Monday, 8 March 2010

WOMEN: International Women's Day in Saharawi Refugee Camps

There may be debate about whether the the International Women's Day is an anachronism and defies everything that the feminist movement has achieved to date; or if this day is a reminder of said achievement and should therefore be celebrated on a sunny spring day. Whatever side you are leaning to, the International Women's Day certainly gives me the opportunity to contextualise this blog post on the Saharawi women in an internationally relevant way.

The International Women's Day is associated in Western societies with the empowerment of women through the industrialisation of the workforce and the heightened visibility of women through the permeability of domesticity; with the achievements of women for women in terms of political engagement, inclusion, emancipation and "cracking the glass ceiling". However, pay gaps, absence of women in leading positions, gender inequality in schools, courts, media, and throughout society ought to be on our minds while marching the streets and celebrating womanhood.

This is different for Saharawi women.The Saharawi refugee camps are managed by the democratic and representative government-in-exile, Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) since 1975. Promoting education as a means to self-determination and gender equality as a foundational principle, Saharawi women have been known as the powerful pillars of Saharawi life in exile.

According to an old Saharawi saying, "a tent is raised on two poles: a man and a woman", understanding both partners in a relationship as equal leaders. However, during the violent war between the Moroccan occupiers and the liberation movement from 1975 to 1992, male and female Saharawi soldiers were absent, injured or killed. In a time of instability and chaos amongst the hundreds of thousands Saharawi refugees that escaped the war-ridden occupied Western Sahara, Saharawi women took the initiative to secure shelter, provide supplies and protection and physically as well as socially construct those refugee camps that in the 35 years of exile have become home for so many Saharawis.

As so often in societies so violently disrupted by war (think Germany, UK and France during and after World War I), women experienced a new scale of responsibility in their homes and more and more often outside of their homes. Unlike their fellow females from the post-war Europe (by no means diminishing their achievements), Saharawi women remained in charge for the administration of the camps, education and medical care for their people: over half of all medical staff is female (nurses, doctors, surgeons); one third of all parliamentarians are women; one third of the Saharawi representatives in the African parliament are female; local administration units, the Dairas, are predominatenly headed by women.

Today, we are celebrating the women of the world. The Global North and the Global South have made significant, though radically different, accomplishment in legal, political, cultural and personal terms to achieve equal rights and equal opportunities.

Listen to Radio 4's Woman's Hour on Saharawi women (by Danielle Smith & Beatrice Newbery).

UNIFEM United Nations Development Fund for Women. Gender Profile on the Conflict in Western Sahara.
For more information, also see:

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