Will the women's voices be heard?

Posted on 09 February 2010
By the end of the afternoon, all the fishermen are back from the sea and they are bound to have their deserved siesta. The day can be particularly tough due to the strong wind or the change patterns of the tides. The women walk miles to fetch water, and elegantly carry the filled buckets on their heads. It is remarkable to discover beauty in their hard work: these women carry water, responsibility and power.

In this place, as in many others in the developing world, they become mothers at an early age. On one hand, their former lives as children stop early, while on the other hand another adult life begins. That’s how life goes and people grow in Maromena: really fast. However it’s not only the pace of a life that strikes me the most, but the predictability of its direction. We look at the faces of the kids and we can foresee their future. Here in this remote village, children do become accustomed to their “likely to be” work and they mature before the expected time. I see children at ease with adult fishing equipment, and young girls becoming as their mothers and grandmothers.Freedom to grow quickly into adulthood—but isn’t that a lack of opportunity also?

Strangely, I was taken aback when there weren’t women at the first presentation of our volunteer program. When I asked the reason for their absence, the only reply that I got was that they are coming to meetings only if they are invited; otherwise, meetings are meant to be filled only with men.

As my own allegiances for Human Rights would not let me remain complicit to this injustice, I did request their presence also, and while the meeting started later than expected, it began with women in the classroom. It was my duty to take advantage of the fact that in Madagascar, at least within the vezo community, there is no mandate of social gender segregation due to any religious tenets. Yes, the women will keep on cooking, washing, cleaning and educating. And from now on, yes, they ought to be present in every single community meeting which WWF organizes.

That was my contribution, a wake up call to emphasize their importance in the process. But will their voices be heard? Maybe on Sundays, in the ceremony of the forumbe (worship the ancestors), when they all sing and their ancestors come down to earth, in a most sacred act, in order to speak to them. According to some explanations, surprisingly, their ancestors are including messages about conservation of their ecosystem, protection of the coral reef and guidance on family and communal issues. This shows an advance in communication. A sensitivity accomplished only by getting closer to nature, thus getting closer to the almighty.

Language can be a barrier, but when the intentions are true the message is always understood. Day after day I am reminded of this in Maromena, especially when I try to put my ideas across to the locals. It may be my stubborn volition, who knows? Hopefully the message will continue to sink in, even once I am gone, as I have come to acknowledge how truly challenging it is to make one from another culture understand something that sounds so obvious in our own. This is even more difficult when you deal with a population which has little or no education.

However they are thirsty for knowledge and above all, they seem willing to make lasting changes. But as the days go by, I wonder if they simply don’t have space in their lives to think about conservation, or if they just can not afford to think about it? The population in this village is forgotten by the government, and it is amazing to see how solutions for legal system and any other missing supportive structures are somehow improvised and settled by themselves. It bursts of communal creativity, flexibility and adaptation.

But their oblivious existence from the rules of the Malagasy authorities brings its own risks for the own existence, once dangerous mistakes can be made by their own self-rule and self-determination and that adversely influence the vezo community. For that reason WWF has to become familiar with the existing local structures and mold to their shape. Flexibility and local adaptation is a diplomacy which will be rewarded with mutual achievements; even if for that, imperfect solutions can be taken as a compromise.

Compromise allows for future generations to build on the basics, and it respects the time that it takes their own culture to integrate new concepts. Things will change. They always do, and nature alone teaches us to rely on these changes. Till then, women will keep on carrying buckets of water, carrying the burdens of important responsibilities and singing for their ancestors. And for now, attending to the communal meetings for their own sake too.

Ramon Moraes Sales Moura