The mayor of Coumbacara speaking during one of Alianza's activities

What does it mean to be a woman in Senegal?

Debora Lucque

What if I were born in Senegal here in the Casamance region?

I close my eyes and I try to imagine the scenario as realistically as I possibly can.

In this alternate reality, I am married to a man. I might even be in a polygamous marriage, like a third of Senegalese women. I have at least 3 children. I cultivate nuts which I sell at the local market together with some fruits. Additionally, I take care of the house helped by my soon-to-be-teenage daughter who has to juggle between the house chores and going to school.

I never go out in the evening, at least not with my female friends. First of all, I am married. Secondly, I don’t want people to think of me as a bad wife.

Would I have experienced gender-based violence? Quite certainly my answer is affirmative. Chances are the violence was inflicted domestically either in a physical, sexual or verbal form [1] .

I open my eyes again, comforted to be back in my reality. Nevertheless, I know all too well that what I just pictured in my mind is real life for most Senegalese women, particularly in the Casamance region.

“What does it mean exactly to be a woman in Senegal?” is the overarching question I have been struggling to find an answer to, mostly provoked by different activities my fellow EU Aid Volunteers and I organized last December.

The interview to Ramata Sall, fierce activist for Women’s Rights in Senegal, the open discussion with my team members on women and new masculinity, and the workshop on gender-based violence at Kolda’s Youth Center, they were all crucial in providing me with pieces of the answer. Yet, the conundrum is far from being solved.

So, again, what does it mean to be a woman in Senegal?

It means that even if you belong to the majority of the country’s population [2], as a woman you face huge discriminations. And if it’s true that those discriminations are affecting women from all walks of life, the situation is direr for women living in rural areas. The reason is that Senegal remains deeply entrenched in its patriarchal roots. Even the Family Law clearly states that men are chefs de famille meaning that the husband can rightfully take any decision related to the family. It’s the husband who decides on the wellbeing of his children. He is the one to determine not just how much money to give the wife for the daily expenses but if he even wants to give her any. It’s the husband who decides whether or not to allow his wife to go to the doctor. It’s not surprising, then, that for women it’s extremely difficult to tap into their decision-making power when in the eyes of the society and the law they have none.

In a nutshell, as a woman you are both the housekeeper, and the caregiver, often times even the breadwinner of the family, yet, paradoxically, for any family-related issue you are not entitled to decide on anything without your husband’s permission.

And the general tendency is to preserve the discriminatory status quo. On the one side (the male side), it’s better not to threaten the current social balance for fear of what it might unleash. On the other side (the female side), it’s wiser not to challenge the current status quo, mainly for self-preservation reasons.

Recently, I have asked a girl whether she or her female friends have ever tried to ask any of their male family figures why they can’t go out in the evenings, unlike their brothers or male cousins. I was flabbergasted when she replied:

“Not really. Even though we know it’s not fair we can’t do much. That’s how things work here. If a girl tries to speak up and protest she’ll probably get beaten.”

Thankfully, there are women who refuse to accept the status quo. Women who, thanks to their daily fight against discriminations, are playing a crucial role in changing the paradigm. It’s the case of Ramata Sall, member of the Association of Senegalese Female Jurists [3] and the coordinator of Kolda’s Boutique de Droit. She advocates for Women’s Rights with such determination and passion that you cannot not fall victim of her charisma, pledge your support and make her fight your own. Her fierceness is inspiring and so is her philosophy:

“You don’t reclaim your rights. You must learn to grab them.”

Ramata Sall

If you want to have a clearer idea of the situation on gender-based violence in the Casamance region as well as on the work Ramata has been doing so far, I highly recommend you to read her interview on Alianza por la Solidaridad website[4].

Members of the Club of young women leaders during our workshop on gender-based violence.

Next to Ramata, there’s another group of young women who is contributing to societal change. It’s the Club of young women leaders[5] created by the initiative of Kolda’s Youth Center with the support of UNFPA Senegal. Girls between 15 and 25 years old who are members of the Club meet regularly every week to discuss ideas and organize different actions in the neighboring villages.

Amongst their activities, it’s worth mentioning the campaign #TouchePasAMaSoeur (#DoNotTouchMySister), and the “New Deal”. The former is a campaign meant to raise public awareness and, more importantly, to put an end to the nefarious practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). The latter is an initiative with a two-fold aim: to prevent early marriage and to reach the goal of “zero teen pregnancy”. In its practical terms, the New Deal is nothing more than a pact amongst the girls of the Club and their parents which stands on 3 pillars:

  • The parent’s promise not to marry their daughters before they turn 18;
  • The girls’ pledge not to get pregnant before marriage;
  • The strengthening of the sense of leadership of these young women.

Until now, more than 8000 girls together with their parents have adhered to the pact.

So, maybe the situation is not entirely discouraging as it seems. Maybe, when I close my eyes, I can picture a different, yet still possible, scenario: like Ramata and the young women leaders, I am a Senegalese woman striving to change the status quo. And this makes all the difference.

[1] According to the national study GESTES (Groupe d’études et de recherches sur les sociétés et le genre), the majority of all the cases of violence against women happened at the domestic level (2015). Morevorer, 37 % of women between 15 and 49 years old, in Kolda region, have suffered domestic violence (EDS, 2017).

[2] According to the National Statistics and Demographic Agency, of the 15 726 037 people living in the country   7 896 040 are women (50,2%) while 7 829 997 are men (49,8%). (2018)

[3] Association des Juristes Sénégalaises.

[4] For the French version of the interview click here.

[5] Club des Jeunes Filles Leaders.

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