Creating Space for Women to Participate Provides Mutual Benefits

Creating Space for Women to Participate Provides Mutual Benefits

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Allen Clinton, CARE

It’s another hot and humid August morning in Ghana’s Upper West region. As the sun rises, Peter and Eunice Surrunakum are already out working in their field, in what seems a race to finish before they swelter. Even at this early hour, their shirts are soaked with sweat. It’s quiet in the small village of Kambaa Tangzu, apart from the muffled thuds of their hoes breaking ground. The husband and wife are transplanting millet from one part of their field to another. Peter hands Eunice a few 2-foot-long plants. One by one in a row, she sticks them in the ground and uses her bare feet to pack the dirt around them. While their hoes, hands and feet symbolize the essence of hard work, being out here together represents newfound teamwork that transcends the farm. 

“Whatever I have belongs to my wife and [seven] children,” Peter says. “We no longer separate what we do. We’ll never go back to old ways. Only death can stop us now.”

Back home, the couple recalls what it was like just three years ago, before CARE’s USAID-funded West Africa Water Supply, Sanitation & Hygiene (WA-WASH) program started in Kambaa Tangzu and 21 other nearby villages. They say they used to drink dirty water from the river. They defecated out in the open because they didn’t know about toilets. Their farm production was low. They had no savings. And there was no cooperation between men and women. Women’s place was in the home or out fetching water, and they had no say in household matters or how to farm on their husband’s land. Men in Kambaa Tangzu, including Peter, used to drink alcohol and take their problems out on their wives, particularly when the women asked for something like money to buy a simple bar of soap. There was a lot of fighting and yelling heard throughout the village. 

Eunice used to spend most of the day fetching water from the Black Volta River, walking 4 kilometers each way, three times a day. “Every day I wished I didn’t have to make that trip,” she says, also having to take care of the children, cook and work in the field until dark. “I couldn’t make time at home. Every day I wished things would change.”

To help influence such changes and chip away at mindsets of a highly patriarchal society, WA-WASH was designed with a gender approach to help men and women realize mutual benefits together. In short, the aim was to build the capacity of women and convince men to give their wives space to participate.  Village chiefs and local male gender champions were trained to promote improved gender relations and advise couples like Eunice and Peter. The program also strengthened connections between the rights to water and sanitation and other rights – to health, education, food, work, land, freedom from violence – and the right to information.

CARE worked with the entire community to install a borehole with hand pump in the center of the village. Eunice and the other women can now get clean water anytime from that local source, freeing them up for more productive activities. Hearing about an opportunity to generate more income, Peter and Eunice joined a village savings and loan association (VSLA) named Ekenye, meaning, “Let’s try and see.” They started saving along with 20 other members, and recently took out a small loan to improve their crop production.

Through their VSLA, CARE introduced other topics that Peter and Eunice can learn together. They learned, for example, how to adapt to an ever-shortened rainy season, adopting conservation agriculture practices like composting, minimum tillage, vegetable gardening and use of drought-resistant seeds. They started working together in the field, discovering they could grow more as a team and even have a surplus to sell.

Experiencing his own change of mindset, from his wife being a possession he paid for with a dowry, Peter now encourages Eunice to farm groundnuts and tomatoes on her own acre of land next to their home. More money, greater cooperation and acknowledgement that open defecation was bad for their family health and the environment led the couple to build their own latrine last year. Feeling empowered and more equal, Eunice now contributes the same amount as her husband to the village water fund, which supports borehole maintenance and repair.

“My husband’s previous behavior wasn’t useful,” says Eunice, who never went to school but wants to make sure her children do. “Now he knows it’s better to save or use our money to buy school books for the kids instead of liquor. Now we live peacefully.”

Eunice and Peter are excited about the changes in their village and at home. They now share decisions. “Women don’t spend carelessly,” Peter says. “She [Eunice] now helps manage our resources so we use them to help our family.”

Before the WA-WASH project, men never carried water or cooked meals. Those are traditional female responsibilities. Today, however, Peter helps Eunice with both. In fact, Eunice says her husband’s groundnut soup is better than hers.

Here in Kambaa Tangzu, help is not coming solely from outside, but also from within – and people like Eunice and Peter are in charge of their own destiny.