Tag Archives: Jama Jack

#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.

Advertisements

Self Care: Safeguard Your Joy

What do you do when your fountain runs dry, and all the grass you watered turns brown?
What happens when everyone blames you for letting the grass go brown?
Did you ever really want to water that grass? Were you pretending?
Why did you let your fountain run dry?
Are you jealous of the grass?

© Jama Jack (2017)

 

We’re told life is short, and we should make the best use of our time on Earth. Life can also be very long, depending on how we live it – by our own choices or by whatever fate the Universe thrusts upon us. As I grow up, I am also learning that life can very well be what we make it, as far as choices go, for those who are privileged to have them. So what do you do when your fountain runs dry, and you can no longer water the grass that turned to you for growth?

I’ve been in voluntary service for 18 years now, working with non-profit organisations, NGO, individuals and small pockets of ‘do-gooders’ around the world. I started out at age 10, when most of my peers were still cushioned away from the labour of social justice, rights lobbying, and activism. I’m sometimes told that I do not have a single ‘business bone’ in my body, because one of the hardest things for me to do is monetize my work.  My joy and reward come from seeing something I am a part of, contributed to, or created, come to life and provide solutions. It is in the smiles of the girls we work with after they have finished offloading their troubles, and taken in the encouragement, motivation and love we share with them. It is in so many other things that I sometimes don’t even notice, big and small. It is also in my knowledge of self, an understanding of my purpose in life, and a focus on the mission I’ve laid out for myself.

In carrying out this mission, I am often reminded that, despite all my achievements, I’m still human. I can be weak. I can make mistakes. I can do wrong. I am not infallible. I sometimes fail. I feel pain. I get hurt. I am vulnerable.  And sometimes… I’m too hard on myself.

When you’re used to giving and giving – of your time, your energy, your resources, your knowledge, your heart, your mind, your soul – it becomes hard to deal with periods when giving is difficult. You know, the times when getting out of bed is a task you would rather save for the next day. When your phone rings and you feel a wave on anxiety, willing the person to stop calling and try again some other time. When your task list looks like Gambia’s blueprint, but you know you’re not fit to carry out any tasks. It’s easier to deal with when these things are for you… you can forgive yourself. It’s harder when it feels like a whole world counting on you, waiting on unfinished tasks,  seeking your opinion, searching for your review and commentary. It’s hard to push away the feelings of letting people down, even when you know you can’t be blamed for any of it. Some days are just not it!

For several years now, I have waxed lyrical about self-care and how important it is, especially for people working in difficult situations. “Self-care is not selfish” is a slogan that has been stuck in my head since my MILEAD 2012 class in Accra, in a room with other young women leaders from across Africa and the Diaspora. This was significant because, for many of us, self-care was a foreign concept, despite the emotionally tasking work we do in our communities for the advancement of women and girls. How many stories of rape can you record and document before you have to face your own demons, and seek healing? How many times can you internalize the pains and struggles of the girls and women you work with before they start to manifest in your being, physically and mentally? How much longer are you going to keep pushing, and giving, and serving, and sacrificing, before your soul gives in and demands attention? How much water can you hold and share with the world, before your fountain runs dry? And when this happens, what next?

2017 ended on a high note for me. I got married to the most incredible, loving, and amazing man I know. I got to see my best friend again after more than 8 years. I started a new, better role at work. I got into grad school. I made choices and decisions that were mostly misunderstood, but made me very happy. I got rid of/left toxic spaces and energies that did nothing to contribute to my growth and new journey. And I finally got a vacation… which is where the light bulbs went on.

In that period, I was lost in a world where there wasn’t much to worry about.  I had time for myself, which I could spend with my loved ones, doing the things that I love. It dawned on me that this is something I should practice intentionally, even when there’s no vacation. I spend a lot of time preaching self-care to my tribe of sisters, but hardly ever give myself any. In spells of self-deception, I chew on chocolate and read a book, with thoughts drifting off to the next task, the next project, the next work plan. In that period, however, my time was for me and I chose how to spend it, even when I was getting constant reminders that I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to disappear. I had to be present for my people. I had no excuses. Even when the fountain runs dry.

It runs dry because I hardly take time to clean it up and replenish its contents. It runs dry because it’s too busy pouring into receptacles that take and take, but hardly peep in to see how much is left of the source. It runs dry because it feels too guilty to hold on to the bit of moisture that will fill up its own cracks and keep it from breaking. It runs dry, keeping on with the service of filling up others, even when there’s little left to give. It runs dry because it doesn’t know how to say no.

So I made a promise to myself for 2018: to safeguard my joy. Certainly easier said than done, but it is a promise I’m deliberately trying to fulfill. It is my gift to myself, for those times when the only thing that makes sense to me is me. It is a conscious effort at letting go of all toxic energy, immersing myself in all that’s good for me and society, and making intentional stops to take care of myself. It is also a promise to reconcile with my truth and stop making excuses for it, even when I stand alone, and even when it means losing support. It is understanding that there is only so much one can do, and it’s okay to stop when you can’t afford to, anymore. It’s allowing the phone to ring to its end, without feeling guilty or having to cook up excuses. It’s learning to say no, and knowing it doesn’t negate all the other times I’ve said yes. As I journey into older age, likability is not a goal I’ve set out to achieve. Acceptance of me and my work comes with acceptance of my very nuanced self, and the acknowledgement that I’m not perfect, even if I come across as a perfectionist.

In the end, when I lay down to sleep – at night or for the last time – I hope it will be with a feeling of fulfillment and appreciation of the fact that the fountain gave what it could and held on to what it needed. And in a world with so many fountains, some bigger and deeper, the grass always has a chance to stay evergreen.

LinguereSpeaks: Storytelling As A Means of Empowering Girls And Women

Statement written for and read at launching of ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, a book authored by young Gambian,  Charlotte Ajuwa Smith.

IMG_3050

***

My name is Jama and I’m a writer. It is a great honour for me to be a part of this very important gathering, as we not only launch the book ‘Keep The Dream Alive’, but also celebrate the talent and bravery of Charlotte Ajuwa Smith.

I say talent and there may be no questions about that, but I understand there may be some of us wondering what is so brave about writing a book, publishing and launching it into the market. Isn’t that supposed to be an easy thing, especially in today’s world where we have access to relatively more resources and platforms than before?

That last part is true, but access to these resources is still not equitable, and therefore, some sections of society fare better than others. As with most sectors of growth and development, girls and women are dealt the lesser hand when it comes to access. This is due to a number of reasons, and key among them are the social and cultural environments in which we raise our girls, who grow up to be women.

I look back to the periods of our history where the education of the girl child was seen to be of little or no significance. Where we were taught that the place of a girl is in the home, where she is taught the skills that will make her desirable for marriage and ready to keep a home. Her value lay in how expertly she handled domestic chores and how great a home she could make.

This is not to say that there is no value in learning these skills, as they benefit all of society; the problem begins when we see this role is all a girl – a woman – is good for, therefore neglecting the whole package of wonderful gifts they have been given by God.

One of my favourite writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, once said and I quote “We teach our girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to our girls: You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man.”

How is this relevant to our conversation today, you may ask. First, because she is a storyteller who has taken it upon herself to create a strong example of what an educated and enlightened girl can grow up to become; the spaces we can navigate in our world, and the opportunities we can create for the millions of young girls who are still tied to society’s limits of who and what they can be. She is keeping the dream alive through the stories she tells and the speeches she gives. That is empowerment.

In The Gambia, we do not have a scarcity in the number of women living lives that tell stories of achievement, resistance, resilience and a breaking away from the norm. We are seated in a theatre that was established by one of such women, in the person of Aunty Janet Badjan-Young, creating a centre of excellence for young men and women in The Gambia to explore their talents and grow the creative arts in the country.

We have many more examples of women writing stories that speak to the humanity of girls and women, leaving their footprints (or can I say handprints) in the narrative of our lives – past and present. Again, this is important.

Comparatively, we may still have many more men telling our stories, in oral and written form and using other media around the world. However, there is a growing shift in the ownership of our narratives, and therefore, the kinds of stories that are produced and shared about girls and women.

Now more than ever, we have an opportunity to read and discover stories that provide more empowering and dignified images of girls and women, especially African. With the new generation of writers and storytellers, especially female, there is even greater hope of discovering stories that we can easily relate to, and of characters that look like us and share similar cultures with us.

I go back to Chimamanda in her TED Talk entitled ‘The Danger of the Single Story’. In this talk she says and I quote, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are not untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

The stories that have been told of us may not necessarily be untrue; the roles of the female characters may be roles that we have assumed at one point or the other. However, when we continue to create these roles, we are teaching the girls and women that there are limits to what they can become and this is what we will continue to embody, perhaps never discovering how much more potential we have.

In the few years since I started writing actively and taking my stories seriously, I have learnt lessons that I continue to share. I may still be young and I still have a long way to go in this journey, but each day comes with a learning moment, each one leaving me with more determination to pursue the course. What started as casual storytelling for me has morphed into a journey of telling my story and the stories of other girls and women that I encounter. This has become one of my life’s missions, and though it can be challenging, it is also very fulfilling.

When I write, I am aware that I do not only write for myself. I write for the many people who encounter my work and often find inspiration to also break out of their shells and tell their stories. In doing so, we are reclaiming the narrative of ourselves and are telling our stories from our perspective. We are cancelling the danger of the single story. We are dispelling the myths surrounding our experiences and are telling the world that there is more to us than the boxes we are forced and fit into. We are unwrapping the gifts we have been blessed with, and are sharing them with the bigger world out there. This is what hope looks like. For the next generation of girls and women, this is significant.

Today is significant, as it is yet another manifestation of what we can do when we have the necessary structures and support spaces we need. I believe Charlotte has achieved a milestone, not just for herself, but for every girl and woman, in and out of this hall. In the audience today, there may be a girl, a young woman, looking at her today and telling herself ‘I can do it too’. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the empowerment we need. The ones that come from living examples of possibility, of opportunity, of talent, of grace and of success.

Today, I urge everyone present here today to help in keeping this chain growing. There is no measure of the significant progress we all can enjoy if we encourage everyone in society, regardless of their gender, ethnic group, social standing or other man-made qualification, to reach for their goals and meet their fullest potential.

I take this opportunity to congratulate the author and everyone who’s supported her through this journey. I say this on behalf of the girls and women who will read this book and gain a stronger conviction and clarity of the path ahead of them. It is one thing to have a dream; it is another thing to keep it alive and turn it to reality. I am without doubt that the book we shall launch today will create another road of opportunity, belief, confidence and self-assurance for the many who read it.

We are the present and the future, and to build our country, our work needs to be supported and celebrated. We are the dream; help us keep us alive.

I thank you for your attention.

Jama Jack

17 July 2016

FGM and The Media in The Gambia: A Turning of The Tides

The power of the media in shaping perceptions and influencing public opinion is well-known. The media have transcended time and age, going through various tools and forms, and stayed true to its influencing power.

The fourth estate, housing mainly traditional media, has opened a path for what is now known as the fifth estate, a home for non-mainstream and sometimes unconventional media forms and expressions. Without a doubt, this has had a considerable effect on public opinion, with freedom of expression and easier dissemination of otherwise ‘unpopular’ information as a benchmark.

As with the famous egg and hen debate, we have witnessed similar discussions attempting to determine if the media influences social norms and practices, or whether the opposite would be more accurate. I believe it goes both ways, and this belief was solidified when I did my research for my undergraduate dissertation on the representation of women in the media. However, with increasing mutations in the way we communicate, I would think the media has a greater influence on our daily living and, as such, is one of the most powerful tools in advocacy on various social issues.

FGM Banned in The Gambia

On November 24th, 2015, The Gambia woke up to news of an Executive pronouncement banning the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the country, with immediate effect. The announcement was met with various reactions, but what stood out most were the celebrations from the many activists, groups and organisations that have worked tirelessly for over three decades, calling for an end to the practice in The Gambia. The pronouncement was not an end in itself, but it was a huge means to this end that many have fought for, and can continue to work towards with even more hope for success.

Naturally, these celebrations came with several questions on how much the pronouncement will change, in the absence of specific legislation banning the practice and stipulating the penalties on those who refuse to adhere to this law. This was obviously a sure way of ensuring a permanent legal provision, creating more opportunities for activists and rights advocates to carry out their work. Barely a month later, the National Assembly of The Gambia enacted a bill to this effect, making The Gambia one of eighteen African countries banning the practice of FGM.

The legislation on FGM does not only give renewed hope to end the practice in The Gambia. It comes against a backdrop of great controversy, given the sensitive nature of FGM, and the cultural and religious links that have been used as grounds for its perpetuation. Activists and advocates have received much backlash and opposition – sometimes violent – from individuals and communities that support the practice and guard it jealously. Some have been “persecuted and prosecuted” for their stance against the practice, and for openly denouncing it for its harmful effects on girls and women. For many of these people, this is enough reason to celebrate a public display of political will to end the practice. The opportunities are many, and the channels for advocacy to end FGM have increased, especially on mainstream media. This has not always been the case.

The case of the media

In May 1997, a new GAMTEL policy on media treatment of the issue of female genital mutilation advanced that “the broadcast by Radio Gambia (RG) or Gambia Television (GTV) of any programmes which either seemingly oppose female genital mutilation or tend to portray medical hazard about the practice is forbidden, with immediate effect. So also are news items written from the point of view of combating the practice.” The policy went on to direct that “GTV and RG broadcasts should always be in support of FGM and no other programmes against the practice should be broadcast.”

This policy meant that efforts at the grassroots level, by organisations like the pioneering GAMCOTRAP, would be limited to the communities and not disseminated to a wider audience, possibly leading to more impact. What would have been a channel for easier access to the Gambian people then risked becoming a platform to counter the efforts of these groups in the communities, opening more girls to the possibility of being cut. The negative impact on the campaign at the time is evident, while highlighting a restriction on the media’s role of not just entertaining, but informing and educating the people.

In the years that followed, work to influence the abandonment of FGM in The Gambia continued, and this included training of media personnel to increase coverage on the harmful effects of the practice and the work of civil society organisations in that regard. Notably, there was still a huge gap in coverage which, when filled, would have contributed greatly to the campaign.

Additionally, the nation has been witness to pronouncements by a religious leader, calling for a ban on activism against FGM in The Gambia. The same individual has made regular appearances on the media, extolling the benefits of FGM and advancing the idea that it is a religious obligation. The effects of his statements will be left to your conclusion, given the perceived religious nature of Gambian people and daily living.

In recent years, however, there has been a significant change, perhaps attributable to the increased intensity of the campaign, especially featuring youth voices that were hitherto least prominent in the movement. The use of social media to engage in conversation and share messages on FGM should not be overlooked. There has also been a notable increase in media coverage of FGM since the First National Youth Forum on FGM in The Gambia in 2014, jointly organised by Think Young Women and Safe Hands for Girls in partnership with organisations like GAMCOTRAP, TOSTAN, Wassu Gambia Kafo and other remarkable actors in the field. Stories on related events made it to national TV, but it important to note that these were often broadcast under the umbrella of Gender-Based Violence, often shying away from the specific issue of FGM.

On more than two occasions, as part of a cultural show on the channel, female circumcision was featured as a rite of passage, with images of celebrations in selected communities. Upon examination, this was a statement of support, even if very subtle, and did not do well to complement the work being done to end the practice. Featuring the celebrations as a cultural activity to be valued might have contributed to convincing viewers, even further, that FGM is a culture that should be appreciated and perpetuated, despite the information on its harmful effects on girls and women. There was still so much more work to be done, and little time to do it all.

Welcoming a New Dawn

As expected, following the Executive pronouncement and the consequent enactment of specific legislation against FGM, there has been a flood of stories on both print and audio-visual media in The Gambia and abroad. This is a significant turn, and a commendable one, especially since efforts are now being shifted to intensify sensitisation , including on the new legislation. The change on the local front will go a long way in raising more awareness and hopefully influencing a voluntary abandonment of the practice, which may be more effective and permanent than abandonment resulting from the new deterrent. The local media is indeed catching up to this new wave.

On the night of January 16th, GRTS aired one of its most interesting shows, “The Forum”, which features conversations on social issues, guided by professionals and experts on the subject. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the night’s discussion would focus on FGM, and would feature opinions from professional health personnel, including one of the most renowned gynaecologists in The Gambia, at present. It promised to be an interesting discussion, further enriched by the phone-in feature that gave viewers the chance to call and share their thoughts on the topic. The expectations were met, and the discussions looked deeply at the effects of FGM especially on the physical, psychological and psychosocial wellbeing of girls.

When the phone lines opened, a few viewers called in to express appreciation for the program, as it had given them a new understanding of the dangers of FGM. One lady remarked that it may be too late for those who’d already undergone the practice, but there is still a big opportunity to protect the girls who are currently at risk. Judging from the calls that followed, this was not an isolated belief and the protection of those girls is a possibility to be explored, with the new legislation as solid backing.

The admission reminded me of the reactions of participants at the aforementioned youth forum, when they were exposed to images showing the health effects of FGM on girls for the first time. Outlooks were changed and resolves were strengthened, fuelled by a new understanding of its gravity. This, in essence, represented the power of the media in changing perceptions.

Conclusion

While the next few years will test the effectiveness of these new provisions and the commendable change, there is reason to remain hopeful for an FGM-free generation. It takes off from the decisions made today and the manner in which work is done to this effect, bringing together all actors and stakeholders from government and civil society to ensure targets are met and girls are protected from harm.

Addressing the issue of FGM also means examining support mechanisms for the girls and women who now live with the complications of the practice. A lot of attention is focused on prevention, but it is also important to look into care and restorative measures to facilitate the regaining of dignity and the maintenance of good health.

The more awareness raised among the people, the greater the chances of eliminating this practice and ensuring women fully enjoy their human rights, especially to life, dignity, sexual and reproductive health among others.

The media is the major gateway to raising this awareness and awakening people to the realities of Female Genital Mutilation and its effects on the health and wellbeing of women and girls. This new turn will go a long way to complement sensitisation efforts in communities, and contribute to more success in the campaign to end FGM in The Gambia.

As highlighted, the ban on the practice in The Gambia has opened up new opportunities, and that is worthy of a moment of celebration, as the relevant actors take the next steps to realising concrete change.

The New Year Resolution That Worked

The year 2015 has been an interesting one for me, taking me through all of my elements and rocking up a myriad emotions in more ways than one.

I am not usually one to make New Year Resolutions, for the simple reason that they are pushed to the back of my mind by reality and, therefore, rendered considerably pointless. However, at the beginning of 2015, I made one resolution and pinned it on my Twitter profile.

 

twitter resoultion

You may ask why post it on Twitter and not on the walls of my room, or somewhere more visible. My resolution was inspired by the Twitter trend #FeministNewYearResolutions and through the course of the year, has been a great reminder for me, as I navigate spaces with my voice and thoughts as a feminist.

Making that promise to myself, and to the world which followed that trend, ensured that I shared my views on feminism and a great many issues affecting women and girls without reservation, and with no apology.

The online ‘streets’ can be especially ruthless for those sharing unpopular views that diverge from the usual conservative life values we have been taught to embrace as normal.

Identifying as a feminist has brought me my fair share of vitriol and trolling, especially online, with suggestions that my choice is an anomaly because feminism goes against my African values. Ha!

In past years, trolling and (disrespectful) opposition to my views would get to me and sometimes lead me to question my beliefs, lending credibility to what I have now come to consider as no different from noise. Not this year; and I daresay the conscious decision and the thought process that went into coming up with that resolution helped me in holding the fort strong and remaining unmoved by the negativity.

Proclaiming my feminist identity, especially on Twitter, took to a new level when I changed my name to Jollof Feminist, further strengthening the feminist branding of my page, especially for the benefit of new followers. This change, in itself, warranted comments that I would rather not delve into, but choose to replace with how they made me feel.

A few months ago, I was in conversation with one of the members of the diplomatic corps in The Gambia, and our discussion centered on Gambian women’s voices online and the reception to this new and growing normal. We explored the negative reactions to feminism as a concept or way of life, and I had another eureka moment.

I came to the realisation that people are not as angry about feminism itself, as they are at feminists, especially when these latter happen to be women. Their opposition, I concluded, came from a place of discomfort and displeasure at seeing women use their voices to fill up our spaces, as opposed to the previous norm of being seen and never heard. My conclusion was reinforced by the opposite reactions I saw towards men speaking on the same issues, even when simply regurgitating opinions and think pieces from women in the same spaces.

This is not to say that some male feminists do not get attacked for their views, but this can never be compared on the same scale as the attacks on female feminists. This understanding awakened a new fire in me, solidifying the resolution to remain unapologetic about my being a feminist and, consequently, my feminist views and opinions.

Without a doubt, it has been a challenging year and I have found myself in more debates on feminism and, especially, sexism than I care to enumerate. Sometimes, the exchanges would get too heated, but I pride myself in the calmness and focus with which I now maneuver through them, ensuring that my points are made in all respect, but my views are not watered down and trampled upon as irrelevant or an overreaction.

A friend once asked me if it was all worth it, and if I wasn’t bothered by the negative attention I would probably get from engaging in debates and arguments online. My response was simple: it took me a lot of learning and decisions to get here and I am very much convinced about the necessity of what I do. If there’s anything worthy I am doing, it is this.

Reading through this piece, one would think that it has all been ice, blood and fire with my experiences as a vocal feminist online. However, I am grounded in reality by the many positive reactions to these efforts, directly and indirectly.

I have been humbled and honoured in equal measure by the many young women who reach out to express gratitude for these efforts, and explain how it has inspired them to speak up about their experiences and struggles, as well as those of other women and girls.

I have also engaged with several men, young and old, who acknowledge the importance of our voices and our stories, and who vow to be more sensitive especially in navigating our shared spaces on the grounds of their male privilege.

I had an acquaintance reach out to say he has become more mindful of what he says about women when he is around me. I took that as a first step to change, while making obvious my wish that this would become normal for him and he wouldn’t require my presence to check what he says and does, in relation to women.

I have been lucky to find and engage with other feminists, especially young Africans, who have provided more learning opportunities for me, and even more affirmation of the importance of the work we do in simply being ourselves and making our voices heard. The solidarity on Twitter is priceless and the experience is one I am truly grateful for this year.

And for me, that is enough worth and result for the work being done by the many like me, who have decided to no longer be silenced. Discovering the power in our voices and the greater power in using them to tell our own stories has been enough motivation to remain true to my promise and ensure my resolution was seen through to the end of the year.

Where reality has often pushed previous resolutions to the bin in my head, this year has been different. Perhaps, this is because I made a resolution that was in complete alignment with my daily living and activities, both at work and through private ventures. In alignment with my beliefs and what I have come to accept and embrace as the purpose of my life, for as long as it is needed in our world.

I made a resolution at the start of the year, and through the course of living it, I have been blessed with countless experiences and lessons, each one reaffirming the validity of my choices and the necessity of my life’s work. I would cheat and make this my resolution for the coming year, but it would be a repetition of something that has already taken firm root in my being and would flourish even without a reminder.

In 2015, I refused to apologise and stood firm with my beliefs, but I still believe I can be more, do more, give more and embrace the wholeness of my being.

So for 2016, I choose one phrase to guide me: BE INTENTIONAL. In everything I choose to be, say, do and be a part of. Let’s see how this one works out.

As we go into another year, with resolutions or not, I thank you for taking this journey with me and for reading my blogs, even when they come from a very confused place. I am truly appreciative of the support I get through Linguere and pray that it will lead to the realisation of the plans I have to make this bigger.

Have a very awesome 2016! 🙂

#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.

#GambiaAt50 : A Tribute To The Sheros Of Our Journey To Independence

I celebrate a force that is too often forgotten
When we share the stories of our journey
Our struggles, our negotiations, the final agreement
That brought us freedom on that fateful day, 1965.

This force… she was a Mother
To the founding fathers and their brothers
In the struggle
She raised, nurtured, and cared for
Groomed the leaders we cheered for
In the history books, she might not really be catered for
But her mark remains indelible in the hero she bore and guided
Blessed and prayed for.

This force… she was a Wife
The proverbial woman behind our successful man
The quiet engine driving the vehicle of change, our change
She was the one, his biggest supporter, his comfort when the days were gloomy
She saw our hero at his weakest and most vulnerable
Yet cloaked him with her sutura
Filling him with the strength he needed when the sun rose again
She waited through the long nights of late meetings
Then soothed aching feet and filled a growling stomach
She would eventually stand beside him, celebrating their victory
Thanking God for the wise counsel she gave when he was doubtful of his plans
To us, she was Mrs. Founding Father
To him, she was Bilqis… of love, hope, strength and loyalty.

This force… she was a Guewel, too
Singing the many praises of our hero,
Lifting his spirits when they were downcast and trodden
Reminding him of the glory of his ancestors who’d taken similar paths, in years past
She glorified him, Faye biram penda waagan, Njie kuli jatta njie, Cham baabel demba cham
He was Jawara…diko, Jahumpa, Dibba Chaaku,  John Massar
He was Small… yet of neither small feats, nor little accomplishments
This force, she exalted the royalty in their blood, celebrated their greatness
And propelled our nation to visions of the glory of Jollof and Sine, Kaabu and Manding
Remember her… this force.

Sometimes she would manifest her prowess in groups
Of mothers, sisters, aunties and nieces… in compins rallying support
She was the voice that rang across districts and constituencies
Carrying her message over the hills at Hella and the fields at Pachaar
She built trust and confidence among the people
And when the time came to cast votes, she echoed the great stories of the struggle
And linked the threads, weaving the fabric of our history.

Our force, she was a philantropist
Caring for many, her actions a reflection of the beauty in her heart
She was a teacher… beyond the home and neighbourhood
She shared her wisdom with hundreds in the classrooms
From Banjul to Fatoto, Serekunda to Kristi Kunda
Building the minds of generations
And shaping the future of our country.

We wonder if she just stayed in the background, bidding her time
But our force, she was at the forefront too
Mutating from follower and supporter to an active participant
In the politics of our baby nation
Setting the pace for many women that will come after her
Making them believe in the power of their thoughts, the validity of their dreams
Dispelling the myth that we were only made to be seen and not heard.

But this couldn’t, shouldn’t be a surprise
For she descended from the unrivaled Linguere, queen of Jollof
Leader, Mother, Giver of Care
Leadership, thus a genetic trait
Passed down through kingdoms, nations and republics
Clearing the path for my generation of young leaders.

So when we share the stories of our journey to independence
Let us remember this force
Whose mark still shines in all we do
I pay tribute to the many women who stood tall
And took their rightful places in shaping the history of this country
The giants on whose shoulders we now stand
The Lingueres whose place in history should never, can never be replaced.
This is a tribute to the Gambian woman.