In southern Ethiopia, 30 women from remote tribes recently came together in discussion.
They were part of the first Global Pastoralist Gathering, held in early 2005 in Turmi, a small market town in the heart of Ethiopia's herding cultures.
The conference brought together 120 pastoralist leaders from 23 countries, as well as 100 members from governments, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations to discuss solutions to common problems faced by people who live by animal herding. Problems include shrinking pasture lands, lack of health care and education and lack of market for their products.
As a result, pastoralists have become increasingly poor, isolated and the least-educated groups in many countries. Only a few countries have created policies to support and nurture pastoralism.
In southern Ethiopia, there are about 16 pastoral tribes and, in Africa, scores more. They frequently find themselves fighting with one another for pasture. Traditions demanding that young men steal cattle or kill an enemy before they can marry stirs continual low-level conflict that often crosses national borders.
Women were in the minority at the conference, even though the organizers, the Pastoralist Communication Initiative from the University of Sussex in England, tried to achieve some gender balance.
Pastoralist societies around the world are patriarchal. Men own the animals and the women and make most decisions. Women typically have little say in their own lives.
At the conference, the female participants requested a "women-only meeting," which took place under a big shade tree.
Present were 25 Hamar women dressed in decorated hides with their hair done in ringlets shiny from butter and the glitter of red ocre. There was a Karo woman with a long nail protruding from her lower lip, three Mursi women with shaved heads and large ear and lip plates, a Tsemey woman dressed in pants, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, and about 10 "highlander" Ethiopian women and foreigners. The women look strong and confident, but they have a different story to tell.
The Karo woman said she was glad to know that the foreign women were, in fact, women, because she and other pastoralist women were not so sure.
"You wear pants and you speak like men. But we now know you are women, who are really men," she said, eliciting laughter. "We say this because we can see that you are the equal of the men and you speak in front of men, but we Karo and Hamar and Mursi women are not the equal of men -- we are much lower -- the men say we are dirt."
Karo women work the entire day, collecting water and firewood, grinding corn and looking after children while their husbands are gone to take livestock out for grazing, she said.
"When he comes home in the evening, I must serve him coffee and his meal, as if he has worked hard the whole day. I am supposed to be his servant. But he has only walked through pastures and sat on stones while the cattle grazed, and I have worked much harder the whole day. My whole life revolves around serving my husband, and he thinks I am nothing, I am dirt. When I look at all of you foreign women in your clothes, and you are clean, I feel like we tribal women are very backward. Look at our clothes -- the skins of animals. We don't bathe or have any household hygiene. Look at us and look at you. But we have no opportunity to wear clothes -- we are not educated, and we don't have money."
"We have no schools," an elderly Mursi woman said, "but even if we did, girls would not be allowed to go to school. The men say we should not have education. But I want change. I want education for our girls. I want our lives to improve by learning new things from other people, from foreigners like you. What can you do for us?" she asks.
"The miserable life of a girl begins at her birth," a 30-ish Hamar woman said, speaking for her group. "We have no say over our lives or even who we can marry. If a man says he wants us, even if he is old or sick, but has enough cattle to pay for us, then our fathers sell us to him."
"When we were about 15 years old, Redd Barna (Norwegian Save the Children) came here and opened a primary school," said a second Hamar woman, wearing a skirt and T-shirt with her hair done in typical Ethiopian plaits. "I was the first to go because my father is a Hamar from another district and was considered to be an outsider with lower status in the community. I loved going to school. I told my girlfriends, and they sneaked out of their houses and joined me at school."
The girls were beaten by their fathers for disobeying, but they continued going to school until they all finished the eighth grade, she said. Now, they want to continue their schooling, but the nearest high school is four hours away.
The Tsemey woman said that sometimes an nongovernmental organization brings a new idea to the women, such as household hygiene or nutrition. "Then we make a small change in our house," she said. "Our husbands come home and say: 'What is this new thing you are doing? This is a stupid idea.' ... If the man thinks of it, it is done. If the woman thinks of it, it is stupid. This is the way it is in our society."
After the pastoral women left the conference for the day, a Canadian anthropologist studying Mursi women turned to the foreign women and said, "The women are portraying themselves as weak and powerless, but they are not this way. For example, the younger Mursi woman here was sold into marriage to an old man. She has a boyfriend, but they cannot marry because he lacks the 38 head of cattle required by their society to marry. The only way she could think of to get out of the marriage was to kill the old man. She went to his house and tried to strangle him, but having failed, she ran away into the forest to hide. Her father and brothers found her and beat her. She told them that if she was forced to marry this old man, she definitely would kill him. So now they know she is serious. She and her boyfriend are trying to earn money to buy the required number of cattle. She now makes and sells lip plates to tourists."
The next afternoon, the same group gathered. Immediately, a Hamar woman dressed in a cotton shift with short-cropped hair said she had just one thing to say and then she had to leave. When she got home last evening, her husband was angry with her for attending the meeting instead of staying home to attend to him.
The group's Ugandan facilitator, realizing that the enthusiasm of the day before might be waning, spoke about the important role of women in any society. She said educating women and raising their status was of benefit not only to women but also to the whole family. The president of the Hamar women's association offered to present this conclusion to the entire conference. The next day, at the closing, the president rose and unexpectedly asked all the women at the conference to stand.
"You see these women," said the president, extending her arms toward the standing women, "these women gave birth to you, fed you when you were small, made a home for you and raised you up. So why do you oppress them? Why do you say they are worthless and that they should not be educated? By educating women, your lives will improve, your families will be healthier, and all of society will be stronger. You cannot improve your lives without raising up your women and giving them the respect they deserve."
After a few moments of silence, the crowd broke into clapping. The various tribal chiefs rose and shook her hand.
Mayling Simpson-Hebert is a resident of Steamboat Springs who is living in Ethiopia and working for Catholic Relief Services in East Africa.