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The Gambia: Women's empowerment for change

Women living in the Gambia's Foni Jarrol district face a raft of problems, from forced marriage and violence in the home to a lack of economic self-reliance brought on by poor education and entrenched discrimination.

Three generations of women in Basse, The Gambia
Generations of women in the Gambia's Foni Jarrol district will enjoy
better quality of life and the opportunity to flourish at work and home

With financial backing from the European Union and UK supporters, our local Gambian team are collaborating with partner charities to launch a new three-year project designed to reduce gender inequality.

Initially focusing on 100 single mothers, the project will create better opportunities for women in communities throughout Foni Jarrol, fostering greater stability for children growing up in some of the district's most disadvantaged communities.

Why is this project needed?

The Gambia is rated 151 out of 169 on the gender equality index. In one of the most conservative communities, the West Coast region's Foni Jarrol district, many women face rape, domestic violence, are subjected to female genital mutilation (FGM), suffer as a result of illiteracy and poor education, and have virtually no mouthpiece to speak out within society. This has serious implications for their quality of life, and seriously hampers their children's life chances.

Deep-rooted gender inequality

Foni Jarrol is located in the Gambia's West Coast Region. Zoom in to see the district in
close up.

When we spoke to women in Foni Jarrol, we found that two thirds were married before they reached 18; 43% of whom were given no choice. Nearly all had undergone FGM before their 16th birthday and almost half before the age of five; the majority were cut by traditional circumcisers known as “Ngamsimba”. 13% of women reported suffering physical violence and 9% had been raped. Over a fifth of married women said they had suffered physical violence at the hands of their husbands.

Driving change from within

Most women accept the status quo, and none actively oppose it. According to UNICEF data, nearly three quarters of Gambian women aged 18-49 believe that it is a husband's right to beat his wife for reasons as trivial as burning the food or leaving the house without his permission. None of the cases of rape or violence in Foni Jarrol had been reported to the police.

However detrimental it is to women's welfare, this culture also forms the foundations of a way of life. The project will be run by our local Gambian team, with a deep understanding of and sensitivity to the local culture. As the 100 women directly involved in the project acquire a better knowledge of their rights and take on greater independence, they will spread the benefits to other women to drive change within the community. Thanks to the trust they command, local figures including Alkalo (community leaders), Imams (religious leaders) and Ngamsimba (traditional circumcisers) will all be vital in supporting the project.

What will the project achieve?

A typical rural scene in Foni Jarrol district
Foni Jarrol is a predominantly rural area, and the overwhelming majority of women are
involved in agricultural work

The project seeks to empower women so that they can lead a more prosperous and fulfilling life, so that they can raise their children in a more nurturing environment, and for the good and prosperity of the whole community. Consequently, we will not only address deeply held attitudes and beliefs through education and awareness raising, but enable women to shape their destiny through business and achieve self-reliance so that the whole community can flourish.

By 2017, we will have:

  • increased community-wide awareness of women's rights among men and women. Men will be able to explain how their behaviour has changed as a result of education, and both men and women will be able to give examples of women's rights.
  • significantly reduced FGM and the number of practising Ngamsimba.
  • reduced violence against women and improved reporting of violence.
  • created better networks to share learning across the five communities involved in the projects.
  • set up “Kabiloo” (women-led support groups) so that women have a channel to discuss violence and any issues can be reported.
  • given women the skills, resources and knowledge to start their own businesses and earn a sustainable living.
  • created women's cooperative groups to underpin these businesses.

How will we achieve these aims?

The national director of SOS Gambia plays with children on a visit to Bakoteh
By empowering women in Foni Jarrol, we will create a happier, more nurturing setting
for children and life chances unimaginable to previous generations of girls

Specific and ambitious aims such as these can only be achieved through a manageable, long-term plan. Our focus will be on three broad areas: raising awareness of women's rights, encouraging and facilitating speaking out to break the culture of silence, and education and vocational training for a sustainable livelihood. Throughout the project, we will maintain a special focus on FGM.

Initially, we will talk to the “Alkalo” (local commuity leaders) to identify the district's most vulnerable women. We will then conduct a series of friendly interviews to find 100 single mothers most in need of direct support. The project is wide-reaching and encompasses the villages of Sintet, Kalagi, Kan Mamadou, Jarrol and Kampassa within Foni Jarrol district.

Equipped with greater awareness of their rights, business literacy and a mutual support network, these women will promote women's rights throughout their communities and bring about a sea-change in the treatment and status of women in Foni Jarrol society.

Awareness raising

  • Sensitisation sessions. These sessions, attended by the selected women, will take women's rights as a starting point before moving on to broader welfare issues, particularly focusing on parenting and child-rearing. Key topics will be health (including FGM, and sexual and reproductive health) and parenting, including child rights, harmful cultural practices, early and forced marriage, and girls' education.
  • Community awareness. This important focus will help spread awareness beyond the initial target group into the community beyond. It will incorporate a range of media from posters and flyers to films, music and “Kanyeleng” (a traditional dance performed by women on a particular theme). Documentaries, debates and radio broadcasts will help involve the entire community.
  • Discussion and debate. Respected figures such as Alkalos and Imams will encourage men and women from the community to engage in discussion and debate, and ultimately join the effort to promote gender equality for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Speaking out

  • Networks to connect communities. Participating communities will communicate via networks for the promotion and proliferation of women's rights. These will be run and led by the women themselves.
  • “Kabiloo” or women-led groups. 13% of women reported that they were subject to physical violence, and 9% said they had been raped. Women will be trained as counsellors to provide a listening ear as well as guidance and support in accessing legal advice and contact with the police.
This graph shows the huge gap in male and female literacy throughout the
Gambia. Press the play icon to see how it has changed over time – despite a rise in
literacy for both genders, the gap has remained barely narrowed.
  • Breaking culture of immunity. Currently, men who act violently towards women are socially immune because their actions are sanctioned by the dominant culture. By strengthening and enforcing legal systems and contact with the authorities, we will break this perception of immunity.
  • Cooperative groups. Women's cooperatives will predominantly support business initiatives, but these female-run groups will also provide a powerful mouthpiece for women to speak out about violence.

Education and vocational training

  • Literacy. 89% of women in Foni Jarrol are illiterate, significantly more than among menfolk. This is a barrier to sustainable employment. We will provide practical classes focusing on the literacy and numeracy skills relevant to running their businesses.
  • Vocational training. We will train women in the skills they need to run a business and help them launch appropriate income-generating activities.
  • Financial kick-start. We will provide financial support to help women start their businesses.
  • Women's cooperatives. Cooperative groups will ensure businesses are running smoothly and that mutual help and support is on hand when needed. They will also help replicate support to other women in the community.
  • Financial management. We will provide financial management training and help women develop a long-term business plan and open a bank account.

Female genital mutilation (FGM)

  • Special focus. Targeting FGM is part of the broader effort to reduce violence against women. FGM is particularly prevalent in Foni Jarrol – 95% of women have undergone cutting in Foni Jarrol, compared with 76% nationally. This means that it will form a special focus within the project.
  • Working with circumcisers. FGM is part of a rite of passage known as “Adaa Karango”, which is carried out by the Ngamsimba. Ngamsimba from other communities who have now ceased carrying out circumcisions thanks to one of our project partners will visit to share their experiences. Combined with skills training, this will help circumcisers from within the community to move into new livelihoods. Once they are equipped for other work, the Ngamsimba will help raise awareness of the dangers of FGM and shift the focus of traditional rites of passage onto guidance.
  • Women's empowerment for change project is launched in the Gambia
    The team proudly raise the banner as they prepare the project for kick-off
    Awareness-raising of the health risks and long-term damage caused by FGM will form a special focus of the media, debate and discussion which women will lead in their communities.

How will the project be supported?

The project is run by SOS Children's Gambian team, with funding organised and administered by the UK team. We are partnering with a number of other local charities with expertise in the district, including ChildFund, the Eastern Foni Federation, and BAFROW (the Foundation for Research on Women's Health, Productivity and the Environment).

The majority of the funding will be provided by the European Union, who are generously providing a grant of €200,000 over the three-year duration of the project. The remainder of the funding will come from supporters within the UK. This is an exciting, wide-reaching project which will give women the power to change their communities for the better and provide opportunities and prosperity for generations of girls and women.

This project is just one of the many ways in which our supporters are helping us create strong, harmonious communities and the very best start in life for every child. Find out more about our community work...

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