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From dawn to dusk, the daily struggle of Africa’s women

2006 September 21
by Paul Vallely

It was still dark, not yet 4am. But outside Letenk’iel was moving already, rekindling the fire from the overnight embers. Inside the mud-walled hut, her husband Gebremariam coughed. Then as the first birds were heard, he swung his legs over the side of a bed made from rough rope strung across a wooden frame. He stood in the doorway and stretched. His wife was already at her morning chores.

As the cold dawn light suffused the sky she sprinkled water from a squat earthenware jar across the mud floor and began to sweep the dampened earth with a brush of long grasses bound tightly together. The day had begun.

Women work two-thirds of Africa’s working hours, and produce 70 per cent of its food, yet earn only 10 per cent of its income, and own less than 1 per cent of its property. They work three hours a day longer than the average British woman does on professional and domestic work combined.

Letenk’iel, from the village of Meshal in southern Eritrea, poked about in the straw where the hens had spent the night in the hope that there might be eggs to take to market to exchange for salt and oil. But there were none.

The baby began to cry. Letenk’iel fastened the child to her back with a long, dirty cloth to keep him comforted until she had the time to breastfeed. The child coughed. She fed the tiny fire, in what looked like an old biscuit-tin, with slow-burning wood on which to roast the few kernels of wheat which would be breakfast for her family of six. They would get a handful each. She would “not bother” to eat.

African women’s health is particularly poor. Only 37 per cent survive to the age of 65, compared with almost 90 per cent in the UK. A poor woman in Malawi is 200 times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth than a woman in the UK. Some 250,000 women die each year from complications compared to just 1,500 in Europe.

The first big task of the day was to fetch water. First, she set her children about their chores. Gebremariam and the eldest boy, Daniel, were to shift stones from their field in readiness for ploughing. Kudos, the second son, would take the ox on the long trek for water. Her daughters, Mabraheet and Azmera, would spend hour hours fetching firewood from the far mountainside. After two hours of farm work, Daniel would set off on the hour’s walk to school. He was the only one they could afford to send.

In Africa, one in three children does not go to school. Two thirds of the 40 million non-attenders are girls and the illiteracy among women in places such as Mozambique is double that of men.

Yet, as Asia has shown, when girls are educated, they marry later, have fewer children and their incomes rise. Economic productivity grows, infant mortality is halved, deaths in childbirth fall, birth rates slow, child malnutrition is halved, general nutrition and health improve and the spread of HIV is reduced. Every extra year of education boosts a girl’s eventual wages by at least 10 per cent.

For Letenk’iel, it was a 25-minute walk down the hill to the pump but it would take 40 minutes to walk back up with five gallons of water wedged into the small of her back and tied on with a rope of old rag.

Once there were three wells. The eight-metre one has dried up. The nine-metre well has a little brackish water at the bottom which even the donkeys refused to drink. The flow from the pump of the 25-metre well had slowed to a painful trickle. There was just barely enough for everyone to drink.

More than 75 per cent of the population of Ethiopia lack access to safe drinking-water. More than 300 million people across Africa drink dirty water daily. Access to clean water would save women and girls walking an average six kilometres a day to fetch water, freeing more time for the family, for school and for productive work. Yet the rich world’s aid to the water sector has fallen by 25 per cent since 1996.

Letenk’iel hoisted the water container and swivelled it round to lodge in the small of her back. A friend fastened it in place. When she reached home, Gebremariam was back and, without pause, she began the preparation for lunch. As the others ate, Letenk’iel breastfed the baby. Often this took a long time. Letenk’iel’s milk did not flow freely, largely because there was not much food to go around. She coughed – loose and rattling – as she prepared little tasks which could be done as the four-month-old suckled. It was an hour before the child had taken his fill. When his eyes closed, she passed him to Mabraheet who lay him among the blankets.

One in six children in Africa dies before their fifth birthday. Average spending on health per person in Africa in 2001 was between $13 and $21; in the developed world it is more than $2,000 per person per year. African health systems are at the point of collapse after years of massive under-investment.

On a normal afternoon, Letenk’iel would have left the house to join her husband in the field, shifting stones. After the ploughing was done, and the seed sown, it would be her daily job to keep the weeds from the rows of sorghum, because they could not afford that any of the soil’s goodness should be wasted nurturing weeds. If the rains came.

Women are the backbone of Africa’s rural economy. They grow at least 70 per cent of its food and are responsible for half the animal husbandry. Most of what they earn is spent on the household and children; men, by contrast, spend a significantly higher amount on themselves.

Yet on widowhood many African women lose their meagre assets. A Namibian study showed 44 per cent of widows lost cattle, 28 per cent lost livestock and 41 per cent lost farm equipment in disputes with their in-laws after the death of their husbands. In many African countries, they lose all rights to cultivate their husband’s land.

But today was the day for the mother-and-child clinic at the nearest health post. It was a two-hour walk each way. The baby had the rattling cough that he had caught from her. They were offering contraceptives and advice on HIV today too.

Of the 25 million people living with HIV and Aids in Africa, nearly 57 per cent are women. That figure rises to 80 per cent among those aged 15 to 19. Women have a greater biological vulnerability to the virus but the main problem is powerlessness. They are forced into sexual activity earlier, are unable to insist on condoms, have fewer rights and resources to call upon, and are sometimes forced to barter sexual favours to survive. “This is my choice: either I get Aids eventually or my baby starves now,” as one Kenyan prostitute put it.

An HIV-positive woman is nearly 10 times as likely to experience violence at the hands of her partner as a woman who does not have the disease. Domestic violence causes more deaths and disability among women aged 15 to 44 worldwide than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war. In at least 20 African countries, more than half the women have also suffered female genital mutilation.

For Letenk’iel, back from the clinic, there was more water to be fetched. Then a meagre evening meal of flat bread, cooked on a large tray over the biscuit-tin stove. After dinner, as Letenk’iel was sitting in the stable, picking the lice from the baby’s jumper, and helping Daniel with his homework, she saw a new rip in Azmera’s thin and grimy little dress. “How did that happen?”

“It wasn’t me,” said the pert little six-year-old. “It got old.”

Her mother wrapped the child in a blanket and, with the light fading, she sewed the threadbare material, using a strand pulled from the sack of a food-aid bag.

Darkness fell. She ushered the children to their beds, and began the last tidying chores before damping down the fire. She would be up in six hours.


Women: A world apart

Life expectancy

Africa: 46

UK: 80

Chance of a girl going to primary school

Africa: 60 %

UK: 100 %

Minutes worked per day

Africa: 590*

UK: 413

Female literacy

Africa: 53.2%

UK: 99.9%

Births attended by a midwife

Africa: 43 %

UK: 99 %

Deaths in childbirth a year (per 100,000)

Africa: 920

UK: 13

Women using contraception

Africa: 15 % **

UK: 84 %

Average number of children

Africa: 5.5

UK: 1.7

Deaths during abortion every year

Africa: 29,800

UK: 8

Female MPs

Africa: 6.5% (Chad) 49% (Rwanda)

UK: 18.5 %

Professional and technical staff who are women

Africa: 46%

UK: 32%

Women with HIV

Africa: 13,200,000

UK: 21,000

All figures are average African woman versus average British woman except: * Kenya, ** Ivory Coast. Sources: United Nations Development Programme; World Bank; DfID; Commission for Africa; Save the Children; Oxfam

This article is from the ( RED ) edition of The Independent of 21 September 2006, guest-designed by Giorgio Armani. Half the revenue from the edition will be donated to the Global Fund to Fight Aids.

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