While it’s obvious from my last post that I’ve come to love my home in Senegal very much, I still come from a very different culture a world away, and there are several cultural differences that really get to me. First and foremost is the patriarchy that is deeply embedded in this society.
Women in Senegal truly are second-class citizens. As a Western woman, I personally have a more ambiguous gender role in my community. I dress differently, act differently, and often I’m treated more like a man than a woman. But my toubab-ness does not shield me from all of the sexism. Nor does it shield me from observing the discrimination Senegalese women face.
Ramadan is in full swing now, but right before it started was prime wedding season. There was a wedding happening almost every day in my neighborhood when I got back from vacation. Senegalese weddings are characterized by ear-damagingly loud music that goes on more or less all day, so they’re not hard to miss. I asked my friend Thiane why there were so many weddings at that time. She said that with Ramadan so close, men want to get married so they’ll have a woman to cook them monie.
Monie is a millet-based porridge that is often eaten for breakfast or dinner in Senegal. The process to make it is tedious, labor and time intensive. I’ve found that in small villages it’s common for women to make it for their families since the families in villages are often very large and there’s usually nowhere to buy it — but in cities/towns you can buy it easily and cheaply from women that sell it on the street. However, many more women make it as a special occasion kind of thing during Ramadan for the “break-fast” meal that happens at sunset.
I laughed at Thiane’s offhand comment about the monie, but when I looked at her I realized she was serious. Obviously, I find this idea offensive. But to her it’s a pretty run-of-the-mill concept.
Needless to say, life is hard for women and girls in Senegal. They are expected to do all the cooking, cleaning, and housework — without running water, electricity, appliances, or even a kitchen. This often takes all day. They cook over wood fires, each meal taking several hours to prepare, they wash laundry and dishes by hand, pulling all the water for these activities and more from the well, etc, etc.
There are many cultural nuances that constantly enforce this patriarchy. When women greet men they are supposed to do a little curtsy. Men are always given the chairs (if there are any chairs to be had) in a social situation while women will always give up their seats to sit on the ground. Men are served food and tea first, always. In public transportation they usually get priority in seating (though I’ve caused a few scenes fighting for my rightful seat). If these cultural signals weren’t enough, I’ve had several Senegalese men tell me outright that women are inherently inferior to men.
I could tell a million anecdotes about how hard life is in Senegal for women and girls. But I’ll get to the point. There is a Peace Corps Senegal wide scholarship program that every year, pays the inscription fees and buys school supplies for 9 girls at every participating middle school. The idea behind this program is to try to keep girls in school. If everything is paid for, parents can’t use lack of money as an excuse for why their daughters have dropped out.
Being a female student in Senegal is challenging. Even girls that go to school are still expected to help out with all of this work when they get home. Only about half as many girls in Senegal make it to high school as boys do (and an even smaller fraction make it to university). Juggling house work and studies is difficult. Often families will marry off their daughters at a young age for the dowry money, not even giving them the chance to try their hand at an education. Marriages of 12 and 13 year olds are not uncommon here.
I am doing this scholarship program for three different schools in my area — the two middle schools in my town, and one middle school in a village nearby that has no volunteer but does have motivated teachers that wanted to help me make it happen.
There are three parts of the application process. The teachers write recommendations for the girls they think deserve/need the scholarship, the girls write an essay about challenges facing them in the education system, and then I go around to all of their homes to meet with their families and interview the girls. I’ve been doing the interview portion this week, and it’s been fun but also trying. When asked why they want to stay in school, the girls often answer with something as simple as “I want to study until I have something” or “I don’t want to have nothing in life.” These are such simple desires that are unfortunately so difficult to obtain in their situations. As I write down their answers to the questions with my nice American pen, and place the papers in my sturdy American folder, and take their pictures with my fancy American camera, I can’t help but feel self-conscious. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s hard to be so blatantly faced with the injustices of the world.
So, please help support these girls, and help give them a chance to stay in school. See the link below for the website. Any amount is appreciated and goes a long way. Thanks for your help.
Click “Give to the Global Fund”Choose an amount, or enter your own (USD)Enter your personal informationUnder “Please use this box if you want to send a message of encouragement to this project’s volunteer” please enter “PC Senegal MSS Fund”
Here are the pictures of 26 of the 27 girls who will be getting the scholarship (1 is not pictured):