Sahrawi women and new generations

The Western Sahara conflict has been underway since 1975, when Spain decided to abandon its international obligations towards its former colony and leave it in the hands of Morocco and Mauritania. Several international resolutions have since established the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination; however, the Moroccan Government prevents their application, violating international law and causing a situation of instability and insecurity in the region. The permissiveness of bodies like the UN or the EU, and failure to assume their political responsibility by the different Spanish Governments have drawn frequent criticism from those who struggle to keep the problem from slipping into oblivion.

According to the latest available figures, some 180,000 Sahrawi people live in the Tindouf hammada, a provisional settlement in the Algerian desert where they took refuge over 35 years ago while waiting for the opportunity to hold their referendum on self-determination. Another part of the Sahrawi population continues to live in Western Sahara where, every day, Morocco violates their basic rights and they are subject to torture and abuse.

Taken in by the Algerian state, the Sahrawi people enjoy free use of the land and hydric resources in the area they occupy. However, the desert climate, exceedingly arid land and remoteness of the camps considerably limit the possibility of productive or in fact any other kind of income-generating activities, and the few they can do, like shepherding, are extremely hard pushed to meet the needs of their total population. This means that the refugee population is strongly dependent on international cooperation for survival and suffers widespread poor health, although a recent improvement has been observed in anaemia rates, for example.

This vulnerability has been aggravated by the length of the conflict combined with the prolonged and continued provisional nature of the situation. However, over this time, realising the importance of properly managing and distributing the staple goods received from outside as the only resources they receive to cover their basic needs, the population has worked with international bodies to make the best possible use of their contributions. This has helped them to strengthen their internal ability to generate minimum living conditions.

The bodies from which they receive most help are the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the World Food Programme (WFP), and NGOs, particularly associations providing aid to the Sahrawi people from all over the world, mainly in Europe and, logically, first and foremost from Spain.

As far as their organisation is concerned, the camps are divided into five settlements located several kilometres from one another, known as wilayas, which are in turn split into dairas and districts. The recipient population participates in all cooperative actions, through its own established local authority structures and the international framework in which these are organised, like committees and ministries, thus achieving the necessary socio-cultural development to strengthen its viability.

Women play a decisive role in the survival of families and improved health conditions among the population; they also largely take care of the production and administration work. However, since the ceasefire agreement was signed and a great many of the men were demobilised, the latter have held most of the overall responsibility and political positions. Aware of the need to participate in equal conditions in social, political and economic life, the women strive to develop capacities and transform relations between men and women in all areas of life (family, education, politics, work, etc.). Thus, since 2007, the National Union of Sahrawi Women has been involved in a process of empowerment to promote these changes.

Over the years, the new generations born in exile have been growing up in a mixture of cultures (their own and those of the West), building their future lives in completely provisional circumstances dependent on the economy of solidarity. This situation also permits them to leave the camps to spend the summer with Spanish families. Their lives therefore unfold in a combination of very widely differing realities, leading to a debate on feelings, emotions, crossed, separated and trapped lives that this work endeavours to demonstrate.

State Coordinator of Solidarity with the Sahara Associations (CEAS SAHARA)

Film: Wilaya

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