Three 'Musts' for Africa's Women Groups: Money, School, Rights

TERESIA NJERI KODO is struggling on her civil-servant's salary to educate her six children. Yet she takes time each week to participate in a women's group that feeds elderly poor and sick in the slum where she lives.

And if the womens' group runs short of food for the elderly, she dips into her own pocket. ''I cannot just walk away from their suffering,'' she says.

Women's groups have proliferated across African countries in recent years, tackling everything from legal rights to pooling ideas on how to produce more food.

The plight of most African women remains severe. They do most of the farming, yet often are limited by laws in obtaining credit. Few are elected to political office or appointed to cabinets.

And often, women like Mrs. Kodo are so busy trying to survive that they have no time or money to effectively lobby for change at the national level.

She belongs to a kind of women's self-help group that is common in Kenya. Each month, its 126 members pool the equivalent of less than $1 each, which goes into a rotating fund that provides the only way most members can ever get a chunk of cash at one time. Some such groups provide day-care for working members of the group.

But unaccounted money and leadership quarrels in such groups often lead to their demise, says Kodo. ''Many collapse as soon as they look like they are heading somewhere.''

Groups like Iida, which means ''woman'' in the Somali language, are aimed at making women more economically independent, says Halima Ismail, one of its leaders.

Recently, in a house Iida operates with foreign assistance in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, a half-dozen women at sewing machines were creating cloth items to sell. Founded in 1989, the group has continued despite Somalia's civil war.

Education also helps lift women out of economic dependency, says Manassa Danioko, attorney general in Mali, in West Africa. ''Our fight is an economic fight. It won't succeed until we are educated.''

But the fight to emancipate African women is also a legal fight, the attorney general adds. ''Women don't know their rights,'' she says.

So a growing number of womens' groups in Africa, often with foreign backing, are seeking to educate women about their legal rights on everything from property to sexual violence.

''Violence against women is on the increase,'' says Kenyan lawyer Jane Muigai, a member of the Kenya chapter of the International Federation of Women Lawyers, which has held workshops for women to learn their rights. ''We haven't achieved much,'' in part because police don't take complaints from women seriously enough, she says.

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