declared that “this (headquarter) initiative is aimed at showcasing the Rwandese energy and capacity to be self reliant, and that no one can come from abroad and build our capacity like this facility.”

The initiative itself, termed ‘Agaciro’, is reminiscent of the Mali’s self-sufficiency ideal, which was encouraged by the country’s workers after March’s coup d’état. 75% of Malian workers are farmers and many prefer to reject international aid in favour of cultivating their own arable land for their most prolific agricultural exports: cotton, rice, vegetables, shea butter, and tuna. Mali’s trade industry is dominated by local women, and by the end of 2011, foreign investment in Mali’s arable land had increased by 60%. Wealthy nations such as China and Saudi Arabia have invested in the land for their own cultivation purposes, destroying many of the trees and plants that Malians rely so heavily upon for their own trade.

The coup d’état of March 2012 necessitated the withdrawal of various foreign organizations, such as the instalment of the sugar-plantation project SOSUMAR. In the recent ‘Why Poverty?’ documentary ‘Land Rush’ the working women of Mali were interviewed, expressing their support for the project. But in a country where 90% of African working women already operate in the manufacture of trading goods, how will the withdrawal of international charities affect their role?

How is Malian trade affected by women working on arable land?

African working women are indispensable to trade. The Women of Africa charity quotes that “50-60% of the workforce in developing countries [work] in the informal sector” with women comprising “90% of […] the informal sector”. Opinions on the level of feminist consciousness in Africa are strongly divided. Women make up 70% of the 1.8 billion people that live from less than $1 per day, and yet women are responsible for some of the most profitable African exports.

In 2008, Mali was responsible for exporting 80,000 tons of shea nuts, ranking second only to Burkina Faso having exported 90,000 tons in the same year. The shea tree is unique to Africa. Sonja Melissa Perakis in her study of Shea trade in Mali quotes that “most rural women residing in the ‘shea belt’ participate in the production, processing (handling), and marketing of shea.” The African shea trees are responsible for the livelihood and employment of the majority of Malian women. As a result, they generate an estimated $20million trade per annum, based upon the projection of USAID in conjunction with West Africa Trade Hub’s figures in March 2010.

Despite the prolific nature of shea trade, many of these women live at the very bottom of the world poverty scale. It is the relationship between working and earning that polarizes opinions about how the development of Malian land by international organizations might affect the role of the African working woman.

When the SOSUMAR sugar-plantation was proposed, it was allotted 25,000 hectares of land. According to the National Coordination of Peasant Organizations, only 280 hectares are presently occupied. Working women were divided over the initial development. In ‘Land Rush’, several women voice their concerns over the replacement of shea trees with the sugar plantation. They consider that their already prolific local trade is being destroyed and replaced by an American or a European corporation trade system that will not benefit them. “If they give us a lot of money for our land, then our land is more valuable than their money”, says one local.

One working woman interviewed by ‘Why Poverty?’ remarks upon the benefits of the development project. She says that working opportunities for women will be provided by the sugar-plantation, working opportunities that may generate a greater income for the individual working woman. The majority of women that work in the shea butter trade are still expected to live from less than $1 per day. On the sugar plantation many Malian women believe that men and women will have equal access to both working and earning.

Since the coup d’état the majority of land allotted to the project has been abandoned. The organizations were forced to withdraw their development project as a result of the uprising. As 2012 draws to a close, many countries in Africa are attempting to reform their charity and land distribution policies. The spotlight falls once again upon Mali as divided opinions about self-sufficiency cast a shadow upon the long-standing traditions of working women in Africa.

How may the traditions of working women in Africa change as a result of charity and land distribution policies in 2013?

Different charities and land distribution policies established in these African third-world countries ultimately have different goals. Some land distribution deprives the working women of their land altogether by attributing it to a foreign source, whilst some actually provide women with the opportunity to work and earn on behalf of a charitable corporate project. Women’s views are polarized about charitable aid in Mali; some believe that it will help them pursue their own independence, whilst others believe that it encourages a dependence on charitable corporation by hindering their own trade.

It is a violation of Malian property law for the government to sell local arable land, and yet before the coup d’état foreign agro-investment increased by 60%. The world food crisis of 2008 and consequent poverty led to China, Ukraine, and Saudi Arabia purchasing vast amounts of land against Malian legislation. These countries are destroying the trees and plants that are central to Mali’s local trade. They are cultivating the land to provide food for their own densely-populated countries.

The strong militant presence in Mali has damaged charitable investment and capital generated by tourism in recent months. In the same way as Rwanda officials are discouraging charitable presence, Mali is now forced to be largely self-sufficient. But is it too late for Malian self-reliance? It is among the 25 poorest countries in the world and landlocked, having illegally sacrificed large quantities of land to foreign agribusiness. Self-reliance for women in the present Malian economic climate has been compromised by a hindrance of their local trade; now that their land has been sacrificed, can Malian women be expected to have the resources to sustain a self-sufficient industry and lifestyle?

Oxfam claim that Malian women have enjoyed “few land rights”, stating that their agricultural livelihood hangs in the balance due to competition with bio fuel production. Oxfam asks “will employment prospects cover the livelihood of women?” In an increasingly restricted local agribusiness infrastructure and with restricted access to education, women are largely confined to the informal trade workforce of Mali. In the battle between the foreign mechanization of agribusiness and local self-sufficiency, both options provide alternative outcomes. Either women are forced to sacrifice their local trade to become part of a corporate workforce, or they sacrifice a stable working opportunity to continue working in an environment that is increasingly challenged by restricted land, bio fuel and mass production. Since the mutinous uprising of March 2012, the growing number of corporate projects have become largely redundant. The land was allotted to the projects, and abandoned in the light of political turmoil. Thousands of hectares of this land remain unused. Charitable aid, however, remains key to the growth and sustainability of Malian trade. Organizations such as “Women of Africa” work with small groups of girls and women, teaching them how to control their own development, encouraging future self-management. The charities have worked specifically with the women of Mali for the valorization of local products and trade.

The development of policies concerning Malian agribusiness will be crucial in 2013. However, until charity and land distribution policies are reformed, the role of the African working woman remains fragile. Whatever employment prospects arise, Oxfam questions the livelihood of women, asking whether or not in the future “women may be completely eliminated from the scene”. Women’s fragility in Mali and other African third-world countries remains abnormal. And with the rejection of charitable aid, these governments risk damaging themselves and their local trade further. “Women of Africa” recognize that Malian women are “crucial to ensure the sustainability of our societies, because they are working, courageous, responsible and good managers”. If charitable organizations are forced to withdraw from the country in 2013, Mali’s women may ultimately be forced to reject the opportunity to become truly “powerful” women through the training and practice that charities such as “Women of Africa” offer. For now, the roles of such strong women remain fragile, and this abnormal irony continues to define the working women of Mali.

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