Women and Resilience in the Sahel: flexible and indestructible
By Beatrix Attinger Colijn, Regional IASC GenCap Adviser in Humanitarian Action
Boris Cyrulnik is considered the founder of the concept of “resilience’” and has described it, as one can read below, as the art of navigating in the torrent. Bringing the concept to the Sahel region, where torrents are rather scares, one might better compare it with the art of walking through a sand storm. Were you ever caught in a real sand storm and tried to walk upright with a clear vision of where you were going? – Right!
When I imagine a typical landscape in Niger, I see camels and men riding them elegantly; and looking around I see some women, carrying water buckets back to the huts, sitting on donkeys riding to the field, or keeping together a group of goats. Being a woman in Niger - and in the Sahel at large - means you are at the very end of the world’s gender equality index list and you might belong to the 63% of Niger’s population living below the poverty line, two thirds of whom are women. The cultural and legal framework will also imply that you will have very limited access to education, land, and heritage. And when a crisis sets in on the region and your life, you will not only have to overcome the inequality of opportunities for women but also the hardship the crisis imposes on the population.
|Farmers with newly received seeds, photo from the August newsletter of Eden. Copyright: Eden Foundation.|
Resilience in my language is translated into being flexible and indestructible. The food security crisis has long demanded coping strategies from the population at risk, such as labor migration within countries or across borders. If the male head of the family leaves home in search of work, it is the woman who stays behind with the children, in Niger usually in high numbers, and it is her who will have to reinvent the means to provide for the livelihood of the family.
But also in united families, most likely the husband is taking the decision over resources and how much will be used for bringing food to the table. Often women are to supplement this with resources they have to find, by growing vegetables, through small commercial activities, or the provision of household services.
Strengthening the resilience of a population needs to build on existing coping strategies of women and men, on their different gender roles and experience in society, with a view to further gender equality. The Gender Capacity (GenCap) program of the UN Interagency Standing Committee (IASC) aims to build skills and knowledge on how to integrate gender aspect into programming. As a GenCap Adviser in the Sahel I have seen amazing examples of women’s strength to fend for the livelihood of their children and themselves, finding alternative strategies and inventing new solutions to the repeated situations of hardship. I had also met with great people, developing and implementing programs with a particular focus on women, who are so much underprivileged in this region. One of my favorite programs in the Eden project in Tanout, in the Region of Zinder, Niger.
The philosophy of Eden is to produce seeds from underexploited and edible plants, which can grow without irrigation. “There are 250,000 known plant species in the world, but only 20 of them provide 90% of our food. We believe that the key to prosperity for the poor is dependent on the cultivation of trees and bushes underexploited and edible. These are the lost treasures of Eden.” (for this and text below: www.eden-foundation.org)
Eden is providing the farmers with trees and bushes that will grow naturally in dry areas of Niger. These plants give food in times when other resources have been depleted. They have been studied in the local research station and do not require irrigation or chemical fertilizers to grow. The farmers come to Eden on their own initiative, can order plants and receive free seeds. Let’s hear what one of the many women farmers says about this project:
"Eden est un projet pour nous, les femmes et les enfants. Dès que le mil est moissonné, les hommes partiront jusqu'à la saison prochaine et nous sommes laissés avec les problèmes quotidiens d'alimenter notre famille. Grâce à Eden, nous avons maintenant des arbres et des buissons qui produisent des fruits que nous pouvons manger ou vendre au marché. Je suis très heureuse de faire partie d'Eden."
It shows that with the seeds received from Eden, not only trees and bushes but also the women themselves have grown! I hope that speaking about this wonderful project, I can trigger additional support. The season of 2011-2012, according to Eden’s August newsletter, showed a major boost of new farmers coming to Tanout, making up 80% of the total of farmers supported by the program. Doesn’t this also show the resilience and alternative strategies of these farmers in view of the present Sahel crisis? For me this is a project that truly builds on the resources locally available, on the vigor of the population, and women in particular, to overcome the challenges of the recurring food crisis and gather strength to walk through the sand storm.