When women speak out

What happens when women raise their voices against the injustice surrounding unpaid care work

Social norms are unspoken rules that govern the way we live. These rules might include statements like: “Women must spend all day working in and around the home, with no help and no time to engage in paid work”, which some people believe.

But what happens when women take a stand against these unjust social norms and stand up for their rights?

Learning aims

Completing this module will give you an understanding of:

  • How social norms can promote narrow gender roles
  • How women can reclaim power, even when social norms heavily restrict them
  • How Agatha, Esther and Konika found the power to run for office, reclaim land that was rightfully theirs, and to bravely go where women are not welcome.
Sabita Rani

Sabita Rani challenged the social norms around decision making and has become an influential leader within her community in Kalapara, Bangladesh. Photo: Turjoy Chowdhury/ActionAid

Social norms

For women all over the world, social norms tend to prescribe hard work, lack of opportunities, lack of education, little rest time, little recognition, and the constant danger of physical, emotional and sexual violence.

The pressure to obey these norms can be noisy. But when a woman is empowered to speak out and break the rules, amazing things can happen.

There can also be significant backlash when women become empowered, including family and community resistance family and community resistance, and an increase in violence against women.

To empower women, we have seen how important it is to:

  • Recognise, reduce and redistribute the burden of unpaid care work that falls disproportionately on women
  • Help women use the time they gain this way for productive pursuits (e.g. growing crops for sale)
  • Support women to access markets
  • Enable women to grow their confidence in making decisions and expressing themselves.
In Ghana, a woman speaks to a man at an event sharing demands for women accused of being witches

In Adaklu Waya community, Ghana, a woman and a man speak at an event calling for justice for women accused of being witches. Credit: Deborah Lomotey/ActionAid

Below we hear from three women who’ve been able to grow their confidence, agency and autonomy.

Every woman has the power to make decisions over her own life, but too often, they are denied the voice and agency they need.

POWER has helped approximately 19,500 women to speak up, speak loud and advocate for the rights they deserve. The following stories describe how three women found their voices and were able to change their own lives.

Agatha’s story

The power to run for elected office

“I started contesting for the District Assembly Elections in 1996” says Agatha Achiaa, a smallholder farmer in Ghana. “Each time, I have been competing with not less than 3 or 4 men. Throughout the period that I have contested, the men campaigned that the people should not give me the mandate just because I am a woman. They also campaigned that I would use the resources for the development of the electoral area to cater for my children.”

At 60 years old, Agatha has seen her fair share of losses.

“I have contested for the assembly elections six times and lost because of all these negative allegations. I received a lot of insults and other allegations from the other contestants, mostly the men.”

“In 2015, ActionAid organised a forum for women who have lost assembly elections and those who have decided to contest for the elections. I participated in the forum and the capacity building training. ActionAid Ghana and partners also organised radio discussions for women contesting in the elections, giving the women the opportunity to reach a larger audience with their ideas and share their campaign messages. The experience sharing and the encouragements from the participants revived my interest to contest for the elections again. I felt encouraged to contribute to the development of my electoral area.”

The platform of engaging in media discussions increased Agatha’s visibility, but this did not stop her from receiving abuse from competitors. She says she continued to experience false allegations and threats of violence. Agatha kept going.

Agatha finally won the election and is now the elected assemblywoman for Atronie in the Sunyani Municipality of the Brong Ahafo Region, Ghana.

Esther’s story

The power to reclaim land

“I had no access to land in the community.” says Esther Mbek. “I am 65-years-old. I live with my children in Sakote Baraboug in Ghana and I’m a member of the FLOW REFLECT circle. I’m also the leader of the widows group in my community.

“When I lost my husband about 15 years ago, they wanted me to remarry one of his brothers which I strongly resisted. Due to this, the family head seized all our farm land, including my immediate surroundings just to punish me. I had no access to land in the community. Getting food to eat and to feed my children was a big problem for me. I had to travel into another community to get land to cultivate some foodstuff in order to feed my children. I walked long distances every day to my farm. This affected my productivity because I was tired most of the time, also I didn’t have any time to do other important things.”

“I never knew that certain aspects of work could be done by both boys and girls.”

“Our culture assigns different roles for boys which are separate from those performed by girls. Unfortunately there is an unfair distribution of these roles – with the girls working more than the boys. For instance, during harvesting, the men will only uproot the groundnuts and leave the rest of the work such as conveying, ploughing, drying and storing for the women to do. We do all this work as well as other tasks such as collecting firewood and water.

“In the home, the men will be resting while the women are busily cooking, washing, sweeping and taking care of children. This seriously affects girls’ education as most of them entirely miss out and others drop out at the basic levels of education. Our husbands took the girls out of school and gave them out for marriage in exchange for cows as part of the bride price. We never knew that we could share roles and responsibilities equally among males and females in the family.

“We lacked confidence and could not easily demand for what was due us. For example, it was very difficult for a woman to ask for land and to produce certain types of crops.

“Life was hard, and I just couldn’t make ends meet or come up with a solution to make it easy for myself and my children.

“When I joined the REFLECT circle under the FLOW project, I was surprised by the things they discussed. I was educated about my rights and I began to understand that I was being taken advantage of.

“I felt angry that my rights were being infringed on but, most importantly, I was not willing to have them abused any further.”

“I went to the chief’s palace to take up the issue of the confiscation of my land with him. After I had explained everything that had happened to me, the chief intervened and I won the case. I claimed all seized farmlands that belonged to my late husband! I am now farming on my own land, and I believe no one will ever dream of taking it away from me anymore. I now produce more than enough food to feed myself and my family, and even have some reserve to sell and take care of other needs!

“My life has changed due to the FLOW project. I am empowered!”

Konika’s story

The power to go where women were not welcome

Konika Rani bravely entered the market place, even when men made it clear she was not welcome there.

Her only source of income was the tea stall that her husband Pabon ran at the local market. And while her husband managed to earn enough money for the family’s daily needs, he was reluctant to save the income. He spent most of the earning on his friends, forgetting that he has to provide for the family. Konika and her two sons suffered a lot as a result of this. They could not afford three meals per day.

Konika decided to take up the responsibility of running the tea stall by herself. She communicated with the management committee of the local market and shared her situation. The market committee provided her a suitable space to set up the tea stall. At first, she was hesitant to do the work.

As a woman, as a housewife and being a follower of Hindu religion, it was unimaginable for her to sit in a marketplace for the whole day. She never saw a woman trader in the market, and she had to stay till midnight.

But, to fight against poverty she stuck to her plan.

The market environment was not women-friendly. There is no toilet facility for women and no private space for breast-feeding. She has a toddler who needs to be breastfed, and managed to nurse him in her tea stall.

She faced several barriers from the male-dominated market environment, from her family and society. But going against all the odds, slowly she adjusted and other traders of the market accepted her.

Now Konika earns 500 to 600 BDT taka and makes a profit of up to 250 BDT per day. From this, she is maintaining her family and covering the school fees for her son.

Her village all know how she is working to support her family. During the celebration of International Women’s Day in 2019, Konika Rani was awarded for her contributions in challenging the barriers preventing women from accessing markets, by the Women’s Affairs Office of Fulchari Union.

“The honour I receive from the Women’s Affairs Office, is the most rewarding recognition of my struggle.

“It was a breakthrough for a woman like me to set up a business in a marketplace. Now, as an entrepreneur, I am taking care of my family and earning for them.”

She’s not just transforming her own family, but other families, by inspiring other women to follow suit. Following her courageous act, eleven women started different types of business at the market. Konika Rani is a trailblazer.

Dig deeper

Read ActionAid’s discussion paper on public policies that advance or hinder rural women’s and young people’s livelihoods and climate justice for all.

Learning action

Add your responses below and submit them to test your knowledge and understanding.

When women speak out
Simply being given information about women’s unpaid care work is unlikely to change men’s beliefs.

If you deliver programmes, you could ask your participants to describe the social norms that exist where they live. You could encourage them to think of "should" statements that they have heard (for example, “women should stay at home”).

If you don't deliver programmes, think about people that participated in POWER.

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