From poverty and domestic violence to climate change: the women of Senegal brave old and new challenges

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Khardiata Ndoye is a Women’s Rights Officer at ActionAid Senegal. Present in the West African country since 2001, the local branch of the international non-governmental organization, which works against poverty and injustice on a global scale, has been addressing inequalities with a specific focus on women’s rights and application of human rights-based approach and feminist analysis to development in Senegal. 

Nearly 6 million people in Senegal, more than a third of the country’s population – live below the poverty line of $1.9 per person per day. 75% of families suffer from chronic poverty, despite substantial economic growth and decades of political stability in the country, unparalleled in the West African region. Poverty and food insecurity are prevalent in rural areas and affect a majority of women and girls, according to Khardiata Ndoye. 

“The different economic opportunities between men and women are an injustice that must be combated. The weight of social and cultural norms blocks the advancement of women and girls and the reason is the patriarchal system of our society,” says Ndoye. “For example, girls often don’t continue their studies in secondary school because their parents decide they must get married. That is why most women are illiterate. They also do the invisible work at home – they clean, cook, and take care of children and elderly people. Because of these social norms, many women don’t have economic power. ActionAid supports girls to continue to secondary school and provides training in women’s rights so that they can have a better future and better lives.”

Poverty is at the core of early marriage, Khardiata Ndoye points out. “If a family doesn’t have enough money, and an elder person has money and is ready to pay in exchange for their daughter, in most cases parents wouldn’t hesitate to have their girls married off.”

There is a concern that the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a rise in another worrying trend – violence against women and exploitation. More than 60% of women in Senegal have experienced some form of gender-based violence, according to data from the National Agency of Statistics and the Ministry of Women’s affairs. “Now, if men no longer have work, when they go hungry, they would more often beat women, if they would ask for a bit of money to cover the family’s expenses. That is why ActionAid supports women through credit and money-saving scheme”, says Khardiata Ndoye. 

In a significant move to uphold women’s rights and fight gender-based violence, in the beginning of 2020, the Senegalese parliament adopted a bill to criminalize rape and pedophilia, providing for punishment of a minimum of 10 years to life in prison. “The problem, however, is the enforcement of the law”, Khardita Ndoye emphasizes. “And another problem is the denunciation because most cases of rape occur in the family. Sometimes it is a cousin, an uncle, or a father. And in these cases, the family prefers to keep it inside and it is not easy to turn to authorities or public services.”

In Senegal’s rural areas women comprise 70% of the agricultural workforce, but own less than 10% of the land, according to 2012 data. In the traditional Senegalese society, men are heads of 85% of households. “Even though the Constitution secures women’s right to own land, the reality on the ground is different,” says Khardiata Ndoye. “In the family, it is still normal to not give land to women or girls to inherit, because they must get married and leave the family. And in the husband’s family, they are normally told they don’t have the right to land because they are not from this family. If women work the land of their husband, some of the produce feeds the family and the rest belongs to the husband to sell, so women don’t receive any money for their agricultural work,” she elaborates. As a result, women resort to alternatives like land renting and crop sharing which increase the production costs.  

With the effects of climate change exacerbating rapidly in the tropical environment of Senegal, women working the land are again disproportionately affected. “In the south-western region of Fatick, for example, many women cannot continue their activities because of the salinisation of the land. Take also fishing – there is no longer fish in the sea and that is why all men have taken the clandestine migration routes. You see only women and girls there”, explains Khardiata Ndoye. 

Despite its very modest contribution to global greenhouse emissions, West Africa has been facing the escalating impacts of climate change, including drought, late rains, flooding, rising sea levels, and increased salinity in the coastal, island, and river estuary areas. To help alleviate the consequences for farmers after a severe drought in the region in 2012, ActionAid Senegal launched the project “Agroecology, Empowerment and Resilience”. It puts an emphasis on women’s empowerment, agroecology, and disaster risk reduction and offers alternative activities to women so they can have a livelihood like rearing animals, agriculture on a table, drought-resilient crops. In partnership with the national meteorological service, they have trained women from the central Tambacoumda region to observe the weather and plant respective types of crops. 

“During the pandemic, often the husbands who were abroad could no longer make money because they couldn’t work, so the wives had to support them with money transfers thanks to what they make out of the land. Women here are very resilient, they always find something to do”, Khardiata Ndoye points out. 

Written by Desislava Mikova

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