In Mauritania, women often bear the brunt of the country's crushing poverty, but a local nonprofit organization is trying to change that by turning wives and mothers into entrepreneurs.
Ticket to success?
Emetoulahi Mint Ahmedou Saleme used to spend most days at home with her four children, while her husband bartered and sold what he could to scrape by. Saleme and her husband could not afford to send the children to school. They could not always afford to feed them.
Now, Saleme earns up to $15 a day selling cold drinks at a market near her home in the El Mina slum on the outskirts of Nouakchott. The secret to her success? A small, white refrigerator given to her by a local women's co-operative, Terre Vivante.
Saleme says this has been successful project for her. It has definitely improved her daily life and living conditions. She says her income is not only larger but also more regular, which enables her to send her children to school. She can buy them food, clothing, school supplies and medicines. She says it has been a great project for the family.
Smiling, Saleme opens the fridge. Small plastic baggies filled with water and homemade bissap juice are piled in the freezer. Neat rows of soda bottles line the inside of the refrigerator door.
Realizing that cold drinks would sell much better in the scorching desert heat, Saleme says she approached Terre Vivante with her business plan last year. Now, she is the one giving her husband money to support his trading business.
Non-profit invests in women
Founded in 1993, Terre Vivante invests in women via non-formal education classes and micro-finance projects, like Saleme's, in the hopes of finding a long-term path to success for impoverished families.
The non-profit's director, Moulaye Ahmed Ould Abdel Jelil, says the group focuses on women because they are often the most impacted by poverty.
Jelil says if a woman's husband works, he often keeps the money for himself. He says it is the wife who takes care of the family. She does the shopping, prepares the meals and takes care of the children's clothing, education and health care. He says the husband works, but often what he brings home is not enough. It is the woman's responsibility to economize and get by on whatever he gives to the family. He says that is just the reality of Mauritanian society, and women suffer as a result.
He says female entrepreneurs, like Saleme, are a relatively new phenomenon in Mauritania, as women struggle to make ends meet for their families.
Educational programs lead to better life
Mauritania is one of the poorest countries in the world. On average, people there live on about two dollars a day. Terre Vivante has found that families in the Nouakchott's slums eat just two meals a day, and what food they do eat is low in nutritional value. As the cost of living rises, Jelil has seen fathers abandoning the families they can no longer support.
In Mauritania, educating girls is often a low-priority, especially in poor families, and most women do not receive more than a primary school education, if that. To fill in the gaps, Terre Vivante's educational programs cover a range of topics from basic literacy and computer skills to nutrition and HIV/AIDS prevention.
The group has also organized cooperatives to help rural women develop business plans and purchase goats, sheep and cattle using micro-credit loans. Jelil says they are in the process of developing a similar micro-credit program for women in Nouakchott's slums.
Jelil says empowering women is essential in the predominantly Muslim country where women are often subjugated to men.
He says the more financially independent a woman is, the more of a voice she has and the less dependent she is on others. He says that allows her to express herself and her values with dignity. He says that is what his organization is working towards: women who can be strong and proud of what they have done.
Since partnering with Terre Vivante, Saleme has become a literacy teacher for other women in the cooperative and her fridge has become a source of inspiration for the women in her neighborhood.
Saleme says the project has been great for the women, who ask her where she got the fridge because they would like to do something similar. She says others would like to be trained on sewing machines, fabric painting and even on computers so they can do their own accounting. Her friends already have a business painting veils and would like training on how to expand their business.
A textile business. A public drinking fountain for the neighborhood. A fridge. The women in El Mina have big ideas, Saleme says, they just need a little help to get started.