CASSUPE, MOZAMBIQUE — Years on the international dole in United Nations refugee camps did not extinguish the Mozambican peasant woman's ability to work hard, despite the forces conspiring against her.
"If it were not for the women, our farming sector would never have revived. They do all the work, especially in producing food crops for home consumption," says Joo Carrilho, president of Mozambique's Institute for Rural Development.
With only a hoe and her own muscle at her disposal, the peasant woman must wrest the family's fields back from the bush that took over during the war years. She needs water, but the rains are undependable and irrigation is all but unknown in Mozambique. She stacks up prayers against drought, flood, and insect infestation.
If she's lucky, a woman may grow enough to have some extra for sale, but then she has to carry all that corn on her head to the market, miles away.
Her husband will also expect her to find time to tend his cash crops - tobacco, cotton, sugar cane - even though he may very well spend the income on acquiring another wife.
A visit to Cassupe village in the northwestern province of Tete proved to be an eye-opener. Far from being empowered by their years as single mothers in the refugee camps, Mozambican peasant women have resumed their old subservient roles in their ancestral villages.
Mr. Carrilho and Mariam Pangah, his colleague from the UN Development Program (UNDP), were frustrated when the men of Cassupe tried to answer questions put to the women. Local field worker Diphas Sinoia says it has taken him incredible effort just to persuade the women to sit in the same room as the men for meetings about community development.
"When I approach them to talk about what they might do to earn money, the women are intimidated. They always refer me to their husbands," says Mr. Sinoia. He is employed in a community development project funded by UNDP and managed by Carrilho's institute.
Mr. Pangah says that so few young men survived the war years inside Mozambique that the women now compete fiercely for husbands, often agreeing to become a man's second or third wife, even when he can't afford his first. They are not about to join forces for mutual benefit.
Carrilho and Sinoia theorize that Mozambican women are too shell-shocked from the war years to rock the gender boat by demanding equal opportunities.
"They need more time to consolidate before they start having their own voices," says Carrilho. And even though they want men to give them status as wives and mothers, Sinoia says women still do not trust men and prefer to live outside the male world.
As he puts it, "The men were responsible for the war."