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VOICES FROM THE FIELDTHE IRC BLOG
16 Days - Day 8: The Bigger Picture
December 2, 2007
By The IRC
|Women carry heavy loads like this every day, often walking long distances to and from the fields or market. Photo: Bile Marie Louise|
|The International Rescue Committee is working with writer, photographer and long-time women's advocate Ann Jones to give women in war zones an opportunity to document their own lives with digital cameras and make their voices heard.Ann is blogging from West Africa, posting new photos and stories each day for 16 days, starting November 25 — the kick-off of "16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence." You can catch her earlier posts here and sign up to get e-mail alerts about new posts at theIRC.org/join16days. Yamoussoukro, Cote d’Ivoire—The first photo assignment for our teams in all three villages where Global Crescendo is underway is a simple one. Take as many photos as you want to show what life is like for women in your village; include three images of things that are problems in your life, and three images of things that make you happy. Finding problems was easy. Women took photos of a woman badly beaten by her husband who then denied her the money she needed to go to the health center. Photos of a man brandishing a log with which he had clubbed his wife. Photos of a man pinning his wife down in the dirt. Photos of a man hitting his wife with a stick. Photos of a penniless young woman with three tiny children living in the open under a thatched roof, abandoned by her husband. The last is most troubling to the women. The threat of abandonment is what makes women suffer all other forms of abuse in silence. Anything is better, they say, than to be left homeless and alone.|
Women do all the labor involved in food processing. This woman is smoking fish. Photo: Ouerdraogo Zalita Most of these women actually feed and clothe themselves and their children by working their farms, selling produce in the market, making beer or other items for sale. But the house belongs to the man, together with everything in it and the land it stands upon. And money is needed for extras, like visits to the doctor and medicine—money the husband may give or not. Husbands are responsible for “important” things like funerals. They pay the expenses. They invite the guests with whom they sit and drink beer. It’s the women, of course, who do the work. What makes women happy was easy too. Like the photo of a man who, when he saw that his wife was exhausted as she labored over dinner preparations, actually took the buckets and went to the well himself to fetch the water for his bath. There were other amazing photos of men in action: sweeping the courtyard, helping their wives pound maize, drawing water, carrying firewood home on their bicycles, and in a few cases actually holding babies. (One woman asked: “Why can’t men bathe children?”)
This woman is peeling manioc in the usual way: with a machete. Photo: Kouassi N’Guessan And the other photos? In a week, some women had taken hundreds. They showed women working in the fields with mattock and hoe, women chopping firewood with machetes, women building fires, women cooking over fires with cauldrons and grills, preparing rice, smoking fish, boiling fermented maize for beer, braising bananas and plantains, stirring sauces of eggplants or peanuts or tomatoes with onions and chilies, women peeling manioc with machetes, grating manioc, boiling manioc, women washing dishes and clothes and children, women sweeping house and yard, women carrying burdens of all sorts on their heads—stalks of plantains, basins of tomatoes, bundles of firewood, bags of laundry—walking to the field five kilometers away, or the market five kilometers in the opposite direction, or the river. By the time this project ends in Cote d’Ivoire, in the space of a few weeks, I will have thousands of photos of village women doing chores. Most photos show a woman alone, often surrounded by her young children, engaged in heavy labor.
Women do all the cooking, usually over smoky fires. Photo: Gnogbo Georgette My French tutor, a forward thinking Yamoussoukro school teacher, is ready to repudiate village traditions. Only the custom of polygamy must be maintained, he says, because the hard work necessary to support a man is too much for one woman to do alone. The idea that a man might share “her” work has not occurred to him. Yet what other solution is there? Freeze-dried peeled and grated instant manioc will not be available to village women anytime soon, and if it were, they would still have to haul the wood and build the fire to cook it. In the villages, tasks are not allotted by physical capacity but by gender alone.
Women do all the washing up. Photo: Kouame Antoinette What emerges from these massed photos is a bigger picture, a broader definition of gender-based violence. It is not just wife beating or rape or sexual slavery. It is not just psychological tyranny and threat. For village women gender-based violence is life itself—a life that demands relentless forced hard labor because they are women. I want to hire an immense cavernous exhibition hall and cover the walls with thousands of small photos these women have made. At the exit I will put a single message to those who come to view the exhibition: “If you got tired of looking at these photographs, imagine how the women feel about the work.”