By Alinta Geling
Women play an important role in Malian society but lack opportunities for their voice to be heard and are underrepresented in politics and in daily life.
The Near East Foundation (NEF) strives to help women in Mali create opportunities to make positive changes in their own lives and in society as a whole. We use many concrete strategies to empower women, including providing microcredit loans and supporting women’s groups. NEF supports women to help them realize their potential and become increasingly independent. This is a critical component of a developing economy on any scale. A visit to the construction of a market garden shows the importance of their work.
It is 88 degrees at 11 o’clock in the morning when the NEF team arrives in a small Malian village called Mougna, near the world-famous Djenné. In what seems like the middle of nowhere, a large group of women carry buckets of sand and water on their head while men are digging holes and making cement. They are constructing a so-called ‘market garden’ for the local women’s cooperative of the village.
45 women from the Mougna village are united in this cooperative, organizing activities mostly related to small retail services like selling juices, fruits, or vegetables. The market garden project supported by NEF enables women to step up their efforts in organizing such agribusiness markets. The women will start a small garden where they can grow tomatoes, onions, and other salad crops for their own consumption and for sale. A water tower ensures that water is available at all times and an elaborate system of canals and basins will distribute the water over the two-hectare garden. While men can only work in the fields during the rainy season, the women work on their fields year-round, thanks to the water tower. This system provides them with a small but stable source of income and they secure fresh produce for their family.
After a good look at the progress of the garden, it is time to eat. The women sit together under a tree, sharing a large bowl of rice.
“All women of the cooperation contribute to the construction of the garden,” explains Ms. Korotoumout, the president of the association. “Some by labor, others financially, and some others provide food for the workers.”
Before the NEF team leaves, all the women gather for what could be called a general assembly. A feature of NEF projects in the field, this is a forum where participants can express any concern to NEF, elaborate on how they feel the construction is going, and how they will ensure the durability of the garden (i.e., what will happen if something breaks down, who will grow what, etc). The women are clearly looking forward to the moment they can start to grow their own vegetables.
“We will work hard to support our family,” one woman tells the secretary. She explains how working in the garden will come on top of all other responsibilities. During the rainy season this means the women will support their husbands in the fields, take care of their children, run their households, work in the gardens and sell their vegetables on the market. But it is worth the effort, as another woman explains.
“We will be able to invest in our children and invest in the little things we would like to buy for ourselves.” She continues by stressing that, in the end, solidarity in the family is most important. “If needed, we will also help our husbands, but we can all gain from a little extra. It is not just for ourselves”.
Back in the car, I feel immense gratitude for having known this group of strong Malian women. I am touched by their hard work but especially by their solidarity and willingness to share the result of their work with others in their community. Women like the ones in Mougna really do make the world go ’round.