Benin's Ex-Amazons Hold Purse Strings

AS the owner of a 36-room hotel, Grace Lawani is among the most powerful in Benin's burgeoning business community.

Ms. Lawani is also an economic warrior among women in a country that in the last century had 8,000 female fighters, known as Amazons, guarding the king. Since then, the women of Benin have learned the power of the purse. They are at the forefront of economic and democratic reforms that have taken root here in the past five years.

''Women here fight hard to have their independence,'' says Lawani, president of the Association of Women Entrepreneurs in Benin. ''They don't often wait for men, compared with other African countries.''

The market women of Benin have long been a driving force of the economy. In Cotonou's central market, women not only sell goods but also largely manage a citywide taxi service conducted by men on mopeds.

But economic savvy doesn't necessarily translate into political power. That is why Beninese women have created three political parties - out of a total of 87 in the country - and now regularly campaign for seats. A woman heads the constitutional court and three government ministries are run by women. Such political representation by women is almost unheard-of in most nations in the region.

Some men in Benin feel that women should have to struggle on the same footing as men to get into the democratic process, says Joseph Akoha, an English teacher here.

''I don't have the impression that we're doing them good in trying to encourage what we could call positive discrimination [quotas]. This for me is a kind of window dressing.''

Since women weren't considered a political threat to the former Marxist government, they were allowed to pursue trading and other business interests, whereas men were not. Now the largest homes in Cotonou are owned by women, and many have property in Europe. More than half of the capital in Benin's banks belongs to women; about 150 women in the country have assets of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.

In an effort to transform that economic strength to political power, emphasis has been placed on education through help from a five-year US Agency for International Development program. Enrollment of girls in school has increased 18 percent in the past two years, but it still stands at only 30 percent; for boys, it's 60 percent.

''The bad part here is that the women don't understand that they have to help other women to advance,'' Lawani says. ''Women have to be educated.''

One group of women, led by attorney Grace d'Almeida Adamon, who attended the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing, goes from village to village to educate women about their rights.

She said Beninese women generally don't encounter outright opposition from men. But striving for equality is no less difficult in a political environment dominated by men. A family code that would give women inheritance rights, rights to property, the right to a monogamous marriage, and raise the legal age for marriage among women from 12 to 14 has yet to be adopted by the National Assembly. And many women are fighting the African custom of female circumcision.

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