If there’s a list of “worst places in the world to be born a woman,” Benishangul-Gumuz would rank near the top.
This is a place that remains steeped in cultural taboos and superstitions, many of them targeted at women.
The sanitized bureaucratic terminology is “harmful traditional practices (HTPs),” the origins of which no one seems to know. But their effect is to leave women overworked, undernourished and suffering from chronic health problems. And if women suffer, so do the children.
It is customary here for women about to give birth to be banished to the bush to deliver alone, only to return, or not, when the whole messy process is over.
“I myself have gone to the bush without assistance to give birth to a child,” said Haula Bajib, a community conversation facilitator who grew up in the area and has returned to the area as a regional government worker.
It is taboo for women here to consume eggs, an important source of protein in subsistence households, because of a belief it will cause her husband to die. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is widely practised. And young women on their way to fetch water or get grain processed are considered fair game by sexual predators.
Laws and regulations are of little benefit in addressing these traditions that are deeply rooted in superstition and in some cases perpetuated by community leaders.
But a less confrontational and communal approach has met with some success. Facilitators bring community members together for a “community conversation.”
The group that gathers, usually under a shady tree, identifies issues of concern that are then prioritized by the group. And the conversation begins.
Topics that have not been discussed by the time the meeting is over are kept on the list for the next meeting, so no issue goes unheard.
Not surprisingly, those HTPs came up. And once people started talking about them, willingness grew within the community for change to even out the labour load. Some of the men in the group we met with volunteered and they now help their wives make coffee and haul firewood.
Bush deliveries have declined as more women, with the support of their husbands, choose to deliver at home at the community health clinic. Women in the group we spoke with also said they now also have access to contraceptives.
As well, more women are eating eggs, after a facilitated meeting at which a community leader’s wife ate an egg in front of everyone. And her husband didn’t die.
“I know this community from childhood and I have seen many changes,” Bajib said.
Concurrent community gatherings focused on developing cooking and nutritional skills, particularly as they affect growth and development among young children. Mothers didn’t know they were permanently stunting their children by continuing to breast-feed well into toddlerhood with no supplemental sources of nutrition. People didn’t know how to cook the foods they were being taught to grow.
Nefisa Almadi Alakib, the head of the bureau for women and children’s affairs with the Benishungul-Gumuz regional government, said the conversational approach has raised awareness and empowered women, even though it has not eliminated HTPs.
“Female genital mutilation is not zero,” Alakib said in an interview in her Asosa office. “It is still there, but it is not openly practised.
“At least going from open to hidden is an improvement,” she said.
Developing a community plan
There were also self-help groups established in the region built along the Coady Institute ABCD (asset-based community development), a process in which the community develops its own plan for economic growth built on its strengths and resources, not its deficits.
As the project nears the end of its five-year term, regional government officials say they hope there will be a second phase of the project.
“We are very happy with the project,” said Akasha Ismeal, the head of the local government’s bureau of finance and economic development. He said it has increased the capacity of the producers in the region as well as the government extension workers who work with them.
He said he gives thanks to the Canadian people and looks forward to a continued relationship.
However, local project leaders say a second phase is unlikely due to reluctance by consortium members to continue in its current formation and a lack of commitment by the Canadian government to a second phase. Already, senior program staff have started moving on to other positions.
An external evaluation of the project prepared for the Canadian government concluded that while the project has been successful in achieving many of its objectives, the consortium configuration was unwieldy and cumbersome, making for inefficient program delivery.