One late afternoon, I plodded up a wide muddy road, through a village center, back to the rented SUV where my patient and amiable driver waited. In the Madagascar highlands, everything shouts color: blue sky, red clay hills, green rice shoots, white clouds. The colors drowned out my thoughts.

As I walked, I noticed four women, out of place in their Sunday clothes and lambas, white woven cloth worn around their shoulders and waists, in front of a one-story mud-brown building, also out of place among the two-story red laterite clay structures surrounding it. A policeman in a brown camouflage uniform leaned against the doorway of the brown building smoking, watching. Most afternoons women in rural Africa work under the hot sun, usually stooped labor, bent over pulling weeds, bent over with firewood on their backs, bent over at the well pumping water; but then walking ramrod straight with the jugs of water on their heads. You don’t usually see them congregating and conversing in the village as men often do.

We were in a hurry to return to the city because it looked like rain. When it rains the roads wash out. The driver and interpreter warned me that if we went to the village that was furthest away from the capital we could be stuck there for a long time if it rained. At some point the macadam road ended, and the slick, mucky clay would imprison the SUV until the road dried out.

But getting women to talk about their lives, their rights, their work, their land, their customs, their children, their fears, their needs, is my job. I was in Madagascar to learn whether women’s land rights were being documented in a government program to verify who owned what land. Without documentation, women can easily lose their rights to their land, and frequently only the male head of the household’s name is recorded on land documents. I turned to my interpreter, Maryam, to ask the women whether I could interview them. Maryam, a Merina highlander herself, willingly stepped forward to talk to them. They hesitated, eyes darting toward me, and shook their heads. Their faces, thin and lined, looked recently polished, shiny and supple. One woman spoke. “Someone stole our ancestors’ bones,” she said with her hand on her heart, “we cannot talk to you, we cannot concentrate on anything else.”

I put my hand on my heart in response and bowed my head toward her. Maryam said something softly to them in Malagasy. We turned away in silence, and I followed her up the hill to the van.

When people ask me what do we do at Resource Equity, I tell them that we work on improving laws that ignore or harm women; we recommend ways to ensure that women are not unpaid laborers on their land with no voice or control over their produce or their income; we train, we advise, we research, we write.

 

I asked Maryam about the Merina’s ceremony, called famadihana, usually translated as “turning of the bones,” which is at least briefly described in every travel book about Madagascar. The versions vary, but they all involve exhuming the corpse of a close relative after all the flesh has decayed, wrapping the bones in new shrouds, and returning the newly wrapped bones to a family tomb after the bones enjoyed the family’s festivities and provided advice about important decisions. The process of metamorphosis, moving from a human to an ancestor, takes about two years. Only adults who are members of the community at the time of their death can become ancestors (razana) in that community, so that a person who is separated from the community in life is also separated in death, sometimes fated to roam the earth as an evil spirit.

Outsiders may observe the ceremony—approaching the tomb, wrapping and unwrapping the corpse, drinking and dancing with the corpse–as one long party but in truth, the Merina are afraid of the dead. If a body has not fully decayed and dried up, it can harm anyone who touches it. As the group approaches the tomb, they constantly encourage one another not to be afraid, to dance, to be happy, as the dead are happy. Arriving at the tomb, the family leader hands the newly decayed body to the closest female relatives to unwrap because these women have the strongest emotional links to the dead. The Merina consider women to be the “vessels of kinship emotion” and their touch and emotional attachment is what keeps the kinship relationship strong. Once the corpse has been touched and found to be dry, the fear dissipates and over the course of the ceremony, dancing with the bones becomes joyous and celebratory.

I tell you this story to illustrate three things. Even though this specific practice is unique to the Merina community, customs and norms in most rural communities around the Global South tend to be strong, differ for women and men, and affect all elements of life. Second, going against these traditions means risking alienation or expulsion from a community. Often, this means losing everything and everyone in your life and afterlife. So it is extremely difficult for women to stand against cultural norms and risk losing all contact with the community. Third, those same cultural norms require that women sacrifice themselves for the good of the family and of the community.

When people ask me what do we do at Resource Equity, I tell them that we work on improving laws that ignore or harm women; we recommend ways to ensure that women are not unpaid laborers on their land with no voice or control over their produce or their income; we train, we advise, we research, we write.

But the crux of our value, what we contribute as outsiders is this: we listen to women and we bear witness to their lives. Often our statement, our testimony about what is true is heard when theirs has not been. We bear witness to women crippled by beatings from their husbands or mothers-in-law; we bear witness to single women whose only affliction is dark skin and ruddy features, who live in straw huts even during the rainy season, at the mercy of their brothers. We bear witness to the children of landless families who work with their mothers or fathers in brick kilns. We bear witness to women who do not have a right to sit and eat the food they grew and cooked until the men are full and have left the table. We bear witness to brilliant young women “stolen” and married to a relative who wanted them. We bear witness to women silenced by community norms, by fear, and by not knowing or understanding.

Bearing witness allows us to see the ways in which policies, laws, and economic systems impact women, insights which in turn inform our work to advance women’s social and economic empowerment. We rarely see the outcome from our work, but we can see the incremental changes that will lead to more fundamental ones. We know from research that women’s lives improve in profound ways when they have secure rights to the land they farm. Perhaps most importantly, their status improves in their homes and their communities when they gain land rights.

On this International Women’s Day, we remember that systemic change can happen, but it takes time. Land rights are intrinsically linked to family and community systems that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Empowering women does not need to destroy what is good in these systems. Our work is to support women in taking steps toward the changes they choose to make.

Photo by Carlos