The Girl Effect: The Gender Roles in Palmarin

Jay Choi - Senegal


January 9, 2013

On September 29th—after a month of language and cultural training in Dakar—I finally arrived in my rural placement site in Senegal’s southern coast called Palmarin, the home of beautiful mangroves. In my family, I have three sisters—Oumi, Saly, and Awa—and two brothers—Jean and Alou. I’m privileged to have multiple siblings from both genders as my interaction with them has allowed me to observe Palmarin’s gender dynamics more effectively.

Gender roles are clearly defined and strictly followed in Palmarin. If you were to spend a day in my house, you would observe Oumi fetching water from a nearby well, Saly cooking clams and beans for snacks, and Awa hand-washing clothes and fetching charcoal for Jean to brew attaya, a Senegalese green tea with sugar and mint. If you don’t see Jean home, he is probably feeding and bathing the horse by a well or harvesting millet in the field with my uncle Moustafa.

Although girls have significantly more responsibilities than boys at home, they take their work for granted—and even fun. For instance, I was baffled to see my eight-year-old sister Awa crying one day because her twelve-year-old sister Oumi filled her bucket at the well, instead of letting her do it. The reason might have been because the girls’ social time here is integrated with their work. It’s common for Oumi to fetch water with friends, and Saly and Awa to throw a baseball at each other while washing clothes and cooking food. The boys’ social time, on the other hand, is separated from work. My eighteen-year-old brother Jean, for example, plays soccer and makes attaya during the day, and sits in front of a shop to chat with friends and listen to music in the evening.

I’ve observed two inter-dependent gender dynamics at play in my family. For my uncle Moustafa and his wife Fatou, who supply food for the rest of the family through fishing and farming, the amount and harshness of work are fairly divided. Moustafa works outdoors harvesting millet and catching fish, while Fatou cooks food with them. Unlike Moustafa and Fatou, however, both my mom and dad work outside—my dad at Palmarin’s House of Eco-Tourism, and my mom outside Palmarin. Even though both aren’t present at home during the day, Fatou serves as the “head mom,” and leads all household matters including taking care of all the children, even those of my mom and dad.

Due to the influence of Catholicism—the majority religion of my village—and the influx of Western mass media, drinking and premarital sex do exist in Palmarin. Despite Senegal’s cultural traditions that allot girls with more household work than boys which hinder their education, the community is working to empower women. For isntance, the health post where I work has posters to educate girls on the benefits of avoiding premarital sex and to use condoms and other contraception methods whenever possible (condoms are free). Unlike in America, premarital sex is not as culturally accepted in Senegal, as subsequent teenage pregnancy may lead to social exclusion, or even ostracization of the entire family involved. This cultural reason guides most girls and boys in Palmarin to behave responsibly, helping them to lead generally healthier and safer adolescence than their peers in America, where teenage pregnancy is growing into a major social issue due to cultural resillience.

In Palmarin, “gender equality” is a very different concept than that in America. The point of the Girl Effect isn’t organizing a rally against polygamy in Senegal, but rather providing the girls with as much empowerment, especially in education, within the established cultural framework. People in Senegal consider their gender roles as “division of work,” rather than gender inequality. Unfair as their “division of work” may seem to Americans, it’s dangerous to diagnose their culture as wrong, and try to force the American definition of gender equality on them.

Jay Choi