Senegalese women wait to see if the new government will respect their rights

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Senegal provided democracy in Africa with a much-needed shot in the arm when opposition leader Bassirou Diomaye Faye won the presidential election on 24 March. Despite having been imprisoned just weeks before the polls by a government that seemed determined to use intimidation to retain power, Faye defeated Amadou Ba, the ruling party’s candidate, winning 54% in the first round of voting. After the celebrations come the hard task of governing, however, and euphoria is turning into concern for many of the country’s women.

The government selected by President Faye and vice-President Ousmane Sonko – who was the main opposition leader but supported Faye’s candidacy on the basis he would be prevented from running – includes only four women out of 25 ministers. This is similar to previous governments, but the difference is that Faye and Sonko campaigned on a change agenda.

Following their election, women legitimately expected an improvement, not only of their living conditions, but also in terms of accessing major decision-making bodies. If the continued absence of women leaders is worrying, so is its deletion of the words “woman” and “child” from the name of the Ministry of Women, Family and Child Protection, which becomes the Ministry of Family and Children. For Maïmouna Astou Yade, a gender specialist and the executive director of JGEN SÉNÉGAL, “This unexpected change within the government team sends a strong signal regarding the priorities of this new regime for the next 5 years.”

Those in the diaspora are also concerned. Aby L. Sène, Faculty at Clemson University in South Carolina believes that the new government has taken a step backwards in terms of women’s equality and political power. “You cannot tell me that they couldn’t find more women qualified to serve in the government, especially for their very first cabinet of ministers.” Underpinning this concern is the knowledge that, for the first time, Senegal has a polygamous president. Both president Faye and his prime minister Sonko have two wives.

In the build-up to the election things looked much more positive. In the last hours of the presidential campaign, the Caroline Faye (no relation) stadium was filled with young people – men and women – awaiting the arrival of Sonko and Faye. The choice of this stadium suggested an encouraging symbolism, as it bears the name of a female politician from the 1950s, who was the first female minister following independence. Caroline Faye was also the only woman to have been appointed to the Commission that contributed to the country’s Family Code. The Code allowed women to emancipate themselves in significant ways but is in dire need of reform many years after its inception.

Today, in Senegal, men are the supreme heads of the family by law, including in family financial matters, despite the fact that the majority of women use their earnings to provide for their children and for themselves. According to Jaly Badiane, a women’s rights activist, the law also stipulates that “when the woman who has contributed all her life to her retirement dies, nothing is paid to her spouse or minor children”.  Article 196 of the Family Code also renders women vulnerable by giving men the choice of whether to legally recognise the children a woman says he fathered.

Diodo, a 25 year old young tea-seller, argues that “It is a little too early to denigrate a government that is not established”. But she believes that women must fight to maintain the few rights they have acquired over generations. On social media, there is considerable solidarity for women’s frustration. Given the mounting frustrations among young women, and the high stakes in a country that remains politically divided, that nation is watching what the youngest democratically elected president in Africa will do next.

Borso Tall (@NBorso) is a freelance journalist based in Dakar.

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