Tag Archives: Gender

#Gambia: Will The Real Women’s Affairs Minister Please Stand Up?

On 29th June, President Adama Barrow made what has been described as one of his boldest moves since his rise to the highest seat of power in The Gambia. The first cabinet reshuffle since the demise of the Jammeh government came as a surprise to many, even as some had already anticipated the move due to the ever-growing grapevine in the country’s information space. Evidently, the changes in some of the positions were not entirely shocking, but some, particularly that of the Vice President and Minister of Women’s Affairs raised questions and gave way to much speculation and analyses, especially on social media.

I will leave the task of the political readings into the replacement of Fatoumatta Jallow Tambajang by Ousainou Darboe to our experts in the domain. My thoughts will be focused on the emerging debate on what this reshuffle means for the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, and the state of women in The Gambia, in general.

The heart of the debate, with opinions proferred from different sections of society, is the handing-over of the leadership of the Women’s Affairs Ministry to a man. It is important to note that this is automatic, as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is tied to the Office of the Vice President, a system inherited from the previous regime. I wonder where the surprise and questions are coming from. For people like me, born at the dawn of the 90s, the two portfolios are one and same. Having a woman – Isatou Njie-Saidy – lead this portfolio for more than two decades also did well to cement this notion, possibly giving way to conclusions that the Vice Presidency should always be handed over to a woman. This was evident in the process leading to the appointment of President Barrow’s deputy, bar the controversial process that characterised that decision. For a great majority of Gambians, it made sense for a woman to take up the second seat of power. For some, it may have been an allusion to the country’s efforts to ensure gender equality and better female representation in government. For others, it was about the familiarity – this is what we know and are accustomed to, so let’s stick with that plan.

However, it is important to go beyond the optics of gender equality in The Gambia, usually backed by the tokenism of appointing one or two prominent women into leadership positions, and parading them as the markers for progress in that domain. I’ve always been on the opposite side of the idea of tokenism taking the place of real representation that goes beyond the few women who ‘break the glass ceiling’. My idea of equality and representation begins not at the climax of the goal, manifested in appointments and promotions, but at the very root of the issues that have created and continue to contribute to gender inequality and inequity.

How do we ensure that girls are prepared for leadership from an early age? How do we dismantle patriarchal systems that continue to place girls on the short end of the opportunity stick, such that their progress is generally stunted, and their potential for higher leadership pruned to its death? How do we build confidence and an unapologetic quest for success in girls, just as is done for boys? How do we open up the space to allow for mistakes from girls and women, so that when one errs, the rest of the female population will not be discredited and dismissed as incapable, incompetent, and unsuitable for leadership and responsibility? More importantly, how have we contributed to the creation of a system that sees nothing wrong with placing a man at the head of an institution dedicated to the affairs of women, especially in a country where there is no dearth of competent women to take up that role?

I ask these questions because some of the outrage on this issue has been amusing to me. I’ve sat back and watched people who dismiss feminism and gender equality spin threads and threads of opinion on the matter, regurgitating the very ideas they dismissed. I’ve also observed a trend of convenience where these issues are suddenly coming to light, to some. Meanwhile, the inequality in gender representation in government has always been there, right from the first appointments made by the President in 2017. I would assume that it wasn’t much of a problem then as it is now, as manifested in the number of voices that questioned the real ‘change’ in the system, if women are still left behind. If anything, it has been quite refreshing to see an increase in voices demanding for better representation. It shows that people are not really ignorant about gender and why representation matters, even if we choose to ignore it at our convenience.

But I ask, shouldn’t our outrage be extended to other ministries, government departments, parastatals and private institutions? Better yet, can we extend this to our homes, where inequalities are stark and characterise our daily reality as women and girls? How do we ensure that the current anomaly with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is fixed, and barred from replication in all other areas of our lives? I do not have all the answers, but I have a few recommendations that may contribute to advancing the debate and addressing a challenge that is gaining bigger prominence in the new Gambia.

My first suggestion, as shared on my Twitter account in the wake of the reshuffle, is that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs should be detached from the Office of the Vice President. Women make up the majority of the population, and the issues affecting their growth and development are too broad and complex to be annexed under the portfolio of the Vice President. This arrangement places the Ministry on the back burner, with matters of the Vice Presidency overshadowing its relevance. Because issues related to women and children are often interlinked, I would go further to suggest a Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare. With this Ministry, the Women’s Bureau and the Department of Social Welfare can be brought under one umbrella, creating a convergence for crosscutting issues, and providing an opportunity for a holistic approach to implementing solutions for the relevant groups. The opportunity for better coordination of women’s development, child protection and social protection should be embraced and leveraged for better results. And yes, this Ministry should be headed by a woman, selected for her competence and drive for results, as well as the extra advantage of being a woman with primary experience on the issues that require solutions. As long as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is under the Office of the Vice President, we should prepare ourselves for leadership as the President desires – regardless of gender. This can be fixed.

The second suggestion is for President Barrow and his government to re-evaluate the status of women in The Gambia, and move to fulfill its obligations under the CEDAW and the Maputo Protocol that clearly outline the rights of women and girls. The Constitutional Review Commission, which got into action a few weeks ago, has a responsibility to ensure the full incorporation and enforcement of the provisions of these instruments. A new Constitution that does not adequately represent the interests of women and girls, cognizant of the present inequalities and inequities, is as good as nothing in the new Gambia. We have an opportunity, and I’m counting on civil society and members of the public to make solid contributions to this effect, as much as those are possible. We must move our voices and actions into the spaces where they can make a real difference.

My final point is centered on the need for a change in attitudes towards women and girls at all levels of society. The gender disparities we see in government today are not magical happenings. They are a clear reflection of the state of our country, and the status of women and girls. We cannot cry foul at representation and equality in government and then turn around and benefit from that same inequality in our homes. The work to improve the lives of women and girls should be the responsibility of all people, regardless of gender. One might argue that this brings to moot, the argument against Darboe as Women’s Affairs Minister, but that is a conversation I will leave for another post. The point is that we should all have a conversation with ourselves, identify the contributions we make to the perpetuation of the status quo, and work to make amends. And yes, I’m also talking to our so-called progressive men and #He4She champions who shout out loud for the cause, but are unapologetic about their sexism and misogyny where there are no eyes, ears and mouths to keep them in check. Change begins with the little things we do, and this includes making an honest pact with ourselves to let go of convenience and personal comfort and work towards the common good… or at least a good that everyone can enjoy, and build a life of dignity from.

I believe that it is also necessary to open up the space for dialogue and debate, even with people we perceive to be on the opposite side of our views. Dissent and opposition do not necessarily translate to hate, and we must learn to rise above personality attacks and taking things personal. Our focus should be on issues and figuring out how to finally get this new Gambia ship moving in the right direction. Right is right at all times and in all situations. Wrong is wrong at all times and in all situations. We voted, fought, and made sacrifices for a change, and should keep those in power accountable to the people under their leadership … even those close to us.

To The Gambia ever true.

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#DGTrends: Women’s Political Participation Beyond Clapping And Dancing

“Youth Participation and Leadership in Political Parties in Africa: Special Focus on Young Women” was the theme of a national youth dialogue hosted by the National Youth Parliament of The Gambia on Saturday 24th November, 2015. . The event, held at the American Corner Comium, was organized as part of a series in various African countries, leading to the fourth High Level Dialogue on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance in Africa, initiated by the Department of Political Affairs of the African Union Commission.

Think Young Women/2015

Think Young Women/2015

The Gambia dialogue brought together about 50 youth from the different political parties, youth organisations working on issues related to the theme, the local media and representatives of partner organisations. The dialogue kicked off with a short opening ceremony, where these latter gave brief statements, before participants were placed into four working groups, each with a specific focus topic for discussion and consequent presentation.

An effort to live-tweet the discussions, and contribute to the growing online documentation of the dialogues across Africa, led me to float over the four groups, trying to capture the most pertinent points, while gaining a better understanding of The Gambia’s political environment.

Participants deliberated on the theme, with specific discussions on women’s political participation, youth political participation, women’s wings, and youth wings of political parties in The Gambia. One could easily feel the energy in the room as the youth, especially representing the different political parties, shared their experiences and debated various issues in response to the questions tabled before them.

There were moments, when one of the groups got distracted by party politics, as each party sought to highlight its work, but their unity of purpose and the agreement that more needed to be done for youth in politics, eventually drew them back to the task at hand. I was naturally drawn to the two groups discussing questions specific to women’s political participation, and couldn’t help noting a familiar refrain.

Participation, Not Representation

‘Women are not interested in politics or political leadership’ is a statement often heard, when the status quo, where men hold dominance at the helm of affairs, is challenged. The veracity of this statement, I believe, is relative to where we find ourselves, even if passed on as a global truth. One of the women present gave a succinct distinction between participation and representation, noting that women in The Gambia are the largest group of participants in the country’s politics. An observation that was unanimously affirmed by the youth at the dialogue.

However, it is important to note that their participation does not necessarily translate to the effective creation and implementation of policies relevant to the cause of women. Even when women do participate in politics, it is usually on the sidelines, as cheerleaders for men occupying positions of power and making the decisions on all issues. Women are still greatly limited to fulfilling tasks that fit the traditional gender roles which, I daresay, have led us to this point of attempting to diagnose the reasons behind the low political participation of women.

Wielding the power of mobilization and coördination, women are greatly involved in all preparations leading to the moments that truly matter, handling the cooking and feeding of the masses, the cheering and dancing for prospective male leaders, and forming the bulk of the people dressed in ashobee to show support and solidarity. Yet, they remain on the fringes, sometimes never knowing or understanding the proceedings of political meetings and gatherings, where key decisions are made.

At an event in Uganda this summer, attendees raised the issue of women participating in conferences as singers and dancers, and never having the chance to get into the conference halls to use these same voices to their benefit. As a result, their contributions are not reflected in the final resolutions and decisions made, thereby placing a dampener on their hopes to have their voices represented, and their problems addressed at these gatherings.

The exception to this norm is seen in the few women who rise to secure and maintain a place at the decision-making table. We refer to them as having broken the glass ceiling, and keeping hope alive that more women will make it to those positions, leading to more impactful change in the lives of the majority of women who do not have that opportunity. Representation matters, but how well-represented are women and girls in political spaces, even by the women who have a seat at ‘the table’?

It is worthy of note that not all of these women are elected to these positions, the majority making that ascent through nominations. This begs the question: who do they really represent? A lot of talk has emerged on increasing the number of women in political leadership spaces, and promoting its longevity through a quota system. This is done, of course, with the assumption that the more women we have in these spaces, the better chances we will have of addressing issues related to women at the policy level. The reality shows us different, with tokenism being the order and many women in these positions subscribing to the views and voices of their male counterparts, who are still in the majority. Otherwise, they are ‘yes women’ to the views of the political parties they represented, as opposed to the many people who placed them in those positions, if they were elected.

A solution was suggested: more women should rise to the occasion and contest elections, starting at local government and moving up to the presidential race. Though ideal, this suggestion ignores a multitude of factors and conditions, especially social, which could be a limitation to realizing this idea.

Social Factors Need To Be Taken Into Consideration

Much hope is placed on the youth to create a new generation of leaders that challenge and close the gender disparities in politics, especially with effective and impactful representation. Encouragement is doled out in generous amounts to young women, reminding them that the past is gone and the future is theirs to shape.

This is a positive step towards closing the gaps, but it should be proffered on realistic grounds, taking into consideration the social set-up of our various societies, and how this affects the leadership aspirations of girls and young women. Gender inequality in all spheres hinders progress and has a consequent effect on the issue at hand.

We live in societies where the role of a girl is defined even before birth, and her life is set to follow the path created without her contributions, and with little regard to her preferences and ambitions. It begins with the provision of quality education for the girl child, which has, for a long time, been trashed in favour of teaching girls to handle domestic responsibilities in preparation for marriage and child-bearing.

Progress has been recorded in this regard, but there is still a gap in the figures for enrolment and those for completion. This is due to several reasons, ranging from financial inability to the intentional decision to pull girls out of school and marry them off. For those who do complete secondary school, many are still denied the opportunity to access higher education, based on the belief that too many professional qualifications may render them undesirable to men, for marriage.

From a very early age, our societies teach girls to be followers, to embrace their place as secondary citizens in most spaces, and to submit to the will and desires of the men in their lives, including fathers, brothers, husbands etc. Girls are taught to be seen and not heard, to use their voices only in ‘women’s spaces’, and to accept their conditions and struggles without much objection. The few who dare to break these laws are referred to as rebels, disrupting the natural order and attempting to get rid of our traditional values.

We cannot expect girls who grow up in communities where leadership has a male face, to suddenly understand that they can be leaders too. The long-term social conditioning has a lasting effect on how far girls go and how much they can achieve, both in personal and public circles. There is an urgent need for change in the messages we send to our children, taking into consideration the effects it will have on their lives. When girls are empowered and raised to believe they are as equally human as men, and have the right to equal opportunities, we create a generation of socially aware, independent-minded young women who will no longer be limited by society’s dictates.

And Still We Hope…

Achieving gender equality in politics is not impossible. There is a growing will to make this a reality, backed by numerous initiatives to facilitate the process. The world can be witness to a transition that opens a path for more women to assume positions of power, and fully participate in decision-making, to advance the cause of women. The necessary structures – social, economic, political- need to be put in place to ensure that these visions are realized.

The involvement of young people will contribute a lot to this process, bringing in new realities where a conscious population is the norm, and everyone is aware of their role in the political leadership of their communities. Social constructs that hinder the progress of women in leadership should be reviewed and revised to ensure access to equal opportunities. Access to data should be improved and conditions made favorable to ease meaningful participation.

The initiatives to involve youth and women in political leadership are commendable, but if these basic challenges are not addressed, we may be hanging on to rhetoric for a while longer, without a chance at progressive change. At best, we will continue to see a minimal number of women ascending to power, with little impact felt in the lives of the majority of women.

The support has been immense, the voting power is evident and the contributions of women in politics, as it stands, are appreciated. However, it is time to move away from the politics of clapping and dancing, to contesting elections and taking our rightful places as leaders beside men. In concert, more progress and development will be registered for our different communities and States, as evidenced in places where women are increasingly active in politics.