Since 1975 and the early days of exile, women held a primary role in running daily affairs in the Saharawi refugee camps. With the men away fighting, in what became a 16-year long war, the women had to develop skills in different fields such as health, education and administration. According to historians, the Saharawi background prepared the women well for these tasks. In pre-colonial times, the Saharawi women had relative equality and control over two spheres of society. First, she was in control of the tent, therefore the home and was responsible for passing culture from generation to generation
Women and daily life
For these historical and contemporary reasons, the Saharawi women in the camps have been very successful. They established and manage schools, day care centres, hospitals, clinics and museums. At the time of the Moroccan invasion, the legacy of Spanish colonialism was a 90% illiteracy rate amongst women. A refugee woman, Zahara Ramdane, remembers "the first thing POLISARIO (The People’s Liberation Front of Saqiau al-Hamra and Rio de Oro) did in cooperation with the women's organization was to launch a literacy campaign in the liberated zones of the Western Sahara and in the refugee camps. Today, we are proud to say that all Saharawi women can at least read and write." The large majority of women do unpaid work in the vital sectors of health, education and administration. Crèches and nurseries have been set up in each daira (district) in the camps so the women who have little family support can go to work or study. Saharawi women have traditionally had large families, with an average of about four children. The younger generation, influenced increasingly by western ideas, are opting to have much fewer children and are resorting to family planning and the use of contraception when available.
And the result is…Today, there is great respect for the work the women have done in the camps. All Saharawis recognize the central role of women in the camps and they are working to ensure that their gains and freedoms will not be lost upon their return to Western Sahara. Many people think that the Saharawi women are different from the Muslim and Arab women, even thought the majority are recognized as Arabs and Muslims, they [Saharawi women] are more outspoken, powerful and independent.