Several studies, covering about 58 countries across the world, found that as women get older they are more able to make decisions independently of men. But scholars have struggled to pin down explanations for this age dividend – why are women given more independence the older they get? We wanted to know what the reasons may be.
In a recent study, we looked at women’s autonomy across age in Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Benin. These four West African countries are home to ethnic groups that practice “voodoo”, a religion that spread with the expansion of the Dahomey kingdom in the 17th century.
In these countries women are not equal to men. They sometimes won’t be able to make decisions about their own health – like negotiating safe sex – or on how household incomes could be used.
In our sample of 21,000 women aged 15 to 49, we found that autonomy in household decision-making increases with age. This was especially true for women who belonged to the four “voodoo-ethnicities”: Fon, Ewe, Adja and Yoruba. We also found that women had even more power if they are menopaused.
Our findings suggest that both age and magico-religious beliefs have a huge role to play in a woman’s independence. Menopaused women from “voodoo-ethnicities” are much more independent to make decisions on how they spend their own earnings, care for their own health, visit family or relatives and what major household purchases need to be made.
These insights are important for female empowerment strategies. To be effective, policies must identify potential agents of change who can, for instance, influence decisions that improve children’s schooling and nutrition or abolish female genital cutting. Despite their apparent agency, elderly women in West Africa have largely been overlooked.
Voodoo and menopause
So, why do women gain more independence the older they get, and especially if they are of voodoo-ethnicities and menopaused?
We analysed data on 21,000 women and their ability to make various decisions. We found that women’s autonomy was related to menstrual bleeding, particularly for voodoo-ethnicities. This was further explored in Benin, the birth place of Voodoo, where we conducted interviews with voodoo priests and menopaused women.
As one woman said:
[Women in menopause] are equipped with supernatural powers. Only she can talk to the ancestors and request their help, assistance and protection. And they respond to her worship and requests, not everyone can do that.
In the interviews we gathered that voodoo adherents worship collective deities (related to the sea, the earth, or thunder) and family deities: ancestors that turn into spirits after death.
The interactions with the family deities are led by a menopaused woman, referred to as the “Tassinon”. Only she can transmit the family members’ prayers and requests to the ancestors and consult the oracle to see if the spirits have accepted the offering and sacrifices.
These alleged powers, in their turn, increase the bargaining power of elderly women in their communities and households.
In situations where the supernatural power of menopaused women has faded, the cultural norm derived from it – increased awe for elderly women – persists.
Our analysis shows that the “Tassinon effect” is sizeable. We created an autonomy index – which looked at a combination of different situations where decisions had to be made and who made them – to measure this and found that it increased their ability to make decisions by about 10%.
As one woman said:
My opinion matters now in all important decisions or issues in the family and in my community. It was not the case before my designation as tassinon. I could not even attend or talk in certain audiences.
Our research provides support for the argument put forward in the African feminist literature, that seniority trumps gender in an African context.
It also adds to the evidence that voodoo continues to play a role in West-Africa. Adherence to voodoo has been proven to affect the governance of natural resources. For instance fishermen who adhere to voodoo are more likely to respect rules related to prohibited fishing gear. It also affects the uptake of preventive health care; for instance because mothers who adhere to voodoo will rely on traditional healers, they may not immunise their children. Now we know that voodoo also affects the level of independence women have in some communities.
The way ahead
A better understanding of cultural attitudes towards elderly African women will become more important for policymakers in the future. As fertility declines and life expectancy increases, elderly women will increase in numbers, both in absolute and relative terms. They could play an important role as agents of change in supporting both child care and female empowerment projects.
For instance in Benin the respect for elderly women is already relied upon in interventions targeting children’s health and nutrition, and in the abolishment of female genital cutting. This could be reinforced and extended to other sectors and to other countries.
–Marijke Verpoorten; Associate Professor, University of Antwerp
-Sahawal Alidou; PhD candidate and teaching assistant, University of Antwerp
Enterprise And Traceable Tea From Tanzania
How this Tanzanian entrepreneur’s tea startup is weathering the Covid-19 storm.
When Tahira Nizari started her social enterprise Kazi Yetu in Tanzania’s bustling city, Dar es Salaam, with her business partner and husband, Hendrik Buermann, almost two years ago, she didn’t anticipate the sheer scope of her big idea.
But she also didn’t expect that, because of an employee’s exposure to the coronavirus in April, she and her entire team would be quarantining for two weeks, stalling work in a year that she had projected growth for her company. With the pandemic’s onset, she lost most of her customer base in Tanzania, albeit temporarily, and was forced to come up with a game-plan and quickly pivot.
“It’s been an economic recession overnight, more or less,” says Nizari.
With family roots in Tanzania, and armed with formal degrees from Dubai and Canada, and experience in economic inclusion in the non-profit development sector, Nizari aimed to set a benchmark in the agribusiness sector in Tanzania through value-addition and by employing local women in her factory based in Dar es Salaam to produce “a traceable product” for the local and international market.
“Right now, tea is just exported in bulk completely (from Tanzania) and then all the jobs thereafter in that value chain are done abroad. So what we said was ‘let’s redistribute that job creation, let’s bring it back to Tanzania and let’s create a facility in which we can hire workers all locally and have a product that is 100% made in Tanzania’,” says Nizari. After extensive research in multiple target markets, both locally and abroad, building relationships with 250 Tanzanian farmers, setting up a factory exclusively employing local and previously-unemployed women, and many iterations of the seven blends of its flagship Tanzania Tea Collection using local flavors and spices, Kazi Yetu was ready to expand its scope in 2020.
“We were following our business plan… but we were really cautious and risk-averse (in 2018 and 2019). And then, we said, ‘you know what, when 2020 hits, it’s going to be growth’.”
Nizari was planning on reaching up to 4,000 farmers, buy machinery from China, grow the local B2B customer base, permanently employ all the women at the factory and begin to export on a larger scale after the launch of Kazi Yetu’s online store.
But when the coronavirus hit the local and international markets, things started looking very bleak, especially since Kazi Yetu is currently fully self-funded.
Not only did it lose almost all of its monthly income, but the farmers stopped meeting in groups for the training, so the supply chain was disrupted.
“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution.”
The factory also had to introduce safety protocols for employees at work and at home, as well as reduce the number of people working at any given time in order to adhere to social distancing.
An employee’s father also died of the coronavirus, which forced Nizari to ask everyone involved with Kazi Yetu to quarantine at home for 14 days.
“So what we said was, ‘look, we don’t want to risk their safety, but we also don’t want to risk their economic well-being’. So we just paid all of them their full-time salary,” says Nizari.
“Generally, our operational costs have been really hard to cover right now… but it’s okay, because it made us pivot.”
It inspired Nizari to expedite Kazi Yetu’s plans to export, kickstart the online store sooner than anticipated and build up stock to send to Germany, rather than just focus on the Tanzanian market, which is temporarily quite small. Exporting has been an issue, given limited shipping at the moment, but the European market proved to be a pleasant surprise for Nizari.
“In Europe, people are all sitting at home. They’re looking for products to build their immunity – tea is a great solution,” she says.
Slowly, the factory is moving back to normal operations and Nizari is trying her best to ensure a steady income for the employees. Kazi Yetu is also now available on local delivery applications in Tanzania, so people can order tea to their doorsteps.
Looking ahead, Nizari hopes to scale up exporting through the online store and retailers, whether in Europe, or also in markets like South Africa where products from sub-Saharan Africa are popular, and North America where innovative African products are in demand.
“We want our product to be competing with products made in Europe, and for example, Sri Lankan tea, Indian tea and Chinese tea. We want Tanzanian products to be well-regarded,” she adds.
Since the teas are traceable, which is a unique selling point, Kazi Yetu is also working on an app that uses blockchain to allow customers to access data on the tea they purchase, from the farm level, all the way to their cups. This way, they will know first-hand the impact the product has.
In addition, Nizari is working on a farm-hub model to build Kazi Yetu’s supply chain by helping them produce better raw products through a no-interest investment that can be paid back with their final product over time.
“The whole ‘economy versus safety’ debate… it’s something we have to think about moving forward… You can’t just operate as a business that makes money, you have to think about… the well-being of your workplace, the well-being of everyone in your supply chain… And I think this is where social enterprises really come in,” Nizari adds.
And a hot cup of locally-produced tea can certainly help take forward any such deliberations.
– By Inaara Gangji
4 Ways Women Can Better Advocate For Their Own Health
One morning, when I was 14 years old, I woke up with excruciating stomach pain—the worst I’d ever had. My mom took me to urgent care, and the doctors there concluded that I had gastritis, or essentially a “bad stomach ache.”
But I knew they were wrong. I knew it was more than just a bad stomach ache. I kept pushing my parents until they finally took me to the hospital. After doing a variety of exams, the doctors said something along the lines of, “We really can’t find what’s wrong, but you seem to be in a lot of pain.” They gave me two options: wait four hours until the next available CAT scan, or let them do exploratory surgery and see what they find.
I decided to do the exploratory surgery. It ended up being a major, major surgery—over six hours long—and they found a tear in my intestine. They had to remove about 10 feet of my intestine, and it turns out that if I had waited for the CAT scan, I actually would have died. So, I like to say that that was the first time I learned how to trust my gut (in this case, my literal gut).
I think about this experience all the time, but I found myself reflecting on it even more as I was reading my friend Dr. Alyson McGregor’s new book, Sex Matters: How Male-Centric Medicine Endangers Women’s Health and What We Can Do About It. I don’t know how much of my near-death experience was linked to my being female, but I do know that when it comes to our medical system, women have consistently experienced poorer outcomes in every area of health than men.
McGregor writes: “One of the biggest and most flawed assumptions in medicine is this: if it makes sense in a male body, it must make sense in a female one.”
Our methods for evaluating, diagnosing, and treating disease for both men and women are based on previous research performed on male bodies. But women are physiologically different from men on every level—and these differences can have major impacts on everything in medicine, from how drugs are prescribed, to how routine tests are performed, to how pain is assessed and treated, to how systemic disease is diagnosed.
Here’s an example. Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in both men and women, but women have statistically poorer outcomes and higher mortality. Why? Because women’s symptoms are simply different from men’s. While men might experience left arm pain and chest heaviness (“typical” heart disease symptoms), women often present with only mild pain and discomfort, possibly combined with fatigue, shortness of breath, and a strong feeling that “something isn’t right.” Since women’s symptoms are not the symptoms that doctors typically associate with heart disease, their heart disease is 50 percent more likely to be initially misdiagnosed.
There are hundreds more examples like this one. It’s clear that there is work to do when it comes to unconscious biases in medicine—but, as women, how can we best advocate for our health and ensure that our concerns are heard and taken seriously?
1. Be prepared.
Your doctor may have gone through years of medical school, but that doesn’t mean they’re all-knowing. Research your conditions, your prescriptions, and how your prescriptions interact with each other. This way, you can have an informed conversation with your physician if something is wrong. Also, keep an up-to-date list of your prescriptions and allergies with you at all times so that any provider who cares for you will have all of the information they need.
2. Ask questions.
Even after you do your research, you may still have questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them—especially gender-specific ones. For example, “Has this medication been tested in women? If, so are there different dosing guidelines?” Or, “Will this prescription/test/procedure affect my birth control/pregnancy/breastfeeding?” It’s important to make sure you’re not only being treated for the correct conditions, but also that you’re being treated properly as a woman with those conditions.
3. Trust yourself.
Just like 14-year-old me trusted her (literal) gut! No one’s voice should take precedence over yours when it comes to your body and your health care. As women, we tend to be more attuned to our own bodies than men. We are more likely to notice symptoms when they first appear, and we usually seek treatment more frequently and earlier than men. If you feel like you’re being misdiagnosed or undertreated, keep pushing until you get answers—your life may depend on it.
4. Make your voice heard.
It’s important to advocate for yourself on an individual level, but you may be inspired to do even more. Financially, you can donate to research and advocacy foundations, or even specific research projects within your local universities and hospitals. Other effective advocacy ideas that don’t cost anything are to join a medical research trial, join a support group, or harness the power of social media to share your story. Any of this could be what makes it possible for others to get the treatment they need.
The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work
Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.
That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them.
“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression.
That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.
Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.
Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.
“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.
In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.
Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”
To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership.
With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.
“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.
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