From home-makers to network leaders: women bringing change in rural communities


A traditional housewife without education, Fanta Cisse, 52, was the main family care-taker. But she wanted to do more in her community and felt she had a role to play. The district of Kounari in Mali's Mopti region has huge gender inequalities. Women are second to men and have no role in community decisions.

Given the gender inequalities in local decision-making, Fanta's district of Kounari was targeted by UN Women as a pilot case for the Gender and Decentralisation Programme with the financial support of the Belgian Government. It aims to ensure the incorporation of the needs and interests of women in the local planning and budgeting process, and to empower women's associations to hold their local government accountable.

The pilot project is implemented in 11 municipalities. In each municipality, UN Women supported the effective implementation of the gender component of local development plans. This programme is undertaken in agreement with the mayors of the 11 municipalities.

The results from the programme include the establishment of regular sessions on gender equality and women's empowerment, including by the local council of Kounari.

In 2006, Fanta, a mother of five, joined the women's association but resigned shortly after due to pressures from home. Chief opposition was from her husband, who felt that a noble Fulani woman should not participate in community activities. After much lobbying, in 2011 her husband finally gave in, and Kanta could finally play an important role at the community level. She was soon elected to become the president of a network of 85 associations by her peers.

What worried her was the treatment of a previous woman leader. According to the community, in 2008, the local district did manage to elect a woman mayor who was rumoured to be ill and since her inauguration did not appear in public. This worried local women as they strongly believed that some men were behind the mayor's long illness.

“The day I was elected to be president, I had no idea about what to do and I was so scared as I quite remember what happened to our female mayor. With the support and advice from the project, I am now confident, said Fanta.

Now Fanta manages a community development fund establishment by UN Women with the contribution of the local government and plays an active role in local development planning and budgeting.

“The programme really helps me to have a better understanding of my role as a citizen and the contribution I can make to my community. Usually, during planning sessions, they used to call us to prepare meals. But now I am accepted as a participant to this process and women are coming to me to better understand for the important decisions which were taken during the meeting.

Similar to Fanta's story is that of Fafouné Kontao, who at 42, is one of 20 women peer educators on gender-based violence in the rural community of Dandougou Fakala in Mali. A team of two peer educators were selected by each village and trained on different forms of gender-based violence. They organize village meetings with women and girls on raising awareness and prevention of violence. The project, like the one Fanta belongs to, is the Gender and Decentralisation Programme, supported by UN Women and funded by the Belgian government.

“When I was selected by my village to be a peer educator on gender-based violence, I did not know what to do as I was also a victim of this violence, said Fafoune. “The project explained to me that I have to use my own experience to change the situation of other women and girls who suffer from the same problem. Telling my story to others, I gained confidence and started to speak out.

Changes are already evident and Fafouné, a mother of 10 children, is proud to talk about the new developments.

“You see, now more and more women are coming up to tell their stories. Men are less violent and they contribute to the family expenses, they go the town hall to establish birth certificates for their children and register their marriages. Women are coming to pre- and post-natal consultations. Girls are no longer willing to go abroad to be used as housemaids in big towns. The religious leaders think twice before deciding to celebrate early marriages and young girls are shy when they contract early pregnancy. They therefore have more opportunity to continue their education and develop normally both physically and mentally.