Breaking Out of Traditional Gender Roles

Breaking Out of Traditional Gender Roles

Publication info

Allen Clinton, CARE

Change is taking place in the Upper West region of Ghana. Just three years since CARE’s West Africa Water Supply, Sanitation & Hygiene (WA-WASH) program began, participating villages now have a local clean water source, each household has built its own latrine, and families have saved money to invest in improving their crop production and also to pay for water maintenance, school fees and health insurance. But more importantly, men and women have done it together – something that once seemed unlikely in a place where common marriage negotiations ensure a wife will fetch water, cook and sweep. After paying a dowry, men essentially owned their wives. Today, husbands are helping their wives carry water and cook meals. And wives have become income-earning members of village savings and loan associations (VSLAs), and their husbands have given them their own acre of land to farm whatever they think will grow best – no questions asked. While it’s clear that men are still the heads of households, both genders have stepped outside their traditional roles. Couples say they are better off and happier as a result.

“Gender dynamics can either help or hinder a project’s sustainability,” says Issifu Adama, WA-WASH project manager. “Ghana is made up of 52 percent women. If that population is excluded, then we have a problem. Women need to be involved, and in our project area we’ve seen families and entire communities clearly benefit from their involvement.”

Participatory processes ensure that those people most affected by an issue are included. In the case of water, sanitation and hygiene, women and girls are the most affected. However, due to traditional roles that place men in control of everything, women often are excluded from participating in solving their own problems. In rural Ghana, women and girls spend much of their time – hours each day – simply fetching water for their families. For women, that time could be applied to income-generating activities; for girls, that time could be spent in school. Moreover, when there are no household latrines, women have to seek privacy after dark to quickly defecate behind bushes, exposing themselves to roving eyes, harassment and even snake bites. Such practices had never changed, until now.

Rewriting the story of women and WASH

Realizing the importance of overcoming gender barriers to women's participation involves identifying and explicitly addressing restrictions faced by women. A study conducted by CARE in 10 of 22 project villages revealed a wide range of unmet gender needs. Women lacked access to potable water and were harshly blamed when their family didn’t have enough. They had no toilets. They were vulnerable to climate change (annual rains starting later and ending sooner) and suffered food shortages that made it difficult to cook for their families. They lacked access to land and water for gardening. They faced domestic violence when asking their husbands for money. They also lagged behind their male counterparts in social standing, respect, sense of dignity and voice in community life.

The outcomes of the analysis led to the creation of community action plans for mainstreaming gender in WA-WASH water and sanitation, climate change, food security and gardening activities. The goal was to implement a program that truly benefited women and girls over time, providing opportunities to participate, learn, have their voices heard and share in the long-term work of maintaining WASH facilities and practices.

Brifo Maal, a village of 51 households, was ranked as the worst of the 10 studied at the start of WA-WASH, in terms of women feeling empowered.

“We didn’t set out to change rules, but we wanted to help people see the benefits of the interventions and realize change themselves,” Issifu says. “Over time, the interventions became the new norm.” In villages like Brifo Maal, for example, women traditionally could own chickens and pigs but not cattle or goats. “If she were to own a goat, what would happen?” Issifu asks. “We provided goats to women as a starter asset when forming VSLAs. Surprisingly, nothing happened.”

Augustine Banyonu is a secondary school teacher and assemblyman for Brifo Maal, elected four years ago to serve as his community’s voice in the District Assembly. “The main problems we identified were: women having to go four kilometers to fetch water from the river four times a day, open defecation, uniting people, and ability for women to participate [in decision-making],” he says. “Before, women weren’t allowed to have land to farm. They didn’t even have their own hoe.

“Today, we’ve united men and women and created an environment where everyone can express themselves,” Augustine says. “Women no longer have a survivalist mentality for water and sanitation. We now have a borehole for water and have built our own latrines. We now have a WatSan committee and VSLAs and are mobilized. We have an action plan that we’re following to create everlasting change.”

A family affair

Augustine’s 23-year-old younger brother, Douglas, is part of that action plan. He is the CARE-trained male gender champion in Brifo Maal, organizing community meetings to educate men and women to peacefully live and work together. “Our vision is for everyone to have a better life,” says Douglas, who often carries water to set an example for other men and boys to follow. “This will be a community that has eradicated domestic violence and where men and women share responsibilities.”

The brothers credit their mother, Dooseuyir, for their desire to serve. “My mother brings people together and brings out their ideas,” Augustine says. “It was no surprise when she became VSLA president. She’s proof that when you empower a woman, you empower a community.”

Dooseuyir, now in her 50s, is the president of a 29-member women’s VSLA called Nontaa Songtaa (Love one another. Help one another). She also farms groundnuts, beans, tomatoes and millet, and is the proud owner of goats. When her husband died in 1989, his land was divided among her four sons. Two years ago, she finally got her own 1.5 acre parcel.

“In the old days, women weren’t given any land to farm,” says Dooseuyir, who now sells part of her harvest and cooks the rest for her grandchildren. “That’s just how it was. Now we work the land hard and grow healthy food for our families. Women here are happier. We go to our savings groups and buy shares. Water is nearer. We all have toilets, and open defecation is a thing of the past.”

Dooseuyir was 15 when her mother died, forcing her to take on all the household burdens. Though her workdays are still long, she says she enjoys being productive. She even seems to enjoy saying the word “happy,” because it was something she didn’t have in her life before. “I was always thinking change would happen and it finally did,” she says. 

The happiest moment of her life, Dooseuyir recalls, came last year when she realized a dream of making cakes from beans, flour and butter to sell at the market. Applying entrepreneurial skills learned through her VSLA, she sold groundnuts that she harvested herself to get money to buy cake ingredients for 30 cedis ($7.85) and sell for 50 ($13), making a profit of 20 cedis ($5.25) with each batch. 

In a little more than a year, Dooseuyir’s VSLA has collectively saved 6,000 cedis ($1,570) and provided 900 cedis ($235) in loans to members who didn’t have access to credit before. During their weekly meeting, members discuss more than finance, learning about hygiene, nutritious food, how to care for goats and improve their relationships with their husbands.

Times have indeed changed for women who didn’t have a voice in villages like Brifo Maal. The narrow dirt walking path from Dooseuyir’s home leads to another VSLA member and cake maker, Tuurima Tierzooli. Tuurima is the “Queen Mother” of Brifo Maal, a nominated role that started in all villages about three years ago. She represents all women in Brifo Maal and regularly meets with the village chief and assemblyman to discuss issues and then returns feedback to her constituents.

“I work to ensure all women here have access to land and get their own hoe,” Tuurima says. “When I hear a woman hasn’t yet gotten land to work for themselves, I show their husbands examples of women’s harvests, and that always convinces them.

“Every woman should be empowered to do what she wants to do,” she says. “There’s a bumper harvest when husbands and wives both farm. We get more crops and more money. Our savings becomes money for us to do something important for our families like repair latrines and afford the cost of education for our children and grandchildren.”