Women’s voices on COVID-19: “Impossible does not exist in our language”

Voices of Tanti are stories gathered through the Women Respond initiative

Who is Tanti WA (West Africa)?

I am a West African woman. Although my sisters and I are dispersed across vast lands, speak several languages and have different governments and social structures, we have many things in common. Often the most common being poverty and gender inequality.

Historically and till today, we have faced high levels of inequality and injustice, from access to land, economic assets, education, political participation and health, just to name a few. Generations repeat, as our girls are taken away from schools at a very young age to be married, making them as vulnerable as we are. When disaster strikes, we are often the hardest hit. Our voices are not heard, and we have little or no influence over decisions that affect our lives. But our voices save lives and increase gender equality.

I am a woman who fights for her rights, so that all women can be free. I fight to put food on the table, so my children can grow up without worries. I am the woman who is not afraid to speak up and fight for equal access to have my voice be heard. I am the woman who sits at the same table with decision-makers and tells them what should and needs to be done. Women’s equal voice, leadership and participation challenges and transforms the root causes of poverty and injustice.

This pandemic has proven to us again that emergencies can reinforce gender inequality. Our lives have come to a stop under lockdown. We face more gender-based violence and food insecurity from not being able to go to the market. Our children can’t go to schools. We will be the last ones to be considered when it comes to making decisions. We constantly ask ourselves, will we come out of this alive?

Here are our voices.

Lea Hounou and staff in Benin

Léa Hounou

28 years old, from Sèkodji, Benin. Married with two children. Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) group secretary and hairdresser by trade.

The biggest impact on both me and my household is our mental well-being. I am stressed and anxious about the future.

“I have been in a VSLA group for 6 years and right now I am relying heavily on the social network and moral support from other members.

“I own a small hairdressing salon and I have installed a handwashing station for clients and my trainee assistants. All the assistants have been given masks and I even have extras for my clients. I need to keep the clients coming but I need to protect myself and the team.”

Perpétue Hounnouvi in Benin

Perpétue Hounnouvi

Aged 19, from Awakou, Benin. VSLA Group secretary – La Paix.

“In our VSLA we are all students; most of us cannot do our weekly payments because we used our lunch money to do so, now we don’t have school, we don’t have our lunch money.”

I am mostly worried about my education and how I will complete it. At home there is a lot of worry about money and a lot of stress – where will the food come from?

“In my village people are not adopting prevention behaviours, they don’t believe in the sickness, they believe it is a sickness caused by white people.”

Estelle Houessou in Benin

Estelle Houessou

25 years old, from Sissèkpa, Benin. Single mother of one child, Estelle is a Catalyser (village agent), and has led to the creation of 38 VSLA groups.

“My biggest gap is access to my social networks and support mechanisms, as a single mother. I worry about food for the household too.”

Many of the newer groups are losing confidence, wondering how the group will help when they have no money to save.

“I have been busy passing hygiene messages across all the groups. I have tried to visit some of them too, but it is not easy with the lockdowns. We have created a WhatsApp group because most members cannot read [so] we use the voice messages and telephone calls. This helps us stay connected and use the groups to pass key messages. I have been engaged with village leaders and communal authorities to liaise with the groups.”

Bassietou Camara in Ivory Coast

Bassietou Camara

From Bouake, Cote d’Ivoire. President of a VSLA Federation.

“I informed VSLAs at the start of the crisis, especially the VSLA’s presidents, to inform them of the measures to be taken to avoid catching this disease. They adapted the group meetings, to meet once a month, but people do not come very often.”

The most important thing is food, both individually and in VSLAs and households. If people cannot feed their families, there is nothing else they can do.

“I was able to pay for a few buckets, gels, soaps to drop them off at workplaces, and I distributed them to a few groups that work as a team. If we have enough soaps, gels, masks, etc, we can continue distribution in the communities. 20 women raised awareness in 26 markets and 8 villages. Since then we stopped because everyone understands better now.”

N'cho Akaffou Raymonde in Ivory Coast

N’cho Akaffou Raymonde

Married with 3 children, from Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. Member of a VSLA group for 6 years.

“I have a lot of anxiety about the future and how I will feed my family.”

Everyone in fact is filled with fear because of the sickness – we don’t know where it could come from so we need to be two times more vigilant than before.

“Our VSLA group can no longer meet because members are scared, savings are not regular. Members’ businesses have slowed down and they are having trouble repaying their loans. All of us don’t know how to feed our families. We want to help our communities, but as we have nothing all we can do is pass messages and raise awareness.”

Mary Akutei in Ghana

Mary Akutei

Aged 45, from Ada, Ghana. Married with 3 children. VSLA chairperson, a farmer, trader and sells cooked rice.

“The COVID-19 has put fear in people. As a result, people are afraid to come to the market to buy foodstuff. The prices of foodstuff have gone high. For example, a bag of rice that was sold for GHC 140 is now being sold for GHC 180. Schools and churches have been closed and VSLA meeting attendance is not encouraging.”

It is also difficult to hug my child like I used to do before COVID-19. My own child is afraid to hug me, her mother! … and each one of us is keeping her distance.

Graphic of West African woman

“Gloria” (name changed to protect her privacy)

Aged 38 from Ghana. Mother of 6 children. Has been a VSLA member for 3 years.

“I am just praying that the medical scientists get the vaccines because the disease has come to stay with us and some of us may not survive in our homes if this continues.”

Now I’m experiencing the fear of my husband and the fear of the disease at the same time.

“Before, my husband worked in another city, and only came home at night, if he came home at all. I lived in ‘partial peace’. Now, he is not working because of the pandemic, and is at home all day.

Hmmm, my sister… there are two major things that my husband can do in this house, to either beat you mercilessly or sex you violently.

Yattara Sere Sangare in Mali

YATTARA séré SANGARE – known as Dicko

From Ségou, Mali. President of a VSLA network.

“My primary concern is how to feed my family. My children are home all day and they have nothing to do. I am mother of 12 children. I have 4 daughters-in-law and 14 grandchildren. I am president of the communal network of Saye which is made up of 72 MJT/VSLA groups with 3,000 members and I am also the second deputy mayor in the commune of Saye.”

COVID-19 put us in an uncomfortable situation. There are people who still do not believe in this disease.

“Personally, it affects me because I am the leader of women in my commune. I can't exercise my leadership role because I can't help women today as I am used to through our meetings and discussions. We need to adapt our income-generating activities and find a way.”

Aichatou Sittou in Niger

Aichatou Sittou

Mother of 7, from Niger. President of her VSLA group.

My children’s education is one of my biggest worries. I just want them to go back to school. As Eid is approaching and we will still be in lockdown at home…

“We were able to adapt by sewing face masks to save lives instead of new cloths for the Ramadan Eid. We are a group of 20 young women. Since the start of the pandemic, I personally make 300 masks on average per day. I have produced 6,000 masks since then and was able to make a turnover of 3,000,000 FCFA (5000 USD) over a period of one month at a price of 500 FCFA (0.9 USD) per mask. I made a net profit of 700,000 FCFA (1165 USD). The other members of the group also make masks, some faster than others. The slowest makes 20 masks per day, the average ones make 100 to 150 mask per day.”

Rahina Chayabou in Niger

Rahina Chayabou

Aged 31, from Zangon Toudou/Zinder, Niger. Married with 5 children. Member of her local VSLA group.

The biggest concern for me and our household is how are we going to eat, where will the food come from?

“To make things worse, the head of the household who was in Nigeria working to earn income has now returned, with nothing to do. This puts more pressure on our access and availability of food.

“I have been working at the community level to share information about how to prevent COVID-19 and also looking for ways to diversify my income-generating activities.”

Our VSLA group wants to continue to support the community but also to influence leaders.

Sibitou Boubacar in Niger

Sibitou Boubacar

President of the VSLA Federation Moira in Niger.

My message to all the women in Africa is that we are and stay ingenious women. Impossible doesn’t exist in our language! We should stand up and find ways to fight this pandemic and save our lives.

These stories were gathered though Women Respond, a new initiative to unpack the needs and realities of women and girls with whom CARE works around the world; many of whom are first responders in their communities. These voices are critical to strengthen how organisations, governments and donors should act to support those most impacted by the pandemic.

Many thanks to all the listeners and organisers:

Portraits of people in Women Respond initiative

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