Hands Off the Sorghum

Yet another installment in the continuing series: Behold how women are treated like livestock if not worse in many parts of the world. Sometimes it’s hard to believe what you read…

Journalists who have visited Niger are reporting finding a strange phenomenon: villages in which women and children are going hungry, while there is still food in their households. Kim Sengupta of the UK’s Independent newspaper found that men had left their families, locking the grain store, while they were away. “They’ve gone away to look for work or look for money and sometimes across the border in Nigeria. And you have this strange situation where there were women in the villages with stocks of sorghum and millet with hungry children, but no access to the food,” he says.

Locking the grain store – that’s the interesting part.

There are reports that women are not even allowed to look in the family grain store – that it is taboo. There is widespread polygamy in Niger, and with men taking more than one wife, each woman is given a small plot to support herself and her own children. “There is a tradition that women are more or less supposed to cater for themselves and their children with the produce that they manage to get out of the tiny plots they are given when they are married,” says Moira Eknes of Care aid agency, who has just returned from Niger. “They also have to work on the larger family fields but the production from these large fields they have no control over and no access to,” she says.

That’s how it goes if you have the bad judgment to be a woman.

Every day, Minta, a 40 year-old mother of six, fetches water for the household, does the laundry in the river, labours on her millet farm and, if there is food, prepares the family meals before collapsing into bed, exhausted. But during this particularly difficult lean season, there is no food, and the daily grind has become even more unbearable. With her youngest child wasting away from hunger, Minta has had to walk three hours in the scorching sun on an empty stomach in the hope of getting some food aid…For Minta, and the other women at the hospital, the hunger that has reduced her children to skin and bone is just another hard fact of life. At the hospital the women each cradle at least one baby and most have a toddler or two in tow. Some babies – like the one curled in the folds of Minta’s blue tunic – are little more than tiny skeletons…The food crisis that has affected 3.6 million people in Niger, has highlighted the vulnerable position of women in what is a staunchly Muslim and conservative society and the second poorest country in the world, according to UN figures…

Vulnerable doesn’t even describe it.

“When you say food crisis, you say women,” Aissata Bagna, a prominent female activist and former health minister, told IRIN in her home in Niamey. “Men can go elsewhere, they can work for food or move away from the village. But the women have to stay behind. They have to take care of the children. They suffer the most,” she said. The wave of democratisation that swept through West Africa in the early nineties spawned the first women’s groups in Niger and increased their political influence. But at the same time, social progress was hampered by the rapid rise of religious fundamentalism, Bagna explained.

Family values.

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