International Women’s Day: Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty

Guest blog by Léontine Ayawovi Gbadégbégnon, Secretary-General of Togo’s Groupe de réflexion et d’action Femme, Démocratie and Développement (GF2D) – winners of the ONE Africa award 2011 GF2D helps women in exercising their right to participate in decision making processes of their country.

International Women’s Day was founded to highlight the situation of women of all classes around the world. Billions of ordinary women – along with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, International Monetary Fund Chief Christine Lagarde and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – are promoting their cause, and the women of the West African nation of Togo are making good progress.

Women have always played a vital role in our society. The “Nana Benz” (Benz Girls), named after their choice of car, left their mark on the economy when they got rich through the ingenious designs on the wax dresses they made exclusively in the 1950s. They were key supporters of the country’s independence movement.

Equal involvement of women in decision-making bodies was still far off when the GF2D organisation was founded in 1992 by a group of 30 women from many professions. The country was under one-party rule that made social and political life very difficult. But the courage and determination of GF2D’s founders, who wanted to ensure Togolese women had a special place when democracy emerged, produced countless remarkable achievements that bettered their legal and political status.

GF2D works to empower women by expanding their access to legislation. Paralegals (legal experts) are trained to make use of laws on the books that can help women, notably the Law on the Family and Individuals (CPF) and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The paralegals are energetic women (and also men) who are devoted to their communities and aware of the lack of social equality between men and women. More than 700 have been trained throughout the country since 1994 and from six legal assistance centres, they mediate and settle problems of violence linked to gender, inheritance, marriage and divorce. They also speak on Radio Nana, a station run by and for women (and named after the Nana Benz) which broadcasts their advice nationwide.

Most of the paralegals are ordinary women — farmers, merchants, seamstresses, artisans, mothers, teachers and women elders — who are trained and then promote women’s rights and encourage gender equality in democratic governance.

Mawussi Toublou, a Lomé seamstress, is a GF2D paralegal. She makes brightly-coloured clothes with a manual sewing-machine in her small workshop, earning enough to live on and to buy petrol to drive around the capital and its suburbs to work as a paralegal. This energetic woman is also a trade-union organiser and trains people (men as well as women) to know their civil rights and duties.

Ama Kemeh, from a polygamous family, lived in a village where women were in an inferior position. Her experience growing up amid the discrimination, bullying and humiliation endured by women made her very bitter, resentful and rebellious and gave her a burning desire to change things. But she did not know how.

She gained confidence and hope after GF2D trained her as a paralegal in 1994, opening her eyes, and she resumed her studies with courage and determination. Less than seven years later she was a senior Togolese civil servant and for the past four has been a United Nations official in Togo.

The two women are not the only ones to have overcome discrimination and bullying to take their place as full citizens in their families and communities. Other women paralegals and women helped by them have become leaders in the communities too.

Paralegal Djomba Somtoua is fighting violence against women in the district she now administers, notably husbands chasing their wives out of the home. Other women paralegals advise their sisters about financial, economic and social issues to help them expand their access to microcredit.

Some have also started their own associations to achieve their goals more effectively, such as Anne Kpedji, who founded a women’s literacy group. Akuavi Odah, a paralegal in Atakpame, set up and now runs a savings and credit co-op with thousands of members.

As well as the paralegals, 190 rural women have been trained as community leaders and help run development committees in villages and neighbourhoods.

GF2D also provides civic and political education for women who want to go into local or national politics. About 100 of them contested the last parliamentary elections and more are preparing to stand in this year’s local and legislative elections.

More trained women have joined the country’s decision-making bodies thanks to GF2D’s efforts and Togo now has nine MPs (up from four) and seven government ministers (up from five).

GF2D continues trying to get even more women interested in social and political life. A woman, Kafui Brigitte Adjamagbo-Johnson, stood for president in 2010, a historic event in a still-complex social and political situation and such a male-dominated country. She stands as a model for all African women.

We hope 8 March, with its theme of “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty,” will be an occasion for all communities, villages, governments and people around the world to recognise and honour these women.

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