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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

This isn’t about disempowering men, it’s about development

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“Why not!” she snaps as if her earlier ‘of course yes’ wasn’t enough to emphasise her point. “The political landscape is for everybody. Women are saying that they have a right to be there and we’re going for elective positions rather than being nominated.”


The gender politics

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The Gambia’s political temperature may be not be hot yet. However, the countdown to 2016 has begun for female politicians. And gender activists are backing them! 

A feminist campaign which in a rare move, brings together female politicians from across the deeply divided political spectrum is underway, seeking to influence increased women’s participation in the political processes and structures at all levels of governance. 

Behind the movement is Gamcotrap. The Gambian women’s rights NGO last week held four separate seminars within the Greater Banjul Area 

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“What we’re doing has nothing to do with partisan politics,” Dr Isatou Touray, the executive director of Gamcotrap, exclusively tells The Standard.

“It’s neither about disempowering men. It’s about development. And it’s about gender politics.

“Women have all the time been raising development issues. With all the conventions signed and legislations passed, most crucial issues for women could not be passed into law. It’s time for women to be where the laws are made.”


Women are marginalised despite…

The preliminary results of the 2013 census report revealed last month shows that women constitute more than half of the country’s population. 

As of 2011, women represent 58 percent of the national electoral sufferage. Unfortunately, their numerical strength is not reflected in the number of governance and leadership positions they hold at national and local levels. 

The structures within various political parties, at best, visibly relegate women to permanent deputies of male chief propagandists and youth-wing male presidents. Female wings are created where women lead as a matter of course. 

Amie Sillah, a gender activist-cum-politician explains: “In the selection committees of the parties, even if a woman is made chair, they [men] give you the head and take out the tongue so that the woman would not be able to speak out. Men would give you just a nominal power. In a nutshell, you propagate what they want you to.”

She continues: “The first regime claims to have done empowered women. The second regime, too, claims to have done something. Then, as activists, we go to empirical evidence, and going by that, we have seen that in Gambia, out of 53 National Assembly members, we have only four elected and one nominated female deputies. That’s 9 percent. 

“Also, out of 1,873 village heads, only 5 are women. There’s no female governor, no female as district chief. So is that impressive?”


Where the problem lies

The past four years have witnessed the enactment of at least three pro-women’s rights legislations – the Women’s Act of 2010, Domestic Violence Act and Sexual Offenses Act, both of 2013. 

The Constitution of The Gambia also guarantees women’s right to political participation, and threatens sanction against any form of gender-based discrimination. 

Mrs Haddy Nyang-Jagne is one of the four elected female National Assembly members and speaks about the inhibiting factors the reason for which there are not many women like her. 

“Where does the problem lie? The government has created the enabling environment, sensitised women. Now, is it stigmatisation? Women are afraid to come out because people speak ill of them.

“Is is lack of funding? In APRC, money is given to candidates. That makes it easier for us. Are the other parties doing the same thing? I think they should look inward and provide some financial support to their female candidates. 

“Sometimes, it’s about religious and cultural barriers. Some people would tell you our religion of Islam does not accept women taking part in politics and we know that proposition is unfounded,” she says. 

Haddy, who is into her second term in the National Assembly, was reading from the same hymn sheet with other female politicians when she pointed out the socio-economic and cultural barriers to women’s effective participation in politics. 

But to her fellow female politicians in the opposition camp, the challenge is beyond nosy in-laws or deceptive scholars. They decry that the democratic space for vibrant multi-party politics has shrunken as abuses such as arbitrary arrest and detention of opponents have become a norm rather than an exception. 

Mariama B Secka, the secretary general of female wing of the main opposition United Democratic Party had a taste of what it is like to be an opposition. 

“I will reflect on something that happened to me as a politician,” she narrates. “I was invited to a forum by the women’s federation. When I started introducing myself as a member of opposition party, I was heckled. I was totally harassed. It’s not easy at all. We need a more level playing ground.

However, members of the ruling APRC party are typically on the defensive. The youth president, Babou Gaye Sonko, who prefers to put his energy in praising what has been achieved, not to scrutinise what remains to be done, was also in denial that such a thing as tight political climate exists for opposition. 

“This forum best fits other parties,” he says, referring to the feminist campaign. “Our president has done a lot for women’s empowerment. The vice president is a woman, the minister of education, environment, tourism, energy and justice are all women. 

“No politician is arrested unlawfully. Every citizen should be law abiding. There’s no climate that’s unfavourable to political parties. 

“The government has created a conducive environment for women. My opinion is, this is a political battlefield and women are as free as men to contest.”

Despite the differences in their views on the political environment, the women had at least reached some strategic consensus. The activist, Amie Sillah, lets them out. 

“There was consensus that we should support any female candidate regardless of party affiliation. But practically, that cannot be. Some were saying “if my party put up a candidate, I cannot vote for another person from a different party.” That’s a reality. 

“So, we’re telling them to gender integate their parties so that the selection committees would have equal number of men and women, who are gender sensitive. 

“Another consensus was that, since we cannot be disloyal to our parties, what’s achievable is to be civil towards female candidates. If you’re supporting a male candidate from your party, you should not castigate the female candidate.”

The task remains whether educated women who were said to be reluctant to leave their “comfort zones” in air-conditioned offices and homes, would respond to the call from women for them to enter into the hurly burly of domestic politics. 

“We’ve observed that most of the educated women don’t even vote. We want to remain in our comfort zones,” says Dr Touray. “And until the educated woman goes to the grassroots, we may not be able to achieve what we want.”

Come 2016, if the tone of the likes of the ruling party’s youth president reflects the position of the government in power, women might have to make an uphill climb to reach 30 percent representation for the National Assembly. 

And for the foreseeable future, the mass of politically active women might still be dancers and authors of biting political lyrics, and campaigners and mobilisers of votes and money for male counterparts. 

Whether one female politician would attract a few muscled male bodyguards is a question of time, and effort such as the one afoot would be crucial. In the meantime, the women have loudly expressed their readiness to drink with men from the same political well that, in their view, for long serves men first, leaving them with the leftover.  


Author: Saikou Jammeh


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