On the Road to Equality

For many years, the Sahrawis, the indigenous people of Western Sahara, have fought for their survival and against the occupation of their homeland. Spain had ruled Western Sahara for almost a century and in the 1950s and '60s exploited its phosphate riches and forcibly settled most of the nomadic Sahrawis in cities. By 1973, the encounter with Spain had attracted Sahrawis to the POLISARIO Front, which had been founded to liberate the region.

In 1975, on the eve of Sahrawi independence, Morocco invaded Western Sahara. Most Sahrawis fled to refuge in southwest Algeria. There, in four large refugee camps, the Sahrawis have struggled to build their lives and keep alive their culture and identity. The POLISARIO Front initiated far-reaching social reforms, including promoting the equal participation of women in all aspects of social and economic life.

The Union Nacional de Mujeres Sahrawis (National Union of Sahrawi Women - UNMS), created to facilitate women's participation against Spanish rule, has become the vehicle for advancing their place in Sahrawi society. The UNMS has become the major institution coordinating and administering the 165,000 Sahrawis in refugee camps. Located in the harshest corner of the Sahara, these camps testify to the remarkable achievements of Sahrawi women in every aspect of camp life - administration and justice, education, health care, agriculture, and production and development.

The text is based on an interview with Zahra Ramdane, an active member of the UNMS, conducted by Beth Bunch and Danielle Smith of the Western Sahara Awareness Project.

"From the Sahrawi point of view, we don't divide work in the camps by gender or ages. Job choice depends on the will of the citizen to determine what kind of work he or she wants to do. There are some work areas in which women are more prominent than men. Besides the kingder-garden schools, women in the camps are more visible as nurses, administrators, and teachers. There are also some women doctors and engineers."

"Many different products are made in the camps. We try to be self-reliant and make the carpets ourselves for our homes. We also do the same with our tent floor mats, which we make from straw brought from the liberated zones in Western Sahara. The woman's organization is also supervising all the handicraft production in the camps, not only to raise awareness but also to promote the production skills of the women and as a way of keeping alive our cultural heritage."

"By far women are playing their most important role in the field of education. In our schools, women are teaching the children Arabic, Spanish, and all the other subjects. We inherited almost 90 percent illiteracy when Spain left Western Sahara in 1975 so the first thing the POLISARIO did in cooperation with the women's organization was to launch a literacy zones of the Western Sahara Sahara and in the refugee camps. Today, we are proud to say that all Sahrawi women can at least read and write."

"I think the UNMS is a real grassroots organization because the leaders are democratically elected and at the local level all women participate in decisions about our future programs and concerns. For example, the justice committee in the camps came about to defend women's rights on issues of marriage and divorce. Traditionally, male judges were the ones dealing with these issues. Now, through the justice committee, the woman's voice must be heard. I really enjoy seeing Sahrawi women participate with the same rights to vote and express their opinion as the men in political conventions."

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