What feminism looks like in the developing world

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

We might complain about the glass ceiling, or the stained glass ceiling for that matter, but at least we can go to school and choose who we want to marry.

In many countries, women in rural communities lead an incredibly arduous life. The west African nation of Burkina Faso is one of them. Women work on the land, care for the children and home, and often have little decision making power. Having some form of financial independence can really change that. It increases their respect from their husbands and gives them a stake in family life and community decisions. It means they can have a say in how many children they have, whether their daughters have an arranged marriage, or whether the girls go to school

So what does it mean to promote the role and rights of women in a culture very different from our own?

Marriage and sexual rights: Subordinate to men

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

Polygamy isn't universal and monogamy is the official form of marriage in Burkina, but in traditional communities polygamy is still prevalent. In polygamous marriages you could imagine that it would be easy for tensions to arise between the wives; women are women, after all. But at least some of the women I spoke to said they were grateful for the extra help – the work on the land and childcare is at least shared, even if it means sharing your space, and your husband.

Similarly, government policy doesn't support arranged marriages, but cultural change takes time. Technically, women who are the victims of an arranged marriage are permitted to renounce them, but it is one thing to get rid of the marriage and another to come back to her family. Often the woman is told that her mother will be held responsible (and suffer) if she separates from her husband.

It's still common practice for women to have numerous children in quick succession – in some cases, putting the family's health at risk. The women have more children to care for, there are more mouths to feed and bodies to clothe, the children are often weaker.

Christian Aid and its partners are supporting efforts to give women access to contraception, but this is really only the first step. I spoke to one woman who had been taught about family planning and had been able to discuss it with her husband (there are a number of women who are forced to use contraception without their husband's knowledge). She said that using contraception allowed her to space out her pregnancies and therefore have a better quality of life, but she still aspired to having several children. The cultural expectation to have a large family, and the prestige equated with it, remains.

Education: The path to progress

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

It's easy to lose sight of just how powerful education can be and the difference it can make to someone's life. The challenge has been to demonstrate the value of educating women in a society when boys' education is prioritised. One woman I met had spent years walking to literacy classes every day in a nearby village in order to get an education later in life. As a result she's respected and seen as a leader by other women, as well as by the men in her community.

All the women I spoke to were convinced that their daughters would have a better life than they had and that they had themselves fared better than their mothers. Education plays a huge part in that – not just in terms of literacy and numeracy, but educating both men and women about their roles in society and mutual respect.

And it's education that's looked to in order to tackle other things which harm women and keep them secondary to men – including domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM).

As well as improving their lives within their communities, education is also the route out – it offers the chance to go to university in the capital, to work as a civil servant and join the middle classes.

Land rights: At the mercy of men

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

About 80 per cent of Burkinabés are farmers. In rural villages it is usual for a husband to give his wife a portion of land to farm herself, not included in the family farm. She works early on her piece of land, until the formal day's work starts on her husband's land and is then given 'permission' later in the day to return to work on her own land – somehow managing to feed and care for the children and home in between.

When I asked why it wouldn't make more sense to share their land and work it together, I was laughed at. I couldn't see why it wasn't a reasonable point – surely it is in a husband's interest to make all the land he owns as profitable as possible? But there's more to it than maths.

Because polygamy is common, providing each wife with a plot of land gives them some independent income. A wife doesn't usually have access to her husband's grain store (much like his wallet), so it means that from day to day she doesn't have to make demands on her husband. Nagging wives are about as popular there as they are closer to home.

But, crucially, the right to the land is dependent on the husband, so on his death she may lose it. Women's land rights aren't guaranteed in law. Women are still at the mercy of their male relatives, and they almost certainly have to work harder.

Politics: A moral force with growing power

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

Women brandishing spatulas may not sound like a potent political force, but in Burkina Faso, it's seen as the final straw in public demonstrations. In October last year women took to the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, in the days leading up to the overthrow of President Blaise Compaore, cooking utensils in hand. In this regard at least women are seen as a powerful moral and social force.

In more generic terms of political weight, there are six female ministers out of 40 in Burkina's parliament – not great, but not terrible either, given that women's education has only become a priority within the last generation or so. More women than men vote in presidential and municipal elections, but they tend to do as they're told by their husbands, not to act on their own convictions.

At a community level, development agencies often make women's involvement in planning committees a requirement for their support. It might seem like heavy handed external pressure, but the women certainly aren't against the move.

Many development models recognise the need to prioritise women's training – they are responsible for caring for and teaching their families, even if their decision-making powers are limited. As a result, women are also encouraged to set up female-only community groups, where they're taught about hygiene and discuss how to resolve issues in their marriages and family life. Without such groups these things don't necessarily get discussed, and as ever, there's strength in numbers.

Money: When men hold the purse strings

Christian Aid/Andrew Testa

Again, financial independence matters. As a woman, being able to point to the fact that you are contributing financially to the family's income has a huge influence on your position in the home and the community. Women aren't generally in charge of the family's finances (our translator said it would be very unusual even for a middle-class woman to know what her husband earns), but demonstrating that you can manage money is a step in that direction.

Owning and breeding livestock is one way to support the family farm. They can be used to create 'organic fertiliser' and food products, and can be bred and sold. Christian Aid's partner gives the women livestock to breed and when they have expanded their herd, they provide an animal for another family.

Market gardening is another area where development groups are trying to prioritise access for women. The work is hard: they are battling to produce beautifully green salad in incredibly dry soil, so each row of plants has to be watered several times a day. And there isn't a hosepipe or sprinkler system.

Similarly, Christian Aid runs business training for women, helps them to form credit unions and start their own small-scale businesses, such as selling produce from a local market within their village. The money they earn and keep 'for themselves' isn't usually spent on frivolities. It goes on their children's education, buying exercise books and school fees, or gifts for visiting relatives. They could hardly be accused of being self-indulgent.

All of these things – livestock, land, tools and skills for market gardening or business training – wouldn't be possible alone. It sometimes requires someone to come in and facilitate their progress, provide training, the land for gardening, or an animal to breed, but they take hold of the opportunity with both hands.

Christian Aid works with some of the poorest people in around 40 countries, through local partner organisations, to end poverty. This Christian Aid Week (10-16 May) thousands of volunteers across the UK will take part in Britain's longest running door-to-door fundraising week to raise money for its vital work with communities like those in Burkina Faso featured here.To make a donation visit www.caweek.org, call 08080 006 006 or text 'WEEK' to 70040 to give £5.