Every time the pastoralist men in Fatima Demba’s village return from their months-long journey in search of pasture and water, the women erupt in wild celebrations.
Adjusting her bright yellow and blue robe, Mrs. Demba says, “We draw henna tattoos on our bodies, we braid our hair, we wear our nicest clothes.”
Although she longs for her husband to come home, she sees one benefit in his absence: “I am in charge of everything…. Our money, our field of millet—even the village’s borehole is my responsibility.”
Prolonged dry spells in this southern part of Mauritania have depleted grazing land, forcing pastoralists to travel ever longer distances in search of food and water for their herds.
Experts say this gives women in these largely male-dominated societies newfound power to manage harvests, the family’s remaining animals, and household finances.
Aminetou Mint Maouloud started the country’s first association of women herders in 2014. She says: “Women pastoralists are the first up in the morning and the last to go to bed at night…. Whether it’s making butter from cow milk, fetching wood, or tending to ill animals, it all comes down to women.”
Herding livestock is a traditional way of making a living in West Africa’s Sahel, a semi-arid belt south of the Sahara, but herders have become increasingly vulnerable to food insecurity as climate change disrupts rain patterns in the region.
This is particularly true in the desert nation of Mauritania. El Hacen Ould Taleb is head of the Groupement National des Associations Pastorales, a charity working with pastoralists.
He explains: “Transhumance—the seasonal migration of pastoralists and their herds to neighbouring Senegal or Mali—normally starts in October, but the rains were so bad last year that people started leaving in August.”
His organization is helping pastoralists find smarter migration routes—with water sources and markets along the way, for example—as part of a British government-funded program called Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters.
Mrs. Demba’s husband has been gone for seven months. She doesn’t know when he will return.
Pausing to take a sip of mint tea, she says, “He has no choice; he must save our animals.”
In the meantime, she adds, “The family depends on me.”
Mrs. Mint Maouloud says that, although women play a crucial role in pastoralism, it is rarely acknowledged. She adds, “A man will listen to everything his wife whispers on the pillow, but in the morning, she won’t get any credit for it.”
To change that, her association elected a council of eight women from villages around the country. Together, they lobby the government on pastoralism issues.
She explains, “We tell them where an animal clinic might be needed, or which markets are best for specific kinds of animals.”
Their suggestions may find an unusually sympathetic ear. Since Mauritania’s livestock ministry was created in 2014, both of its leaders have been women.
Vatma Vall Mint Soueina, the current minister, says she has seen women grow in economic clout.
She adds, “We are seeing women becoming more independent, by virtue of being so active economically.”
In Hadad village, amid stretches of sand and dirt dotted with the odd wilting tree, a dozen women huddle under a large tent covered with striped rugs.
Mariem Mint Lessiyad, a tiny woman with piercing brown eyes, chats energetically to the group, interrupted only by a bleating baby goat.
She leads a co-operative of 100 pastoralist women from nearby villages who buy chickens and sheep to raise and slaughter, selling affordable portions to local families.
She says, “There is less meat going around, so we need to be clever with how we consume it.”
The women buy a sheep for 12,000 Mauritanian old ouguiya (US$34), for instance, and make a profit of about 2,000 ouguiya (US$6) per animal.
The women plan to invest the profit from sheep sales in setting up a leather goods business.
Mrs. Mint Lessiyad says, “We can’t rely on our husbands to support us financially. They are too poor, especially now that they have to spend more money on keeping our animals healthy.”
Mrs. Mint Maouloud and her association are trying to persuade financial institutions to make it easier for women to get loans, so groups like Mrs. Mint Lessiyad’s can get ahead.
Access to finance can be problematic, she says, with some banks refusing outright to lend money to women.
She adds, “It’s important to make women herders more independent financially, so they don’t [have to] rely on their husbands’ generosity or understanding.”
This story was adapted from an article titled “As drought keeps men on the road, Mauritania’s pastoralist women take charge” published by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. To read the original article, please see: http://news.trust.org/item/20180417023016-hxfuk/
Photo:A woman sits on a donkey cart in Hadad, Gorgol region, Mauritania, March 30, 2018. Credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Zoe Tabary