Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation

Senegal: Codou Bop Interviews Municipal Counselor Sokhna Mbaké

Published Date: 
Friday, November 14, 2014

Codou Bop speaks to Senegalese Municipal Counselor Sokhna Mbaké about the challenges for empowering young women, strengthening their leadership, and building peace and security.

Fourty year old Sokhna Mbacké (pictured below) is a councilor in one of the municipalities in the region of Kaolack.  She recently attended a workshop on Women’s Leadership, Peace and Security held by GREFELS (Groupe de Recherche sur les Femmes et les Lois au Sénégal), as part of the WELDD program.[1]

Kaolack is Senegal’s third largest region, located in the country’s west-central area. Women constitute 51.3 percent of the population, and young people under 20 represent 56.5 percent of the total population. There is a robust civil society and many women's organizations actively work to improve living conditions and women’s rights. This relatively favorable situation compared to other regions of Senegal led GREFELS, a member of the WLUML network, to build a partnership with a local women's NGO, APROFES (Association pour la Promotion de la Femme Sénégalaise), through a program aiming to strengthen leadership amongst women and young people (women and men) to consolidate peace and security.

Codou Bop, the GREFELS Coordinator, seized the opportunity offered by the training to interview a young woman leader whose experience could serve as a model for young Senegalese and Africans. This young woman, Sokhna Seynabou Mbacké, became councilor following the mayoral elections in June 2014

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Codou Bop: Is it easy for a woman in your community to become a leader?

Sokhna Mbacké: I havealways been interested inassociative life. Inthe late 1980s, as a teenager, I joined a Youth association. At that time, this association and APROFES,organizingthisworkshop, were the largestorganizationsofKaolack.

From that time, I faced many obstacles because I wanted to make changes in my life and in my community. In my neighborhood, parents did not want girls to go out or to mingle with boys, which is required when one is involved in community activities.  Because of parents’ refusal, few girls had the opportunity to participate in public life. My family belongs to a powerful Muslim brotherhood[2] in Senegal and my mother was afraid I may lose my virginity because I was always associating with boys, as we had joint activities. She did her best to confine me in the house, but never succeeded. To me, the first struggle women have to wage is with their own family. This leads me to think that in Senegal, the family truly constitutes the first barrier encountered by girls who want to express themselves and enter the public sphere.

However with the help of my uncle who, like many young Senegalese in that period, was influenced by the Chinese revolution, I could escape from home and become involved in the Youth organization I mentioned earlier.

Throughout my youth, I bathed in an atmosphere that questioned both the political and social contexts of the country, but also confronted traditions, especially [regarding] the distribution of roles between men and women.

This experience in a transformative movement played a central role in shaping my leadership and enabled me to become the President of the Network of Girl Leaders at the regional level.

CB: Did your leadership experience contribute to your professional development?

SM:I startedmy careerin 1995.  I was recruitedby a local NGOand my job was tosensitize and train  young people on issues related toreproductive health,  AIDSand theirreproductive rights.

Thanks to my community work, I contributed to the creation of a youth leadership across the region. I began to be invited by other youth and women’s organizations at the national level. As I became more and more known and clearly stated my leadership, I had problems with the director of the NGO I worked for. He could not bear my being known and invited to share my experience.

He refused to endorse initiatives that I took and even tried to take my place when I was invited by a national organization. Our relationship became increasingly difficult and I ended up quitting. I was very bitter, because I felt like a tree whose roots were beginning to go deeper into the soil, that would eventually blossom and bear lots of fruits and, all of a sudden, all its branches were cut off.

CB: You were elected councilor in the last elections, but in solidarity, you are part of the group of women who filed an action for the annulment of the municipal councils that did not comply with the law on parity between men/women in all elective positions. What happened?

SM:  I am a member of a left wing politicalparty. As such, I aimed to strengthen theparty especially as the elections to elect mayors scheduled inJune 2014 were approaching. Indeed, this experience wasvery interestingfor me.Severalotherpolitical partiesapproached usin order toform a coalition. It is true that ourpartyseeks to rule the country, but we want to do soin accordance withcertain principles, such as a refusal to ally ourselveswithanyone who hadparticipated in thepreviousregimes,characterized by corruption and mismanagement of our meager resources.  Therefore, we alliedwith parties and other organizationsof civil society, including a women's organization, that strongly respect transparency and accountability.

I represented my party within the coalition. The campaign before the elections was very tough. Meetings were held at night and could last until 3 am. I was the only woman and I attended all meetings no matter how late they ran.  While men had no problem when they returned so late, it was the opposite for me. Although my husband supported me, in contrast, my mother and many other women within and outside the family criticized me because they said that a woman's place is not in meetings ending at dawn.

Many women stood as candidates for mayors or city councilors. The law on parity for all elective positions appeared to offer such a great opportunity for women to be at last in all decision making spheres. In order to increase their chances, they  [women] fought to be included in the majority  as well as in the proportional lists. As you know, the law says that any candidate (regardless of the sex) who tops the list becomes mayor, which was the goal of many women. In Kaolack, women of various political parties, including our coalition, decided to promote sisterhood, meaning that if a woman, regardless of her political party, is well placed, all the others must support her by voting for her and pressing the women of her own political party to vote for her. The list I was included on was composed as follows: if a woman was on top of the list, the second [name] was a man, a woman the 3rd, the 4th man and so on. Our list respected the law with the same number of men as women. I was not on top, but was well placed.

After the elections, the elected candidates (men and women) gathered to appoint members of the City Council. Unfortunately men maneuvered to force women of their respective parties to follow what they presented as “ the party’s discipline”, meaning to vote only for members of their parties. Hence, our consensus for maintaining solidarity between women fell apart.

In our coalition, another woman and I had the ambition to become mayor. To avoid division, I opted for solidarity among women; I withdrew to let my friend lead the list, putting an end to any attempt to divide us. But despite all our efforts, this woman was not on top of the list, but I was elected as municipal councilor. My party expects me to play the role of watchdog, that is to do everything I can to enforce our agreement for democratic governance and reinforce partnership with civil society organizations to change bad practices at City Hall. We are already thinking of alternative strategies if resistance is too strong.

Now, [with respect to] the issue of the appeal for annulment of municipal councils that did not comply with the law on parity between men/women in all elective positions.  I must say that many political parties did not respect the law and give women the chance to become mayor or councilor. Women candidates (who won didn’t win elections) met to discuss the follow-up of this treason. We decided to file an appeal to the Court of Appeals demanding the dissolution of all Councils that did not respect the law and a re-election so that the number of male councilors be equal to those of women. Unfortunately, only two women and myself showed up at the moment the appeal was brought before the judges.

With the women's movement of Kaolack, especially APROFES, we organized a big mobilization before the Court of Appeals.  All women were dressed in white and wore a red scarf, a symbol of their anger. At the same moment, in rural areas where women candidates had suffered the same injustice, women wore red scarves, but they also tied red ribbons to the horns of sheep and oxen, and on the necks of donkeys and even on chickens. It was their particular way to show their anger.

The Mayor of Kaolack, a woman, hired a lawyerto fight against our appeal before the Court. This woman, the currentMinister for the Promotionof Women,flagrantly violated Senegalese women's political rightsin payinga lawyer forthe rejection bythe Courtof ourappeal, and she has been successful.

Yet, the fact that, in Kaolack, women refused the established order and filed an appeal was a shock in the political world of [the] region. Today, throughout the whole country, (in Dakar the capital city and in other regions), elected women who were robbed of their seats as mayors or councilors have also filed appeals with the Supreme Court.

A national Committee for the enforcement of the law on parity has been established and includes women from political parties as well as those from civil society. It [the Committee] circulates petitions, holds press conferences and organizes rallies and sit-ins in front of the Supreme Court. We are relatively optimistic, as the Supreme Court has already ordered the dissolution of all municipal councils that did not respect the law on parity in the region of Dakar and the re-election of mayors and councilors. The struggle now is that this decision be set as a precedent in the country and the dissolution of all anti-parity councils, finally ensuring that both women and men participate equally in this country’s political life.

Another point to be mentioned is that during this whole period, our families experienced hard times. We and our families received threats when we walked in the streets or through the media. My mother was so scared and begged me to withdraw from the group that filed the action. Of course, I refused.

CB: You have just participated in a GREFELS/APROFES workshop on leadership, peace and security. Did you acquire any new skills and how do you intend to use them in your personal life, your community and your work as a city councilor?

SM: As I believe that leadership is a qualitative process strengthened by every experience, I consider this workshop as very useful.  The two women who were with me when our appeal was handed to the Court of Appeals also participated in the workshop. This gave the three of us the opportunity together to learn more about how to better mobilize for our political rights and strategize with other women.

At a personal level, the knowledge I gained should help me to better cope with the different challenges I face.

While it is true that in my family, my husband and I share the same vision of equality between men and women, we still live in a conservative society that does not accept our lifestyle. Strangely, it is women who are most opposed, like my own mother, my sisters, and even women in the neighborhood. People cannot understand that equality can exist between a husband and his wife. When both are equal, they believe that the husband is weak or is dominated by his wife. One day, a woman visiting us found my husband sweeping the floor. She was surprised and angry; she told me that my children will turn out badly because of the way I treat their father.

I also think the workshop was also very helpful for poor women who must spend a lot of time to carry out income-generating activities for the maintenance of their families. The workshop gave them knowledge and self confidence and they no longer consider educated women as superior to them. I am convinced that they have been empowered by the training and they will strengthen their presence in the boards of local health committees, associations of parents and other community associations.

You also notice that girls under 20 years were included in the workshop. It is true that they will gain knowledge, but the most important point is that, for the first time in their life, they are in the same space as women who are the age as their mother’s. They had the courage to speak out and, sometimes, even stand up to these women. I think we should hold a lot of training for these very young women to enable them to take over and become the leaders in the future.


September 2014


[1]GREFELS is a woman human rights defender’s Senegalese organization that is a WLUML networker and grantee of the WELDD Outcome 2: (Peace & Security)

[2]Defining brotherhood, Vikor (2000) states  “ this is a translation of the Arabic term tariqa, which covers a much broader range of meaning than those normally conveyed by the English terms order or brotherhood. To simplify matters we may distinguish between two meanings of the world. On the one hand, a tariqa is a method, or Way, that a Muslim may follow to reach a personal religious experience. On the other hand, tariqa is used for the organizational framework that may be set up to transmit and practice this method”  (Vikor, Knut. Sufi Brotherhoods in Africa in The History of Islam in Africa PP 419-441 Ed Levtzion N. and Pouwels L.R. Athens Ohio University Press).  One key features of Islam in Senegal is its organization in Tariqa or brotherhoods that have been playing a central religious, cultural, economical and political role since their establishment.  There are four main tariqas: the Tijaniyya founded in 1902 by Al-Hajj Malick Sy, the Murridiyya founded in 1905 by Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke and the Qadiriyya the most ancient, established probably at the end of the 19e. The smallest is the Layenne founded also around the beginning of the 20th century. In addition small Islamist groups are active mostly in urban areas.

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