Burkina Faso women break their silence on forced vows

Gender equality is guaranteed under the 1991 constitution, but in practice, change has come slowly for the largely rural, illiterate populace.

Published February 8, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Traditional customs die slowly, particularly in low-literacy
nations like Central Africa's Burkina Faso where women and girls
are still regarded as property that can be traded.

While urban governments legislate a plethora of progressive
decrees, their attempts at enlightenment are often dismissed in
the countryside where ancient prejudices prevail. With 84.6
percent of the population living in rural areas this
means change, in reality, touches very few.

Gender equality was guaranteed in Burkina Faso's 1991
constitution, but women and girls remain miles away from
authentic liberation. Last month, the Committee on the
Elimination of Discrimination against Women convened to
strategize against its greatest concerns: forced marriage, wife
inheritance, polygamy, violence against women, illiteracy and
accusations of witchcraft.

Young Burkinabe girls are often coerced into matrimony because
customs regard them as "property to be given away as a gift for a
friend, a medium of exchange, or to be used for immediate or
future interests," according to a report on the Jan. 28 M2

Although these "forced marriages" are illegal, ignorance of the
law abounds in a country where 92 percent of the women are
illiterate, cannot afford legal action and are geographically
isolated from courts.

On an encouraging note, the committee praised Burkina Faso's
success at abolishing female genital mutilation, or
clitorectomies, and urged the nation to assume leadership in
eradicating the horrific practice from Africa.
Burkinabe women were also congratulated for having taken the lead
in accepting the female condom.

Female activists in this landlocked country on the fringe of the
Sahara deserve to be optimistic about their future. Rural
migration into urban areas is gradually educating the populace
and eradicating the misogynist notions of the past.

The United Nations has launched several programs to elevate the
status of women, and slowly, women are making tiny inroads into
the political arena. Of the National Assembly's 111
representatives, 10 are women.

By Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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