Spotlight interview with Mariama Dioulde Diallo (Dyers’ Union - Guinea)

“We women have no rights”

“We women have no rights”

Brussels, 9 November 2007: The trade unions’ and civil society’s unprecedented mobilisation of the Guinean population has placed the country on the road to democratic reform. Women from the informal economy made a decisive contribution to the trade union struggle. The founder of several cooperatives, 47-year-old trade union activist and mother of five, Mariama Dioulde Diallo, talks about the discrimination suffered by women in Guinea and the support the trade union movement can offer women in the informal economy.

What prompted your association’s recent affiliation to the CNTG?

It all started with the events of early 2007. We didn’t hesitate for a moment when the call came for a general strike, even though it was a first for us. Until then, we’d thought that strikes were only something for civil servants, teachers and transport workers. But there was such widespread discontent about poverty and corruption. Here too, a long way from the capital, it was obvious that people had had enough. It was the strike, the solidarity between all those of us who are suffering, which opened our eyes. Just imagine, even our imam encouraged us to join the strike, so overwhelming was the poverty among the people.

How where your contacts with the trade unionists?

It all came about quite naturally, shortly after the general strike. The CNTG’s local organisations invited us to some awareness-raising meetings. We were already well organised when the union contacted us; we are already represented in the local chamber of commerce for example. But that’s not enough. We’re well aware now, both locally and nationally, that unions are the best placed to defend our interests. The CNTG gave us a detailed explanation of how the union works and how it ensures equal representation among its members. We are quite happy to observe and listen for the moment, but are absolutely determined to have our say in the long run.

How did the desire to associate with other women come about, over 20 years ago?

It was above all linked to a great frustration of mine. I would have really liked to continue my education after high school, like my brothers for example. But it was and continues to be very difficult for women in this country. As a young girl, my parents tried to force me into a marriage that I didn’t want. I had a “choice” between two suitors: a cousin and a businessman. I refused and was beaten. It was quite an upheaval, and has left a mark on me. I don’t want to have to hold my hand out all my life. Fortunately, the man I chose to marry when I was 18 is very understanding and totally supports my initiatives.

Like the first seamstresses’ association you founded?

Yes. That was in 1985. I put the idea of pooling our skills to four women in the neighbourhood. We weren’t from the same ethnic group and had lots of things to share: cooking recipes, sewing techniques… We would club together to buy raw materials. We were all very keen to learn. At the same time, all our time was being taken up by our children and household tasks. But we went on to make some very important contacts; like the Dutch woman from the FAO who we asked for ideas. Thanks to her, we were able to secure our first source of international funding, from the Dutch Embassy, to refurbish an abandoned public building and make it into a nursery. Before that, there was no childcare facility for pre-school children.

How did you go about mobilising women informal economy workers?

There was another decisive meeting. This time with Saskia, the wife of an FAO officer. She helped us to draw up a project and to rally almost 70 women within our seamstresses’ association. We were supported by Belgian Technical Cooperation and an NGO from the same country. We finally had our own premises for the nursery, the sewing workshop, and to run literacy classes. The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung helped us to set up this educational project. Only 4 out of the 70 women knew how to read and write. We included family planning in our activities; until then, the marabout and his grigris had been the only recourse.

Were they not aware of contraception?

Not at all. And this is just one aspect of the discrimination women have to face. Polygamy, levirat (wife inheritance) and premature marriage are still widespread. I’m also determined to talk about the food taboos we’re fighting against by informing as many women as possible. There are still many taboos around food that can lead to serious nutritional deficiencies: manioc and carrots are said to take away young girls’ virginity; meat is said to be bad for children, because of parasites, and eggs are said to make people fly. Our awareness raising activities are also targeted at men, who have to learn to respect us. Life is hard in Guinea, but men still manage to allow themselves a few pleasures, such as playing cards or watching football. We women have no rights. Men think it’s normal that women should take care of the meals, the children and the housework, before, during and after work. Apparently, if we respect these traditions and show ourselves to be submissive, we’ll go to heaven! When a child is not doing well at school, it’s the mother’s fault. When they succeed, it’s because she has done everything that’s expected of her. Here, custom would have it that children’s success is a measure of their mother’s suffering.

How have your activities progressed?

At the end of the 1990s, tourism developed in Fouta Djalon and Dalaba, opening up new prospects for us. In 1998, we formed the UMTG (Dyers’ Union of Central Guinea), to market our indigo fabrics. We also wanted to diversify our range by creating new techniques and patterns. It started to work well. There are 14 women in the association, and we each have our own workshop. It’s like a spider’s web. We pay 50 000 Guinean francs per workshop, which comes to FG700 000 in total (just over 100 euros). We use this money to offer loans at fair rates of interest to other women who want to set up their own businesses. The banks have no faith in us, and even if they did, the interest rates we’d have to pay are far too high. With us, the loan is much softer. The women feel a sense of responsibility. An Italian NGO has also helped us to buy a piece of land, trays and indigo shoots, so that we can replant, because there is a lot of demand for indigo in the region. But the social and economic situation has deteriorated so much in the country over recent years that tourism has also drawn to a standstill. We can no longer sell our stocks. In mid-October, Rabiatou, the general secretary of the CNTG (1) came to meet us in Dalaba. It was market day and there were a lot of people around to listen to her. She is a woman and we are placing a lot of hopes on her.

Interview by Jacky Delorme

(1) Confédération nationale des travailleurs de Guinée.

 Read the complete report in the “Union View” on Guinea

 Also read the interview of Dilé Diallo (CNTG-Guinea)

 Also read the interview of Rabiatou Diallo (General Secretary of the CNTG)

 Further information is also available in the chapter on Guinea in the ITUC Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights (report and video)

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