MERS-BODJAR: An empowerment project run developed by women of Guinea-Bissau

By Ana Dju, MSc African Politics

Mers-Bodjar, a rural project in Guinea-Bissau has empowered women of the Biombo region by providing economic security, which is the most effective way women of the region can experience personal-autonomy. Although Bissau-Guinean laws do not explicitly exclude women, they do nothing to disrupt the structural violence perpetuated by gendered norms nor do they support the economic development of women in the Biombo region. Mers-Bodjar provides insight into structural violence as well as the universal exclusion of women of the Global South. Despite Security Council Resolutions 2122, there are no pragmatic motions in place that are able to tackle the root of the issue women of Mers-Bodjar face, which is primarily that of socio-economic exclusion.   In essence, Mers-Bodjar is necessary because the scope of international law on gender fails to effectively tackle the issues faced by women in Guinea-Bissau, as it is predominantly focused on the experiences of an elite group of white women in the Global North. This article explores the ways in which Mers-Bodjar has been excluded and how they deal with exclusion by developing projects such as Mers-Bodjar

Background

Independence in Guinea-Bissau brought about through an armed struggle against the Portuguese led by the late Amilcar Cabral. During the early stages of the liberation movement, Cabral realised that the movement would not be successful without the cooperation of Guinean women, and so they played a key role when it came to mobilizing and recruiting for the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde’s (PAIGC) liberation army. The agreement became that if women supported the armed struggle, upon victory, both men and women would enjoy equal rights. The problem with post-conflict Guinea-Bissau, was that the agreement for equal rights was quickly placed on the backburner and forgotten once liberation was granted in 1974 and women were expected to return to their socio-traditional roles. This has led to the absence of women in societal structures that make crucial decisions of any given governing state. 

This, alongside other instances of political instability, has led to the creation of safe/healing spaces where women collectively seek to cope with the structural violence encountered in predominantly male dominated government bodies and institutions. Mers-Bodjar is a rural organisation for the development of socio-economic activities for women of the Biombo Region in Guinea-Bissau that creates the environment necessary for growth and empowerment of women. The aim of the organisation is to support agri-women economically by turning their produce into long-lasting sellable products. The organisation also educates the women on gender-based violence and how to deal with these in domestic environments. The project also aids by alleviating the physical burden on women, by educating men of the region on the importance of balancing responsibilities in the home. The long-term goal of the organization is to eradicate socio-economic inequality of gender in the region. 

Theoretical Perspectives 

Gendergoes beyond telling women how they should be or act, it creates an environment that sustains structural violence so profound that it becomes impenetrable. Carol Cohn in her 2013 piece depicts how gendered roles can be detrimental to both sexes by forcing men and women to act in ways that are socially acceptable as opposed to conscious agency. The exclusion faced by women of Mers-Bodjar is not warranted nor conscious. The way Bissau-Guinean society is structured makes it difficult for such women to even recognise that their exclusion is due to socially constructed gendered roles. Sexist norms encouraged,  consequently produce institutions that support the same norms that exude gendered violence, as it assumes men are better suited for certain positions than women with no rational grounds other than patriarchal assertions of male dominance.

The women that form Mers-Bodjar are also subjects of intersectionalityon a global scale. Intersectionalityis a term coined by Kimberle Krenshaw in 1989 which explains that a woman is subjected to intersectionality when she crosses over more than one of the protected characteristics (i.e. race and gender), making her more susceptible to discrimination beyond her gender. As discussed above, as a woman your gender is more likely to pose barriers in society than your male counterpart. However, a woman that is also black will become a victim of not only sexism but also racial discrimination. The issue with this binary form of discrimination is that black bodies are subjected to a multitude of segregation that is widely ignored by feminist discourses that habitually separate race from gender. Furthermore, the image presented of black women in feminist discourses is symbolically debasing, as it presents white women as “saviours” and women of colour as poor and hopeless creatures that require “saving”. This is problematic because when soft law on gender is developed, it leaves out women such as those part of Mers-Bodjar as they are not a part of the discourse and their voices are automatically void. 

We are all targets of neoliberalism and it’s never-ending exploitation of the masses; however, the issue with neoliberalism when it comes to gender perspectives, is that it gives women a sense of false consciousness and control. It encourages women to work longer and harder in order to overcome gender inequalities, indirectly suggesting women find themselves in disadvantageous positions by choice. Which is largely untrue, especially for women of the global south. If women Mers-Bodjar had a choice, they would not work twice as hard as the average Bissau-Guinean man, under harsh conditions for little to no pay. Further, the implication of neoliberalism is that local cultural and traditional patriarchal settings place women in prejudicial positions, overlooking universality of capitalism and how it penetrates unthinkable societal structures that exploit those most vulnerable in society. Although this narrative may not be globally fictitious, it most certainly only applies to a very small group of elite women in the Global North. 

International Law

Security Council Resolution 2122 explicitly recognises the importance of dealing with economic hindrances and how women’s economic empowerment is necessary element in order to beat gender inequalities. The recognition of the economic element of women’s empowerment, directly correlated with Mers-Bodjar’s aims and objectives in a manner which women can gain a sense of autonomy; a component often absent from societal structures of Guinea-Bissau which are directly or indirectly exclusionary of women. 

Through refinement and selling of their products, they are able produce income that they use as a way to send their daughters to school, which in the long run, will improve the likelihood of women meeting the minimum threshold of administrative and policy making positions, on the grounds that the local government alsoputs in place policies that target gender inequalities and promote the empowerment of women in policy making positions. 

The African Union has also implemented a sophisticated regime around gender inequalities between men and women such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003 and the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa in 2004, both of which Guinea-Bissau has signed and ratified. However, what is concerning, is that the declaration was adopted by Guinea-Bissau in 2003 and fifteen years later, women are still grossly underrepresented in both public and private spheres in Guinea-Bissau. 

Domestic Law

Inscribed under Bissau-Guinean’s 1984 constitution Article 25, “Men and women are equal before the law in all aspects of life including politics, economic, social and cultural settings”. Out of 133 Articles that make up the constitution, women are mentioned only once. Article 16 relates to the importance of education and uses the following phrase: “education is aimed at qualifying the man…” although the term is commonly used to represent both men and women in the Portuguese language, it is evident that the choice of simply ‘man’ reflects on the predominantly male dominated society whereby only 30% of women above the age of 15 are literate in contrast with 62% males under the same category. 

In August 2018, a Parity Law was passed by the National People’s Assembly demanding a minimum 36% representation of women in the new government, a year later only 13 out of the 21 parties have met this quota. The issue faced by many of these laws, is that they demand action that is evidently impossible to meet in short timeframes. There is a huge discrepancy between literate men and women of Guinea-Bissau, naturally this means that when it comes to positions of power or policy making, more men than women will meet basic entry requirements, not to mention the deep seated gendered institutions that discriminate women claiming they are less ablethan men, encouraging them to abide by socio-cultural gendered roles. 

The vast majority of women that fall within the quota of literacy rates of Guinea-Bissau are centred in the autonomous sector of Bissau; due to high underdevelopment of transportation infrastructure in the country, even for the Region of Biombo, that is less than 20 miles from the capital there is a high number of illiteracy, with women suffering most at 67% in contrast to 33% of men. Although it is not clear of the percentage of the 300 women part of Mers-Bodjar’s literacy, it is fair to assume, based on the statistical evidence in the region, that more than half of them would be illiterate. The above analysis demonstrates how the structural violence that is embedded from the constitution down to everyday life, has irreconcilable ripple effects on the most vulnerable women in society such as Mers-Bodjar. Despite their distance from government bodies, words enshrined in the laws exude violence against them. This supports Cohan’s (2013) analysis of gender, whereby gender is everything that excludes women but victimizes them through violent structures and laws. The need for Mers-Bodjar is clear, in that it produces solutions for dealing with exclusionary domestic laws without having to engage directly at government level. 

Concluding Remarks

Concentrated in the Global South is the vast majority of the world’s population, and yet, it’s the most underrepresented region when it comes to gender studies.  Courses of action directed from the Security Council, often contain a biased standpoint that fails to reflect on the complexities faced by the various countries that make up the Global South. Slavery, artificial borders and colonialism are just a few of the components that have shuddered countries such as Guinea-Bissau. Representation is important in the Security Council when it comes to passing resolutions for tackling inequality because women such as those part of Mers-Bodjar are more likely to understand the gender dynamics of everyday life in Guinea-Bissau in order to resolve a local problem with a local solution. It should be within the interests of the State to solve gender inequalities, because neglecting threats to a state’s stability such as gender inequalities, increases the propensity of the state falling into conflict again.

Mers-Bodjar, a rural project in Guinea-Bissau has empowered women of the Biombo region by providing economic security, which is the most effective way women of the region can experience personal-autonomy. Although Bissau-Guinean laws do not explicitly exclude women, they do nothing to disrupt the structural violence perpetuated by gendered norms nor do they support the economic development of women in the Biombo region. Mers-Bodjar provides insight into structural violence as well as the universal exclusion of women of the Global South. Despite Security Council Resolutions 2122, there are no pragmatic motions in place that are able to tackle the root of the issue women of Mers-Bodjar face, which is primarily that of socio-economic exclusion.   In essence, Mers-Bodjar is necessary because the scope of international law on gender fails to effectively tackle the issues faced by women in Guinea-Bissau, as it is predominantly focused on the experiences of an elite group of white women in the Global North. This article explore the ways in which Mers-Bodjar has been excluded and how they deal with exclusion by developing projects such as Mers-Bodjar. 

Background

Independence in Guinea-Bissau brought about through an armed struggle against the Portuguese led by the late Amilcar Cabral. During the early stages of the liberation movement, Cabral realised that the movement would not be successful without the cooperation of Guinean women, and so they played a key role when it came to mobilizing and recruiting for the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde’s (PAIGC) liberation army. The agreement became that if women supported the armed struggle, upon victory, both men and women would enjoy equal rights. The problem with post-conflict Guinea-Bissau, was that the agreement for equal rights was quickly placed on the backburner and forgotten once liberation was granted in 1974 and women were expected to return to their socio-traditional roles. This has led to the absence of women in societal structures that make crucial decisions of any given governing state. 

This, alongside other instances of political instability, has led to the creation of safe/healing spaces where women collectively seek to cope with the structural violence encountered in predominantly male dominated government bodies and institutions. Mers-Bodjar is a rural organisation for the development of socio-economic activities for women of the Biombo Region in Guinea-Bissau that creates the environment necessary for growth and empowerment of women. The aim of the organisation is to support agri-women economically by turning their produce into long-lasting sellable products. The organisation also educates the women on gender-based violence and how to deal with these in domestic environments. The project also aids by alleviating the physical burden on women, by educating men of the region on the importance of balancing responsibilities in the home. The long-term goal of the organization is to eradicate socio-economic inequality of gender in the region. 

Theoretical Perspectives 

Gendergoes beyond telling women how they should be or act, it creates an environment that sustains structural violence so profound that it becomes impenetrable. Carol Cohn in her 2013 piece depicts how gendered roles can be detrimental to both sexes by forcing men and women to act in ways that are socially acceptable as opposed to conscious agency. The exclusion faced by women of Mers-Bodjar is not warranted nor conscious. The way Bissau-Guinean society is structured makes it difficult for such women to even recognise that their exclusion is due to socially constructed gendered roles. Sexist norms encouraged,  consequently produce institutions that support the same norms that exude gendered violence, as it assumes men are better suited for certain positions than women with no rational grounds other than patriarchal assertions of male dominance.

The women that form Mers-Bodjar are also subjects of intersectionalityon a global scale. Intersectionalityis a term coined by Kimberle Krenshaw in 1989 which explains that a woman is subjected to intersectionality when she crosses over more than one of the protected characteristics (i.e. race and gender), making her more susceptible to discrimination beyond her gender. As discussed above, as a woman your gender is more likely to pose barriers in society than your male counterpart. However, a woman that is also black will become a victim of not only sexism but also racial discrimination. The issue with this binary form of discrimination is that black bodies are subjected to a multitude of segregation that is widely ignored by feminist discourses that habitually separate race from gender. Furthermore, the image presented of black women in feminist discourses is symbolically debasing, as it presents white women as “saviours” and women of colour as poor and hopeless creatures that require “saving”. This is problematic because when soft law on gender is developed, it leaves out women such as those part of Mers-Bodjar as they are not a part of the discourse and their voices are automatically void. 

We are all targets of neoliberalism and it’s never-ending exploitation of the masses; however, the issue with neoliberalism when it comes to gender perspectives, is that it gives women a sense of false consciousness and control. It encourages women to work longer and harder in order to overcome gender inequalities, indirectly suggesting women find themselves in disadvantageous positions by choice. Which is largely untrue, especially for women of the global south. If women Mers-Bodjar had a choice, they would not work twice as hard as the average Bissau-Guinean man, under harsh conditions for little to no pay. Further, the implication of neoliberalism is that local cultural and traditional patriarchal settings place women in prejudicial positions, overlooking universality of capitalism and how it penetrates unthinkable societal structures that exploit those most vulnerable in society. Although this narrative may not be globally fictitious, it most certainly only applies to a very small group of elite women in the Global North. 

International Law

Security Council Resolution 2122 explicitly recognises the importance of dealing with economic hindrances and how women’s economic empowerment is necessary element in order to beat gender inequalities. The recognition of the economic element of women’s empowerment, directly correlated with Mers-Bodjar’s aims and objectives in a manner which women can gain a sense of autonomy; a component often absent from societal structures of Guinea-Bissau which are directly or indirectly exclusionary of women. 

Through refinement and selling of their products, they are able produce income that they use as a way to send their daughters to school, which in the long run, will improve the likelihood of women meeting the minimum threshold of administrative and policy making positions, on the grounds that the local government alsoputs in place policies that target gender inequalities and promote the empowerment of women in policy making positions. 

The African Union has also implemented a sophisticated regime around gender inequalities between men and women such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003 and the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa in 2004, both of which Guinea-Bissau has signed and ratified. However, what is concerning, is that the declaration was adopted by Guinea-Bissau in 2003 and fifteen years later, women are still grossly underrepresented in both public and private spheres in Guinea-Bissau. 

Domestic Law

Inscribed under Bissau-Guinean’s 1984 constitution Article 25, “Men and women are equal before the law in all aspects of life including politics, economic, social and cultural settings”. Out of 133 Articles that make up the constitution, women are mentioned only once. Article 16 relates to the importance of education and uses the following phrase: “education is aimed at qualifying the man…” although the term is commonly used to represent both men and women in the Portuguese language, it is evident that the choice of simply ‘man’ reflects on the predominantly male dominated society whereby only 30% of women above the age of 15 are literate in contrast with 62% males under the same category. 

In August 2018, a Parity Law was passed by the National People’s Assembly demanding a minimum 36% representation of women in the new government, a year later only 13 out of the 21 parties have met this quota. The issue faced by many of these laws, is that they demand action that is evidently impossible to meet in short timeframes. There is a huge discrepancy between literate men and women of Guinea-Bissau, naturally this means that when it comes to positions of power or policy making, more men than women will meet basic entry requirements, not to mention the deep seated gendered institutions that discriminate women claiming they are less ablethan men, encouraging them to abide by socio-cultural gendered roles. 

The vast majority of women that fall within the quota of literacy rates of Guinea-Bissau are centred in the autonomous sector of Bissau; due to high underdevelopment of transportation infrastructure in the country, even for the Region of Biombo, that is less than 20 miles from the capital there is a high number of illiteracy, with women suffering most at 67% in contrast to 33% of men. Although it is not clear of the percentage of the 300 women part of Mers-Bodjar’s literacy, it is fair to assume, based on the statistical evidence in the region, that more than half of them would be illiterate. The above analysis demonstrates how the structural violence that is embedded from the constitution down to everyday life, has irreconcilable ripple effects on the most vulnerable women in society such as Mers-Bodjar. Despite their distance from government bodies, words enshrined in the laws exude violence against them. This supports Cohan’s (2013) analysis of gender, whereby gender is everything that excludes women but victimizes them through violent structures and laws. The need for Mers-Bodjar is clear, in that it produces solutions for dealing with exclusionary domestic laws without having to engage directly at government level. 

Concluding Remarks

Concentrated in the Global South is the vast majority of the world’s population, and yet, it’s the most underrepresented region when it comes to gender studies.  Courses of action directed from the Security Council, often contain a biased standpoint that fails to reflect on the complexities faced by the various countries that make up the Global South. Slavery, artificial borders and colonialism are just a few of the components that have shuddered countries such as Guinea-Bissau. Representation is important in the Security Council when it comes to passing resolutions for tackling inequality because women such as those part of Mers-Bodjar are more likely to understand the gender dynamics of everyday life in Guinea-Bissau in order to resolve a local problem with a local solution. It should be within the interests of the State to solve gender inequalities, because neglecting threats to a state’s stability such as gender inequalities, increases the propensity of the state falling into conflict again.

https://www.gofundme.com/women-of-mers-bodjar&rcid=r01-156019175941-d7b4ca798add4357&pc=ot_co_campmgmt_w

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