Women Watch Afrika, Inc. (WWA) was established in November 1994 in Dakar, Senegal by a group of female professionals. WWA examines the continuing barriers to the application of local and international laws for the protection of the rights of women and the girl child. The organization advocates laws to protect the rights of women and female children, the application of those laws, and develops and implements programs which promote economic self-sufficiency and empowerment of women.
WWA was established in Atlanta in 1997 to address the unmet needs of underserved low-income and underprivileged African refugee and immigrant population. It is located in Metro Atlanta with an office in DeKalb County that is home to a majority of low-income African Americans and underserved refugee and immigrant populations. The organization networks and works collaboratively with local, national and international social justice organizations with similar goals to stimulate the exchange of information, promote the advancement of women, and to share training opportunities and group development.
Currently, WWA has offices in six countries in Africa that focuses on poverty alleviation, HIV/AIDS prevention education and awareness, education on the benefits of allowing for the girl child in the classroom, and violence against women. WWA works with teenagers 14-24 years who take to the streets in the daytime to beg, and steal at nights or engage in selling their bodies in exchange for food. WWA reaches out to the unreachable, and brings love and hope to the unlovable by providing food, emotional and other support to the hungry and needy.
As advocates of individual civil rights, WWA teaches and informs migrant women that, in America, they have a right to be educated, to voice independent decisions, and to actively participate in the financial welfare of their family. Financial partnership of the household is especially significant to the African refugee woman. African immigrants arriving by visas into the United States usually identify cities and states where friends and relatives live and where they can be assured of being welcomed into a household that will help them assimilate into the American culture. Conversely, refugee families do not have the option of selecting the city or state where they will be re-located; their destination is determined by the United States government. Under these circumstances, it is not uncommon for parents and children to be sent to the U.S. at different times and, initially to different cities and states.
When this does occur, the refugee-mother suddenly becomes the head-of-household and must prepare herself to assume new and unfamiliar responsibilities. This change-of-life style is compounded by the fact that very few refugee women can read or write – even in their native language – and those coming from developing African nations have never experienced the technological advances that Americans take for granted. Electricity, running water, supermarkets, automobile traffic, handling money and bank accounts – these activities are all foreign concepts to the refugee woman. “They are very pre-Industrial Revolution,” says Lavinia Limon, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees. Some relief officials worry that the government isn’t doing enough to prepare any of these refugees for life in America, and those who are unable to find jobs will wind up trading one kind of poverty for another. One concern: keeping them off the welfare rolls.
Refugees brought here by the United States are offered 3 months of government welfare in which to receive food stamps, public housing accommodations, and medical services. During the re-settlement period, these families are subjected to scrutiny and review of whatever progress they may have made towards becoming self-sufficient and independent of welfare. Within months of their arrival, refugee women must learn how to navigate the bureaucracy of government agencies and service organizations, and identify alternative assistance when welfare is no longer available to her and her family. Refugees and immigrants from English-speaking African nations are particularly handicapped when it comes to government services, by reason of the mistaken belief that they have an advantage over other non-English speaking refugees. This, of course, does not take into account the nuances of the English language, the different social behaviors between men and women, and the fast-paced, impatient nature of American culture that leaves many refugee and immigrant women in a state of confusion and despair.
WWA plays an indispensable role in helping immigrant and refugee women obtain the social and family services they need. A significant benefit to newly arriving African women is that some members of WWA staff, volunteers and board are also re-patriots from African countries; as such, WWA serves as a “safe-haven” for candid discussions between women. In addition to our referral activities, the direct programs that WWA offers helps women adjust to a re-defined way of life and a new way of looking at themselves and the roles they play in the family and in the greater community.
Traditional African culture accepts that females are commonly held in disesteem among the male members of the family. Customarily, women and girls are regarded as servants who fundamentally exist for the benefit of the men in the household, including younger male siblings. It should be noted that this practice of female devaluation is not limited to nuclear family members, but also extends to men within the general African society. It is a widely held belief among Africans that a woman is never truly considered a mother until she has given birth to a son – noting that a girl child is only good as trade for a dowry. Marriage for women in such societies is simply a life of exchanging one set of family conditions for another, leaving one home as a child-servant and entering another as a wife-servant.
As more families enter into the United States from various African nations, we find that discrimination of women and girls has no discerning differences in the culture among rural, agricultural, and urban dwellers. Modern-day Nigeria is considered to be the most progressive and technologically advanced of all African nations, yet the country still does not provide any support system or work-training mechanism to prepare women to work outside of the home or acquire more than a basic, rudimentary education. Suffering under the misconstrued edict that “a woman’s place is in the home,” the majority of African women have only the skills that have been passed down for generations from mother-to-daughter. Sewing, cooking, hair braiding and child rearing often are their only expertise.
Over the past twenty years, however, there has been a slight shift in the African family. In past years, parents struggled financially to send male children abroad to universities and colleges, hoping their sons would return as engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, or be trained in other professions that would benefit the tribal community and their family. However, the reality is that many educated African men became accustomed to living in American society and no longer wanted to return to their homelands. The women in the family who were left behind then became heads-of-household and caretakers of elderly parents and younger siblings; yet, because they lack training, education, and work experience, they are unable to earn a living outside of the home. Slowly the need for change is beginning to make an impact on how African women view themselves in relationship to their home, community and the global economy.
As we work with refugee and immigrant African women, we discover that some are beginning to realize that the family role of African women has begun to shift from being that of a servant to being a provider. WWA is capitalizing on this understanding of change as an inspirational catalyst to motivate these women towards self-reliance here in America. We use the household skills with which they are already familiar to introduce the concept of earning wages in areas like hospice care, child-care, hotel/hospitality services, private nursing, and meal preparation.
Still, there remains a great deal of re-education that has to take place. Refugees and immigrants arrive to the United States with the promise of a life that will be free of territorial wars, famine, disease, and poverty. However, these re-settled families still bring with them the cultural practices of their homelands. Denial of women and children’s rights, and physical and psychological abuse of women by male family members is a cultural behavior that should no longer be tolerated or accepted in today’s global society. For women from undeveloped countries, that change begins here in America.