Today I am wearing my jeans. I brought two pairs to Benin. Why? I’m not quite sure. I don’t know when I thought I would have the occasion to wear two pairs of jeans here, especially because I knew that it would likely be blazing hot most of the time. I guess sometimes in the last hours of frenzy before leaving, one makes some odd decisions about what to throw into the suitcase. Regardless, today I am in the city and I am remembering how much I like wearing pants. They’re just easier than skirts or dresses. You can step over things, you can sit cross-legged, you don’t have to worry about them falling off (mostly a problem with pagnes here, since you just wrap the cloth around your waist–if it becomes untucked, it can fall. I’ve had a few close calls with those…terrifying!). But I can’t wear pants in my town. I’ve tried it a few times and the results were not good. I feel that when I wear pants for a day, I set back my integration in the community by several days. It’s as if things are going along just fine and I’m blending in and becoming sort of accepted as a part of this community, even if I do look different, and then I go and decide that I’m going to wear my jeans and the minute I step out of the house I feel the atmosphere changing. People start looking at me again, similarly to the way they did when I first arrived, and when I walk through the petit marché, the ladies who usually chat and joke with me are suddenly more reserved and talk amongst themselves as soon as I pass. I hear the word “pantalones” (a French word that has been adopted into Fon) and I feel their eyes looking me up and down. So I’ve given up pants in village. Because none of the Beninese women wear pants, it makes me seem foreign to them (and in the words of one of my young friends who keeps me updated on village gossip about me: “people say that it’s like you’re saying you’re better than everyone else when you wear pants”).
I certainly don’t mean to come off that way, but I can see where the problem arises. As an American woman who grew up in a fairly liberal and open place, surrounded by strong, confident women role models, and people who told me I could do anything I set my mind to, I now have a certain sense of freedom, independence, and self-assurance that many women around the world don’t experience. American women of my sort tend to believe that they are equal to men, and we generally have the same rights and opportunities as men. And we emancipated women wear pants. [I know there are some feminist readers of this blog who might cringe at my statement that in the US men and women have the same opportunities and rights, but for me it’s a matter of comparison right now.] In Benin, as you might suspect, things are not quite the same. I’ve been quietly noting the gender dynamics here since I arrived and know I’ve been strangely silent on that issue in the blog. I guess I was sort of hesitant to write anything that seemed like a snap judgement, and perhaps I wanted to give myself some time to adjust to the culture to see if I would understand certain things better once I was out of my American persona a little. Now it’s been over ten months since I arrived, and I’ve realized that I think I may be withholding information on this subject because I think my readers at home won’t react well to it. But I am supposed to be representing my experience of Benin accurately–hiding neither the good nor the bad–so I think it’s time to delve into this subject. And since Mother’s Day is coming up, it seems like a good time to be talking about mothers and other women.
Life in rural Benin has a patriarchal structure; women are generally seen as supporting characters in the movie of daily life, starring men. Much like the social systems that existed in the US until only recently, a Beninese woman’s purpose in life is widely believed to be to get married and have children–many children. This is starting to change to some degree in the more urban areas, where one can find educated women who pursue careers (indeed, in the large city hospital that supervises the health center at which I work, the chief of medicine is a woman–I think that is awesome), but if one takes the average Beninese woman, this is not the case. For instance, most women in my community are illiterate because they never went to school (many men are also illiterate, to be fair, but the balance of illiteracy definitely tilts far to the feminine side). This is unfortunate for me because it seriously limits my ability to connect on a real level with the women, because people who have not gone to school can rarely speak French. And while I’m working on Fon, I can’t carry on any sort of meaningful conversation in that language, meaning that I can’t speak to most women without a translator. This is a limitation on the efficacy of my work, and a contributing factor to the general masculinity of my friends in village.
While marriages here are supposedly entirely based on the free will of both parties, the man still pays a bride price to the parents of the woman, and sometimes a young woman is “given” as a means of payment when her father has gotten himself into a difficult financial situation. And in the marriage, the woman must be subordinate to the man. The man manages all the money, so even though the woman runs the household, if she needs to buy something, she has to ask the husband and he has to give her the money before she can make the purchase. He also controls all expenditures on healthcare, so if a woman or her child is sick and the man does not believe that it is serious, they will not be able to access care. The man also must know the whereabouts of his wife at all times; if she wants to go out to visit a friend, she has to ask permission of her husband. Many couples make decisions together, but in case of a disagreement, the man has the final say. Even outside of marriage, women are always supposed to defer to men, and they are expected to exhibit certain characteristics that are different from those that a man should exhibit. [Indeed, I know that I don’t necessarily act the way a Beninese woman should, and people have at times told me I am like a man, or I do things like a man.] In a marriage, a woman’s perceived worth is often tied to the number of children to which she gives birth, which is unfortunate in my public health view because having a baby in rural Africa can be a dangerous thing for women, but both men and women resist using family planning methods because large families are valued so highly here.
In addition, the sex of the children that the woman produces also matters (even though, scientifically, we know that it is the man’s chromosome that determines the sex of the baby–you might imagine that explaining that wouldn’t work too well here). From the moment a girl is born, she is seen differently than a boy. Most people want to have both boy and girl children, but baby boys are celebrated more than baby girls as a rule. One of my friends’ girlfriends recently had a baby and I was horrified to hear that he didn’t want to pay the health center for the delivery because it was a girl and not a boy. It’s odd how I can call someone a friend while at times not understanding him at all.
As children begin to grow up in Benin, they take on household chores to help their parents. In my concession family, for instance, the mother rarely cooks–it’s the kids who do all of the preparation of food for the family probably five nights out of the week. The father never, ever cooks (I’ve never even seen him do so much as to pour his own porridge into a bowl). [I actually discuss this subject often with my male friends, because as sort of a joke, they will sometimes ask me what I will be cooking that night and say that they’re coming over to eat (they never actually show up–it’s just for fun). But I like to turn it around and ask them what they’re going to cook for me. And then they laugh and say that men don’t cook, and I challenge them and ask why. I explain that in my country the men and women often share these jobs and that since I work too, I don’t think it’s fair that I’m expected to cook for them just because I’m a woman.] At any rate, both boy and girl children help with cooking and have other responsibilities around the house, such as getting water from the pump and doing other errands for their parents (even children under 10 are sent to the marché to buy things some nights) but the burden of household chores falls more heavily on the female children.
I sometimes watch my concession family in the evenings and wonder at the amount of work these girls have to do before they can sit down to do their homework. They function as sort of alternate mothers for the household when the actual mother isn’t around (she goes to the fields with her husband and then many evenings, she goes to church; the most the father ever does in terms of helping out at home is holding the baby while others are working). The girls typically come home from school around six or seven, leave again to go get water (they often have to make upwards of three trips to and from the pump, which is time-consuming and tiring), come back and immediately start preparing dinner (which takes quite awhile since they have to manually crush all the ingredients for the sauce), then they serve dinner to their parents, eat themselves, clean up enough so that the goats don’t eat the leftovers during the night, and then–often around 10PM–they finally can sit down and start studying. [Personally, by 10PM, I’m usually going to bed.] I don’t think they typically get a lot done because they’re so exhausted that they often fall asleep holding their notebooks. The boys help with most of these tasks, and some nights they will work while the girls do not, but typically the boys are the ones who are hanging out with me while the girls are working.
Until recently, many Beninese girls didn’t have the chance to go to school because their place was seen to be alongside their mother, taking care of household responsibilities. But now the government subsidizes the cost of education for girls, in an attempt to equalize the gender imbalance in schools. Girls theoretically benefit from free education until what corresponds roughly to 8th grade or so in our school system. In practice, they still have to pay certain other fees, but it is true that the government pays the vast majority of them. Removing the financial barrier to beginning girls’ education has resulted in higher numbers of girls in school, though in my community, the girl-boy ratio is not yet close to even.
In the past few months, I’ve started working a lot more with the schools in my community, and have gotten a bit of insight into the life of a female student in Benin. First, I’ve noticed that girls are much more timid in the classroom than boys. For instance, when I am giving health education talks (even on simple, non-controversial or embarrassing topics such as hand-washing) in the schools, it’s almost always exclusively the boys who answer the questions I pose. Additionally, I’ve been to a number of end-of-term celebrations at the schools, during which the top-performing students are recognized and given small prizes (notebooks and pens), and found it interesting that for each grade, the school recognizes the top three boys and the top three girls. I asked why this was and was told that because girls consistently achieve lower grades than boys, if they put both sexes together, very few girls would be recognized. I am curious to find out more about why there is this achievement gap, but I think it is probably related to the fact that girls have so many other responsibilities outside of school and also is perhaps intertwined with classroom dynamics. Honestly, though, I am not inside classrooms enough to really comment on the true causal factors.
One of the toughest things for me to witness and deal with is the way that many men interact with young women and girls here. By the time a girl hits puberty, men may begin pursuing her as a sexual partner. Certainly it is not all men who practice this type of behavior, but it is far more acceptable here than it would be in the United States. [Technically, Benin has similar laws to the U.S. in relation to sexual contact with young women–if a girl under 18 and a man over 18 have sex, then according to Beninese law, it is rape and the man can be prosecuted, even if the girl consented at the time. But in practice, things like this are so rarely prosecuted because of the difficulty of proof and because young women are so used to things like this that they don’t know their rights in terms of the law.] The idea of monogamy is not really given much credit in my community; men often have multiple wives and multiple sexual partners, and while it is not socially acceptable to sleep with someone else’s wife, sleeping with someone’s teenage daughter is another matter. Teenage girls often become the girlfriends (which sometimes evolves into becoming a second wife) of older men who already have wives and children, and the general social perception of this is that it is more or less normal. I see it a little bit differently, because I think these girls should be given the chance to grow up more before entering into relations with older men. Especially because I suspect that the power dynamics between an older man and a younger woman contribute a lot to pressuring girls into these sorts of things.
So, there are a lot of obstacles facing women and girls in Benin. And this whole subject is so intertwined with culture and custom that it’s difficult to know where one can and should make change, but what is clear is that any change in this arena will be slow and not immediately noticeable. But I also feel that this is the kind of thing that PCVs can really help with. Cultural exchange certainly counts for something, which is what even informal conversations with my male friends can be seen as. As for other, more obvious work on this subject, I’m currently in the process of starting a girls’ soccer team at the high school–a project at which the administration is sort of scoffing, but that I believe can work. I have one of the physical education teachers from the school on board and we’re set to start next week. Wish me luck.
Also, I’m part of a group of PCVs planning a girls’ camp for this summer. Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World, an acronym which unfortunately doesn’t translate into French) is one of many girls’ camps that PCVs have organized in Benin and throughout the world. It will be a week-long sleep-away camp on the university campus in Parakou (the northern city from which I am in fact writing this post–a place that very few of the girls in my village have ever seen) that will bring 6th and 7th grade girls from all over the Collines region of Benin together to learn, exchange, have fun, and just be kids (something that they rarely have the chance to do in their regular lives). We are planning short sessions on a variety of topics–from malaria and nutrition to basic computer education to self-esteem and sexual harassment–as well as time for sports and team-building and arts and crafts. I’ll be bringing two girls from my village, and the other volunteers will do the same, for a total of 50 girls. I’m really excited about it and it should be a really positive experience for the girls. The catch is, it’s an expensive event because we don’t charge the girls anything to attend, so we’re having to fundraise some money to cover the costs, in addition to money that we’re getting from the Beninese government. So…. if you have stayed with me thus far (despite this post being extremely long) and you want to help give these girls the skills and confidence they need to rise up and start being the leaders that Benin needs, follow this link https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=680-228 and donate what you can to our project. If each person reading this could give even $20, we would easily raise the money in time for the camp. If you can’t spare money at this time, no worries of course. Your moral support is enough:) Thank you all in advance. Peace and love. ~CMK