Women's Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratisation
Interview by Codou Bop. GREFELS COORDINATOR,
At 40, Mbacké Sokhna (see picture above), who attended a workshop held by GREFELS on Women’s Leadership, Peace and Security, is a councillor in one of the municipalities in the region of Kaolack.
Kaolack is Senegal’s third largest region, located in the country’s west-central area. The population tilts towards females who constitute 51.3%, and young people under 20 represent 56.5% 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 favourable 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, through a program aimed at strengthening leadership amongst women and men to consolidate peace and security.
The GREFELS Coordinator seized the opportunity offered by the leadership and peace 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 councillor following the mayorship elections in June 2014
Q: Is it easy for a woman in your community to become a leader?
A: I have always been interested in associative life. In the late 1980s, as a teenager, I joined a Youth association. At that time, this association and APROFES, who organised this workshop, were the largest organisations of Kaolack.
From that time, I faced many obstacles because I wanted to make changes in my life and in my community. In my neighbourhood, 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 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 the distribution of roles between men and women.
This experience in transformative movement played a central role in shaping my leadership and enabled me to become the President of the Network of Girls leaders at the regional level.
Q: Did your leadership experience contribute to your professional development?
A: I started my career in 1995. I was recruited by a local NGO and my job was to sensitize and train young people on issues related to reproductive health, AIDS and their reproductive 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 popularity.
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.
Q: You are elected councillor 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?
A: I am a member of a left wing political party. As such, I aim to strengthen the party especially as the elections to elect mayors scheduled in June 2014 were approaching. Indeed, this experience was very interesting for me. Several other political parties approached us in order to form a coalition. It is true that our party seeks to rule the country, but we want to do so in accordance with certain principles, such as a refusal to ally ourselves with anyone who has participated in the previous regimes, characterized by corruption and mismanagement of our meager resources. Therefore, we allied with parties and other organizations of 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 councillors. 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, [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 manipulated the situation to force women of their respective parties to follow what they referred to 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, however I was elected as municipal councillor. My party expects me to play the role of watchdog, and 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 councillor. Women candidates (who 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 councillors 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 lawyer to fight against our appeal before the Court. This woman, the current Minister for the Promotion of Women, flagrantly violated Senegalese women's political rights in paying a lawyer for the rejection by the Court of our appeal, 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 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 councillors and 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. [The Committee] It 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 councillors. 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.
Q: You have just participated in a workshop GREFELS / APROFES 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?
A: As I believe that leadership is a qualitative process strengthened by every experience, I consider this workshop 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.