Improving the lives of women in Guinea-Bissau over the long term

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Authors: Kathleen Barnett, Marc Koffi Kouakou and Yannis Arvanitis

Repeated political upheavals have, in the past 40 years greatly undermined socio-economic progress and the institutions needed for gender-equitable development in Guinea-Bissau.

In the wake of a successful transition period, the African Development Bank and UN Women have led the work on a forward-looking gender profile to take stock of the gender situation and seek ways to address pending issues.

The study relies a lot on women’s associations and civil society which have worked to address women’s needs, and provided recommendations and advocacy on gender issues for the 2013-14 transition government, including the formulation of a National Policy for Gender Equality and Equity, PNIEG (Política Nacional para a Promoção da Igualdade e Equidade de Género). These organizations received critical support for their efforts from United Nations agencies that remained in the country after the coup as part of the UN Integrated Peace-Building Office in Guinea-Bissau (UNIOGBIS).

The PNIEG finds that women and girls have been especially disadvantaged by the years of crisis since they are allocated by gender to a secondary status in all spheres of household, community and national life. They face gender-based restrictions on their access to scarce resources (such as credit and land) and to education, and the double burden of household work to care for and feed their families along with market work to contribute to family income. Additionally, girls and women in Guinea-Bissau face the gender-specific risk of maternal mortality, and gender-specific abuses such as domestic violence, female genital mutilation (FGM), and early/forced marriage.

With a new government democratically elected in June 2014, strong civil society women’s organizations supported by committed international donors, and a national gender policy developed through a participatory process involving government and civil society, there is a unique opportunity to incorporate a gender perspective in the new policies and priorities. Indeed, since the elections took place, many advances have been made. Cases of FGM were brought to justice for the very first time, and debates such one seeking to establish a minimum of 30% female representation in Parliament are being discussed.

However, challenges related to gender in Guinea-Bissau are massive, multiple and multidimensional. At a glance, the indicators in the table below (which are contained in the gender study conducted by the AfDB and UN Women) provide an overview of the breadth of the challenges faced. These challenges are even more significant given the country’s limited public resources (financial, institutional, and in terms of human capital/resources). It is therefore essential to prioritize, considering the numerous needs in the domain of gender.

So what to do when confronted with this situation, knowing that gender inequality puts the brakes on growth in general, and on inclusive growth in particular? Where to begin and which areas to cover?

Interviews with Guinea-Bissauan women and women’s associations, government officials, other civil society groups, and international donors, and the review of documents and reports, indicate that women have many needs. As is the case for women in other low-income countries of Africa and elsewhere, their needs are centered on: income, opportunity, legal rights, literacy and education, reproductive and maternal health, freedom from violence and harmful traditional practices, and changes in patriarchal norms and customs. 

The Gender Profile for Guinea-Bissau suggests that the priority should be to target actions that can bring the greatest benefit to the largest number of poor women, and to choose a few areas where investments can produce an immediate benefit as well as a spillover effect on other areas of need.

In the economic sphere, certain measures are recommended for strengthening women’s roles in the economy and increasing their productivity. These include the creation of a special fund for loans and microcredit for women engaged in agriculture and the management of small businesses; the provision of extension services to cooperatives, associations and small/medium enterprises owned by women; and, finally, the construction of essential infrastructure – rural roads, water supply and sanitation systems, and electrification – to increase the efficiency and productivity of women’s labour in the marketplace and at home.

On legal rights, the country must move towards the enactment of the new Land Law (Lei da Terra) guaranteeing land rights for women; their communication and dissemination to the public, as well as the enforcement of laws prohibiting domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM); and with all of this the eventual extension of legal services accessible to women at the local level. This final component must include the training of police forces and local judicial authorities on the equality of men and women, with the aim of strengthening the rule of civil law with respect to traditional or customary law.

Finally, with regard to social/human capital the study advocates the expansion of maternal mortality reduction programs; the institution of local adult literacy programs that are accessible and targeted to women, especially in rural areas; and improved access to quality primary and secondary school education in rural areas.

These recommendations were developed following an analysis of the gender situation in the country. But they are not simply a long wish list: they demonstrate the importance of understanding the local context in order to articulate realistic and achievable aims. It is only in this way that concrete results can be realized.


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