Too Great an Injustice
Gender Roles, Women’s Empowerment, and Trickle Up in Burkina Faso
By Alexice Tô-Camier
Senior Program Officer
During the 1983-1987 revolution in Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara sparked a transformational discussion around gender equality and women’s empowerment that laid the groundwork for future generations’ perceptions of women’s rights. At the time, conventional gender roles kept women outside of political and economic spheres of influence. Sankara believed not only in prioritizing the equal rights of women, but also in leveraging their power to drive the success of the revolution and transform Burkina Faso.
Thomas Sankara is famously quoted as saying, “A veritable social revolution will not be possible until women are free…It is too great an injustice to maintain half of a people in silence and ignorance.”
In Burkina Faso today, perceptions of gender roles continue to evolve quickly. Women have assumed positions in all levels of society including politics, public administration, academia, the military, and especially the private sector. The current government has positioned women at the head of several ministries, including economy, foreign affairs, and technological development. The country has also seen women head powerful institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Justice Department, and even female candidates for the presidency.
In spite of advancements in women’s rights and representation, significant disparities remain in equal access to education and employment opportunities. These disparities are particularly pronounced in rural areas where patriarchal norms and ideals continue to dominate the socio-cultural context and dictate women’s status.
Life for women in rural areas is distinctly different from life for urban women, and their perceptions of gender roles tend to differ slightly as well.
While urban women have had more exposure to more progressive views of gender roles, rural women’s perceptions generally reflect the culturally conservative views dictated by the patriarchal context. In rural areas, the trajectory from childhood to adulthood tends to remain constant from one woman to another. From a young age, girls are implicitly taught how to manage and maintain a home. They are disproportionately assigned household chores, learning how to cook, clean, and take care of younger children more often than their brothers.
Female chastity is considered an important asset that girls are encouraged to preserve. Not doing so could jeopardize their chances of marriage. This notion has long supported the traditional practice of female genital mutilation, which has remained prevalent within certain ethnic groups in Burkina Faso despite being criminalized in 1996. Mothers bear the responsibility of inculcating the proper values and rules of conduct for their girls in accordance with traditional expectations of gender roles. When girls are married, usually by the age of 17, they have been brought up to endure and overcome the many challenges they will encounter once they leave home.
Girls in Burkina Faso have the right to an education, but their attendance is not guaranteed should their family consider school fees an unnecessary investment. Typically, they will go from their father’s home to their husband’s home, ultimately fulfilling the expectation of rearing children (on average, women have 5 children in Burkina Faso) and caring for household members.
According to rural women in Burkina Faso, an empowered woman is one who is respected in her household and community. Respect is measured by her freedom to voice her opinion and her power to influence decisions related to herself, her family, and in particular her children. Her power is predicated on various factors, which usually include her economic autonomy. Culturally speaking, women aren’t usually the final decision-makers unless they are the head of household; however, they do have influence over their husband’s decisions. Similar to the Western idiom “behind every great man is a great woman,” in Burkina Faso the equivalent is “the night brings good advice.” In other words, men typically consult their wives in private before making a final decision.
In Burkina Faso, Trickle Up plays a fundamental role in the social and economic empowerment of women as perceived by the participants themselves.
By giving them the tools to achieve economic independence, Trickle Up is helping women move closer to gender equality not necessarily by influencing perceptions of gender norms, but by bridging the economic and social disparities which prevent women from being agents of change for themselves.
Women view their ability to change outcomes for their children as a principal motivator. Results from a recent study conducted by Trickle Up, the University of Chicago, and the Women’s Refugee Commission shed light on the impact of our economic strengthening program on child protection and wellbeing. It also showed a shift in household dynamics when women contribute at higher levels to household expenses. The bottom line: Our programs give women the tools to lift their families out of the cycle of poverty, advocate for their rights, and look beyond their daily struggles to think about the future.
Achieving the Global Goal of gender equality within the next 15 years will require Burkina Faso to leverage the progress it’s made in women’s rights since the revolution to enact reforms in legislation and policy. It is expected that Burkina Faso will aim to reform land rights, giving women equal access to a key productive asset which is currently reserved for men. The government should also improve access to reproductive health services to ensure women have control over their bodies and can plan pregnancies, ensure equal access to education to broaden women’s opportunities, and promote a proportionate representation of women politically and professionally.
Alexice Tô-Camier, Senior Program Officer, brings a unique set of skills and experiences in West Africa, including conducting field research focused on assessing barriers to women’s economic empowerment in the Tambacounda region of Senegal. She was formerly Trickle Up’s Country Representative in Burkina Faso. Prior to working with Trickle Up, she founded a fair trade and ethical clothing company in collaboration with a women’s cooperative and abandoned youth association in Burkina Faso. She has also worked with Association pour le Progrès et la Défense des Droits des Femmes Maliennes, a women’s human rights association in Mali where she conducted extensive research to inform the national agenda on women’s rights. She holds a Master’s Degree in Management and Sustainable Development from HEC Montreal. She is a bilingual French/English speaker, having lived and worked in Burkina Faso, the United States, France, and Canada.