Aminata Siffai Hydara is the governor of West Coast Region and the first Gambian woman to break the glass ceiling and be appointed a regional governor. She had long served as a community development expert and contributed a lot to the advancement of women in her region. She spoke to The Standard’s Lamin Baba Njie at her Brikama office.
First of all, women’s empowerment has taken centre-stage in the development process of the country since the advent of the July 22nd revolution. How has this helped in cementing the position of Gambian women at the forefront of national development?
It is true that women’s empowerment has taken centre-stage in our national development effort since the advent of the July 22nd Revolution. There has been a wider consensus that empowering a woman doesn’t stop at her but also transmits to her family and the community as a whole. This is why countries have been very proactive in empowering women because this can have a trickle-down effect especially when it comes to development. The Gambia government has taken strong interest in this and has made gainful strides in appointing more women to senior government positions. President Jammeh is convinced about the need to empower women because if you empower a woman, it is like empowering a whole country or community. Many countries across the world have made this a priority and continue to make significant gains in putting women at the forefront of all development processes. Women especially those in leadership roles believe in teaming up by working closely with the community and by so doing are able to make their presence felt through meaningful contributions. It is a step in the right direction because even at the grassroots level, government has created opportunities for women to be central in development which enable them to equally compete with their men counterparts.
You are a community development worker and prior to your appointment as governor, you had the opportunity to deal with women in many of areas of development. Can you share with us some of your experiences as an expert in community development?
Based on my background as a community development officer, I had the opportunity to reach out to grassroots communities especially in my region and know what challenges women are facing. This has helped me a lot in advocating for women’s empowerment and I have been encouraging my women folk to send and retain their girl-children in school because everything about women’s empowerment starts with education. This is the starting point and if women are educated, it positions them well for the challenge of development that lies ahead and to be good leaders. A few decades ago, women in all parts of the country especially in my region had little opportunity to go to school and few had been lucky to be educated. This is why as a community development worker, I have always advocated for women to retain their girl children in school. Education is not only the key to women’s empowerment but also the key to sustainable development. Due to my service, I have been able to enjoy the respect of my community and region as a whole.
Women’s economic advancement is a necessary tool for the empowerment of women in The Gambia and you have been working with women in this area. What is your impression on the economic situation of Gambian women?
It is not only a necessary tool for their advancement but for development in general because women economic activities to a large extent have trickling down effects. Whenever a woman gets money, the first thing she thinks about is her family and their economic advancement is there for everybody to see. It has been very visible because of the impact that women have been making in all sectors of the economy. This is also why it is necessary to give them the tools and the environment to improve their livelihoods. Women have responded very well to President Jammeh’s call for people to go back to the land and as well engage in other activities that have economic significance. The economic status of Gambian women has improved significantly and empowering them in all spheres of life is important. As the governor of West Coast Region in the short time I have been in office, I found my women doing something very meaningful in their economic advancement and I am going to strengthen that. Women of my region are not lazy but are into gainful activities like vegetable gardening, selling in the market, working in the farolu and other informal activities. I have been encouraging them to keep up the momentum because these are some of the things that they can do to sustain themselves and their families. My women are not folding their hands but are into everything that can benefit them economically. I wouldn’t say they are the sole breadwinners for their families but they contribute immensely to their sustenance. Women in the Kombos, beyond doubt, have been well-recognised for this and most of them do not go into these activities just to buy themselves clothes but also pay for their children’ school fees. They also take care of other needs in the family. Economists used to say that the contribution of women cannot be quantified in the economic activities of nations and remain largely immeasurable. You cannot underestimate their contribution.
What are some of the challenges facing Gambian women in the area of economic advancement especially in your region?
I think most of them have not been able to acquire loans especially soft loans that can help them establish small and medium size enterprises. They need strong and effective microfinance schemes to enable them register better success in the small businesses that they are engaged in. As the lady councillor of Kombo Central, I was able to initiate a microfinance scheme to help women with low interest rates. With this scheme, I registered more than 100 women’s groups. We started contributing D1,500 and now it’s about D2,000. We have been able to save almost D300,000 and we give out this money to women in the form of loans with 5% interest rate to help ourselves in our various activities. So if they have similar schemes, it will take them a long way to improve their economic status which will have an impact on the whole family. It is important therefore to urge stakeholders especially organisations to come up with such initiatives because women can always make an impact. We are also privy to the fact that women are very honest when it comes to repaying loans and by providing microfinance schemes with low interest rates for them, they will contribute immensely to the development of the country.
Politics is another area where Gambian women have ventured into with many assuming higher political positions. How would you describe the country’s political landscape?
It is self-evident. It is an all-inclusive setup as long as you operate with the dimension of the legal mechanism in place. So there is no barrier and everybody can participate. This is why some of the women can stand today and talk because they started from the grassroots. Politics is a good way to empower women and I have been encouraging women to come forward because I believe everybody should participate as long as you respect the rights of others. I am a supporter of the power that-be (APRC government) but somebody else can stay where they feel they belong. The important thing is to partake and participate within the legal apparatus. There is no barrier and boundary.
There are those who are consistent in the view that women are weaker when it comes to leadership roles and that their participation in the decision-making process is not largely desired. How true is that?
That is not true. It is a biased statement that is aimed at discouraging women from venturing into politics. It is unfortunate, though, that some of our male counterparts think it is their birthrights to assume leadership positions. But President Jammeh and his cohorts have taken cognisance of the fact that the country belongs to all of us and have shown to everybody that what a man can do, a woman can also do. We have a female vice president who is very strong and this is why she has been in that position for a very long time. Women are even stronger when it comes to politics because they advocate for an all-inclusive society. We don’t like to think as individuals but if we look at the other side of the coin, there are some men who still think we are in a patriarchal system. It is the women who do better in terms of embracing all to be part of society. We do not like to own up things to ourselves but rather team up and I think it is high time that we started saying ‘we’ rather than ‘I.’
You are the first female governor at regional level, how would you describe your relations with traditional rulers in the country?
We have to understand that this is a male-dominated area because all the chiefs are men. Again, this is what the president has been trying to break and therefore saw it necessary to start at regional level by appointing a woman as a governor. This is to send a clear message that the country belongs to all of us and that we are all equal. Women have been steadily supporting his ideas and I think when he appoints them to positions, this has to be respected by men. It is through his authority that I was appointed governor of the most important region and they [men] have nothing than to respect that decision. The traditional rulers in my region and the rest of the country have given me the respect, allegiance, support and encouragement for the simple fact that we are all appointed to serve a particular purpose based on authority.
Are you saying that you foresee the prospect of a female chief?
Under President Jammeh’s administration, I foresee a female chief and the only thing that women need to do is to remain steadfast and strong in whatever they are doing. They have to try to know their communities as well and prominent in politics and various cultural activities. This is because traditional rulers largely deal with culture and they need to be well-versed in this. Culture is important for our identification and I am foreseeing a future female chief under President Jammeh. Women can now hold any position simply because of him and the fact that he has appointed the first woman vice president shows that he likes to make a difference. He always chooses people who can handle positions very well; people who if they go back to the community, people would not question their integrity. During the last International Women’s Day, I said the sky was not only the limit but also the starting point for Gambian women when it comes to empowerment. We have to thank him for this because it is through his effort that Gambian women came this far through opportunities in all spheres of society.
Let’s discuss agriculture. The president recently went around the country pledging to overhaul the agriculture sector and this led to the launching of Vision 2016 rice self-sufficiency plan. How important is this initiative for Gambians?
It is very important and I have been listening to many people who share the president’s vision for food self-sufficiency. Achieving food security will be an important milestone in our development because this would first of all, save us the money that we spend annually on food importation. This money can therefore be used for other development purposes. I know for a fact that if we can grow what we eat and eat what we grow, it would also improve our health status. Presently, a lot of people do complain of ailments that our mothers and grandmothers did not know. This is because those people lived on locally grown foods and they did not encounter health problems like we do today. The issue of total independence is also critical because if we want to be fully independent and not get enslaved by anybody, we have to be in control of our stomach. If we are not in control of our stomach, then we cannot claim total independence. I am fully in support of Vision 2016 and I am encouraging my people to embrace what the president has been propagating. This will enable us to be fully emancipated from the bondage of slavery. If you are hungry, the person who feeds you is in control of you.
This is where the issue of diplomacy comes in with Western countries promising aid to African countries contingent on compromising their cultural values and even political independence. What do you say to those who use euro/dollar diplomacy as a weapon to undermine our integrity?
This is what I am saying but I believe that if we are self-sufficient, if someone comes to us and tells us bogus stories, we will not buy into them. But if we are hungry, we will definitely go by them and this is what the president has been fighting against. He does not want to see any Gambian being enslaved by a fellow Gambian, not to talk about an outsider. We cannot break away from this if we are not self-sufficient in food and I think many also share the ideals of the president in this regard. But these donors know full well that the president is here to defend his people and I think when they approach us, they are very mindful. No donor will come here and talk to us anyhow because the government is very proactive and does not encourage such. We cannot accept any conditionality that would undermine our integrity. President Jammeh doesn’t encourage laziness in his people and the women have been very active in all spheres of development. I don’t think the women have been victims of enslavement and this is why we are urging the men so that together, we can determine our common destiny. We have to work together and develop our country.
As a community development worker turned politician, what changes have you made to how you operate?
I would say I have enjoyed very fruitful and close relations with my people and I think this is my biggest achievement as a community development worker. The job always required me to practise what I preach to my people and I have been close to them. I believe in team spirit and team work. But as a politician, not everybody will like you. However, you should not discard the views of your opponents because they can become your strength in the future. There are those who have opposed me before but now they are very close to me by the virtue of my position. Simply put, there is no permanent friend or foe in politics; the situation dictates everything.]]>