Training for Freedom in Senegal

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

Mark Brenner interviews Amsatou Sow Sidibe

AMSATOU SOW SIDIBE is Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for the Study of Peace and Human Rights at University Cheikh Anta Diop at Dakar, Senegal.  She is also a member of the National Elections Commission in Senegal and President of the West African Working Women’s Network (RAFET).

Amsatou was interviewed in Amherst, MA in July, 2000 while attending the International Institute of the Center for Popular Economics.  CPE is a twenty-year-old collective of political economists who teach economics for activists.  For the past three years CPE has been working in collaboration with RAFET to develop an African network of popular educators.  The interview was conducted and translated for Against the Current by Mark Brenner.

Q: First, I wanted to thank you for taking the time out of this busy week to have our interview.  I’ll get right into it: I wanted to start with a brief discussion of RAFET.  How was this network created; what are its origins; how did you have the idea to create it; how did it form; in what year?  Could you tell me a little bit about its history?

Amsatou Sidibe: During the International Women’s Conference in Beijing in September 1995, representatives of several African NGOs held a meeting at Huairou, about sixty kilometers outside of Beijing to discuss the issue of women’s rights in Africa.

At that time, these representatives of various women’s organizations expressed the desire to create a network of African working women.  Among these NGOs were people from Senegal, from Rwanda, from Guinea, from Togo. When we got back to Dakar, we established RAFET-Senegal in February 1996.

Q: But why working women, as opposed to women generally?

A.S.: Because we are very dispersed.  There are many different women’s organizations already.  But women have a particular orientation towards work, and we didn’t want to spread ourselves too thin as an organization, so we decided to concentrate on working women.  But we always use the International Labor Organization’s slogan that “all women are working women.”

Q: That’s for sure.

A.S.: Work affects all women, and work is related to all women’s rights.  In May 1997 Senegal organized an international RAFET founding conference.  We invited representatives of NGOs and trade unions from several other African countries, such as Rwanda and Guinea, etc. The conference was opened by the President of Senegal, and it was at that conference that RAFET was established.

Q: Presently, in which countries are you organized?

A.S.: The network encompasses all the countries of Africa.  We divided the network into regions, each with a regional coordinator: Northern Africa, with the coordinator coming from Morocco; Central and Southern Africa, with the coordinator coming from Rwanda; West Africa, with the coordinators coming from Guinea and Togo; East Africa is without a regional coordinator at the moment, but the Rwandan section is in charge of enlarging our membership in that area.

At the founding conference we also adopted the constitution and by-laws of the organization, and established a five-year plan, encompassing the different areas of our activity.

Q: But RAFET is really doing work in how many countries?

A.S.: Well, we’ve established sections in Guinea, in Rwanda, in Morocco and in Senegal, but our Rwanda section is organized through another organization, and our Morocco section is not too dynamic.  We’re the most organized in Senegal (where we’re based).

We also do a lot of training, organizing workshops and going out into the field.  Of course our audience isn’t in the formal sector or the private sector, but the women in the informal sector, the poorest ones.

Q: So you are targeting outreach to women in the informal sector?

A.S.: Above all. Our members are laundresses, women who pound millet for sale, women who are tanners, women who prepare fish. We do training with these women in areas such as social protection.  For example, we had a day-long workshop where we met with several of these women in Dakar to discuss what workplace problems they faced.

We worked forward from this to discuss what was needed to solve their problems.  For example, several fish preparers explained to us how they have to work with sharp knives, and how they often get cuts and other injuries on the job, which frequently lead to illnesses from infections, and how they have no insurance and often no one in the household to care for them.

Similarly, the tanners often have to work outside, there is frequently bad weather, and wet hides are heavy and difficult to move, leading to injuries.

This led us, after a bit, to work to integrate the same sorts of insurance that exist in the private sector into their environments.  They began to contribute small amounts of money, twenty-five cents a day, to get up to 6,000 CFA (approx.  $8) per month to be able to buy group insurance.

Our members let us know that this was turning out to be too expensive, but we are trying to work out other approaches to group insurance.  For example, in Mali they have created a sort of savings/insurance system that Oxfam America is interested in us trying to replicate in Senegal.

Beyond that, we try to spend lots of time in the field with our members at their jobs, listening to their problems, trying to help solve them. We also do trainings for women on their legal rights, rights at work, the social security system, rights as a family.

We did these sorts of training with women journalists, and women from a variety of other backgrounds.  Why journalists?  Well, we believe that they are really important in disseminating this information.

What else do we do?  Well we are very active in trying to get our regional sections inside the group established.  We think this is really important, because it’s in the regions that people from the countryside can really participate in what RAFET is doing.

Just recently we created a resource center for working women.  It is a place where women can come with their problems, have someone listen to them and try to help them find solutions to their problems.  Right now I think it’s fair to say that we are one of the most active organizations addressing women’s issues in Senegal.

Q: What are the official goals of the organization?

A.S.: Well, the most general goal is to secure the improvement of the situation of women workers.  We also work against all sorts of discrimination faced by working women, both through legislative and more “on the ground” channels.

We also are working to ensure that the laws of our countries are harmonized with international law and that they ratify other international conventions designed to improve the status of women (such as from the ILO and the UN).  And once these conventions are ratified, that our laws themselves are purged of any discriminatory elements against women.

We want our laws to conform to these international conventions.  We are struggling for women to gain access to decision-making positions (within government).  We are also struggling so that rural women have more rights, indeed first that they know their rights, since most are not even aware of their rights under the law!

We also put a lot of emphasis on education for our members.  In sum, we work generally for the promotion of women’s rights.

Q: Since most folks aren’t going to know the situation in Senegal too well, could you describe a bit the context of work for women there?

A.S.: You know, there are very few women working in the formal sector, that is to say working in the public sector, or in private businesses.  Women either work only at home, or, given the difficulties of life, they create little jobs which together constitute the informal sector, and which is not organized or regulated by the state.

There is not legislation covering this sector, these people don’t have organized rights, so it’s often women who are left to figure things out for themselves, to use their own individual resourcefulness.  You know that term don’t you?

Q: Very well. I also have to say that I think women in Africa are better at being resourceful than men. I knew many more men who were unemployed and did nothing at all when I lived in the Ivory Coast than I did women.  Women frankly were much more resourceful.

A.S.: There are also women in the countryside, who are the essential part of the population.  They work in very difficult conditions.  There is much arid soil, they have to travel great distances to get water, to get firewood.  Not to mention the dry periods where there is practically nothing to eat, and women often go several days without selling anything because they have been unable to grow crops.

They grow up in a very poor environment.  Senegal is poor, globally speaking.  And then there is the society.  Women grow up in a social system that is very inegalitarian, with strong stereotypes that maintain that men are superior to women—that men have to go out in the world, to be involved in politics, to engage the rest of the world, but that women have to stay home, cook, do housework and procreate.

Q: It sounds like things here.

A.S.: It is problems of culture, social problems, that confine women and for which the formal economy does not take responsibility.  Q: Is it made more difficult by religion, or does that contribute equally with traditional culture?

A.S.: With religion, let me give you an example.  A woman who is widowed, according to the religion, must not work for a period of four months and ten days, because she has to follow the “legal period of widowhood.”

During this period she cannot re-marry, she stays at home, she doesn’t work. And obviously she is not compensated because she is not working.  This causes all sorts of other problems.  She could lose her job because she cannot work.

Religion also reinforces other stereotypes.  It sets up the man as head of the household.  He has what we call puissance maritale (power of marriage) and puissance paternele (power of fatherhood).

That is to say, authority over the children belongs to the man, in general, and only in exceptional circumstances to the woman.  And this is particularly bad, because the woman, in her psychology, is taught that she is inferior—not that she is a person of value, who can work, who can participate in political decision-making.  For her, she is a subaltern, it’s normal, that’s how it is.

Q: What are some of the effects that you perceive from this phenomenon of globalization and structural adjustment in your country?  What manifestations of economic integration do you perceive through your work with RAFET?

A.S.: Globalization has many negative effects, especially for women.  First off, with structural adjustment there has been a great deal of job loss. And when employers have to choose between a man or a woman for a particular job, they think that women have to take care of children, are going to be away from work more frequently and so they often prefer to hire men.

On top of that, when husbands lose their jobs, it’s the women who are forced to run around like crazy trying to find a way to feed their children and make ends meet. Structural adjustment is completely oblivious of the social aspects of the economy, and its biggest victims are women.

Women are more numerous, 52% of the population, they are also the poorest.  Thus, in terms of poverty women are also the ones suffering the most under structural adjustment, and through them their children are suffering.

I worked with UNICEF in this one village on children’s health issues, and there were women who were pregnant, who would regularly go two days or more without anything to eat. And when they gave birth, their babies would weigh next to nothing.  They were incredibly fragile, with all the risks that come with malnourishment, and all the implications for their later health and well-being.

Thus with structural adjustment it is clearly women who have suffered a great deal. Moreover, with the man, he can figure something out for himself, go find something to eat somewhere, but the women, they are left there, with their children.  They cannot go try and find food somewhere, leaving their children behind.

Q: How have you organized to combat these negative effects inside of RAFET?  What are your strategies, even if you haven’t implemented them yet?

A.S.: Our strategy is to first put a lot into education and training of women.  We believe that without education and training women aren’t even going to have the means to solve these problems.

This is our first battleground.  Why?  We insist that young girls need to go to school.  We also put a lot of emphasis that women need to know how to gain access to social protection guaranteed them by law. We also fight for women to gain access to resources, such as land.

This is a really important problem, because the law is unequal.  Or even where the law is neutral, in practice women have fewer rights to land than do men. It is also very important for us to fight for women to gain access to credit.  Most women don’t currently have access to credit, they don’t have money or the guarantees necessary to gain access to loans.

So fighting against poverty is an essential component of our strategy, as is training.  We also talk with the government quite a bit, pushing them to integrate a gender analysis into their programs, and deriding the fact that women are so neglected.

It’s really important for us to see women in decision-making positions.  We feel like when women are in these positions they can’t forget their sisters.  It will make it more likely that women will be able to truly participate in and benefit from government programs.  This is why we are demanding a system of quotas, or even more a system of parity for women (in government), perhaps not permanently but at least transitionally, until women are in a social position where they can stand on their own.

We also have strategies regarding women’s health, because we know that women, given the state of their health, the lack of resources, and public health infrastructure, can’t progress.  A sick woman can’t work. She needs the minimum of vitamins and nutrients to be healthy enough to work. So health seems essential, along with education and training.

Q: You come back frequently to education and training.

A.S.: Absolutely.  Right now our members are there, in need, asking us to lend them money, so they can form a cooperative, so we work to save some money from amongst the membership.

It seems fundamental that we be doing things.  If RAFET wants to survive we have to be doing things, we can’t sit around with our arms folded, that’s over. Women staying at home, for us at RAFET, that’s over.

We do a lot to help with health issues too. For example, I have done extensive work on issues of genital mutilation in Senegal, and helped female legislators in our country push for national legislation to protect women from this practice.  I was even called as an expert witness, and worked lobbying other legislators in the national assembly.

We won that one too! And we’re not done. Right now I’m attacking this issue of puissance paternele. I think it’s why people in Senegal say, “that Amsatou Sow Sidibe, if we don’t pay attention there’s no telling where she’s going to take us.”

So really we are here to struggle.  We are aware that without women, Senegal cannot develop.  We’re fifty-five percent of the population.  It’s out of the question that women remain in the state they find themselves in at present.

Q: Returning to the question of education, I wanted to ask you how you see this program of popular economics that we are working on (RAFET and the CPE)?  Within RAFET, what is the importance of economics training for the organization?

A.S.: We see it as all the more important, because the economy is the mother of it all when it comes to fighting poverty.  Aside from the question of education, it is important for women to know the rules of the global economy and who makes them. How can women be actively engaged, or even run their little business if they don’t understand this?

For us it’s vital to understand how the economy is organized, what are the risks, the rules and the strategies needed to run the economy.  Indeed, more and more women are confronted by the global economy, and even engaged in international commerce themselves! They need to understand the rules of international finance.

And through popular education, women can get to the point where they no longer need to accept everything that they are told or offered, to submit themselves to whatever they face, without reacting.

All women experience these problems.  For example, myself, I now understand the tendencies of the International Monetary Fund. I know how they react, how they ignore the social consequences of their policy prescriptions.  The World Bank, the same.

All this allows me to react, to tell the government, “hey, you can accept this, but you will have to also adapt to our situation.” For me this is really important.  If the Bank isn’t going to take account of social needs, we have to put pressure on the government of Senegal to do it.

With globalization, we women can’t remain confined to our respective countries.  We need to make ourselves heard internationally, to make links internationally.  That’s why, for example, I am very pleased with Americans like those here, who are interested in understanding our point of view, from the grassroots.

I think this is going to offer openings from all directions—from us, as well as from others.  People say that the world is globalized now. But the countries of the North don’t concern themselves with us, or our problems—it’s the strongest who rule, and whose problems get addressed.

Now that we are conscious of the processes and structures which create this dynamic, we can work to articulate our position, and to defend ourselves.  This way we can work to really integrate the world in ways that we want to see, without exclusion or marginalization.  Leopold Senghor (first post-independence president of Senegal), at the beginning of our independence, talked about the civilization of the universal.  That’s not what we are living today.

Q: On this point, I wanted to ask you a question.  Here in the United States there is a very active movement working to insert itself into the process of globalization.  People are of the opinion that globalization in its present form is nothing but a corporate-controlled, corporate-dominated globalization process dominated by commercial imperatives.

This movement, however, wants to take control of its destiny.  It’s not that it rejects the idea of globalization, cultural exchange or human interaction between people and countries, but it rejects the idea that this needs to be controlled by multinational corporations, and institutions like the World Bank and the IMF.

This manifested itself most prominently in the recent demonstrations in Seattle and Washington D.C. Did folks in Senegal hear about these protests, and how were they perceived?

A.S.: I think Africans looked at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in a very bad light.  We had to struggle so hard to be heard at all, and in the end we weren’t listened to. We had the impression that everything was arranged at the behest of Northern countries, without taking account of the needs of Southern countries.

Q: But that was inside the WTO, and there were tens of thousands of people outside protesting these very issues.  What did you think of that?

A.S.: We thought it was wonderful! We have to protest! And that’s why I think, regardless of what others say, that globalization is about a lot more than economics—it’s about new awareness and the things that raise this awareness.

For example, concerning women in poverty, when there are international conferences, there are not just westerners who go. There are African countries represented there too, and there are other institutions like the Group of 77.  These are moments when we can talk about the situation of everyone, including women, where we are made aware of the situation in various African countries, and where we work to try and find solutions.

In the declarations that come out of these conferences, Beijing, Beijing+5, etc., there are always huge chapters on poverty! Because we know that poverty is in Asia and in Africa.  And this is why organizations like CPE and Oxfam America get involved in places like Africa.

We know how things work now—which is why I was saying just a bit ago that globalization is not uniformly negative.

Q: No, not at all!  We can resist together!  All those who are on the margins as opposed to those who currently control the process.  This is why we were protesting here in the United States.  We realized that we were outside of a process that affects too many aspects of our life to be a spectator.

If those in the driver’s seat right now don’t want to democratize the process, then we’ll democratize it ourselves.  I imagine that there is similar thinking in Senegal.

A.S.: It’s true. You know the people will eventually have the last word, not the authorities.

Q: On another topic, how was the change in political leadership taken in Senegal?  Was it bitter for some, welcomed by others?  How did it go over?

A.S.: For sure. The party in power had been there for forty years, and they were disengaged.  Of course people were dissatisfied.  Those who have been fighting for power for the last twenty-five years have now won, and of course they’re happy.  But I believe that young people really wanted an alternative.  They were saying “An Alternative or Death.”

Q: And this came from what, this dissatisfaction?

A.S.: Poverty, lack of jobs.

Q: The same problems which plague nearly every African country—the people saw the leaders had no solutions, and had had forty years to come up with some, so they voted them out?

A.S.: That’s right.

Q: Were there also corruption problems in the old government?

A.S.: Oh, there is lots of corruption, and it really limits the opportunities we have to do something about poverty.

AMSATOU SOW SIDIBE is Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for the Study of Peace and Human Rights at University Cheikh Anta Diop at Dakar, Senegal.  She is also a member of the National Elections Commission in Senegal and President of the West African Working Women’s Network (RAFET).

ATC 91, March-April 2001