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Benin: Women’s associations fight to include women in decision-making

It’s 7 a.m. on a Saturday in mid-September. A morning grey fills the sky in Cotonou, the economic capital of Benin. But the bad weather hasn’t stopped young female members of several NGOs, as well as activists and political actors, from gathering at the headquarters of Réseau Ouest-Africain des Jeunes Femmes Leaders, a network for young women leaders in West Africa.

The women are here for the presentation of a report on electoral conflict in Benin. The network of young women leaders organized an initiative called “peacebuilding month” to commemorate the International Day of Peace, September 21. Mariette Montcho is the president of the network. She says, “Young people and women are the real victims of conflict situations. It is therefore essential to involve them and educate them.”

In Benin, women are marginalized in decision-making processes and bodies, particularly during crises. Women account for 50.7% of the population of Benin, which is estimated at 12 million people. But there are just 78 women amongst the 1,815 elected officials in the country. Of these, 31 are in municipal assemblies. Only five of the 24 government ministers are women. Just eight of the 83 parliamentary deputies are women.

Françoise Agbaholou is the national coordinator of an NGO called Women in Law and Development in Africa. She explains: “The poor representation of women and the question of participation in decision-making bodies is the result of socio-economic constraints, the high rate of illiteracy amongst women, the feminization of poverty, the lack of empowerment of women, their low interest in politics, and the problem of status of those who dare to be interested.”

As part of their effort to involve more women in decision-making bodies, Benin adopted a law on equal rights in 2019, but has struggled to implement it.

Mrs. Montcho says her network of women leaders was not involved at any level of the decision-making process and wasn’t consulted on measures such as physical distancing or market closures. Other associations and networks lament that they were also not consulted in the decision-making process.

In West Africa, women are on the front line of the health crisis because they often hold precarious jobs in the informal sector. The pandemic has increased women’s vulnerability as they lose their incomes. Food insecurity has increased for women and as has the incidence of gender-based violence. Most women have limited access to information on the health crisis, and limited access to basic social services such as health and education. These factors have further widened inequalities between men and women.

In response to the COVID-19 crisis in Benin, the government took a series of measures, including mandatory mask-wearing in public places and closing beaches, places of worship, and bars. They also established “public-health cordons” encircling 10 at-risk municipalities in southern Benin, as well as a ban on circulation of public transport vehicles.

There are many women’s organizations and networks that could have been consulted to help develop and implement these measures. Mrs. Montcho says one challenge is that, “Civil society organizations do not work in synergy…. There are associations with the same mandates, the same objectives, the same targets, and which work in isolation. It is up to CSOs to play a role and take responsibility.”

The international NGO CARE works in Benin and is also trying to integrate women into decision-making processes. Aqueline Behanzin Dosseh is the program coordinator at CARE. She says, “We must ensure that women are represented in consultation frameworks at the local level.”

Ms. Dosseh says that officials are aware of the groups that exist in their areas. She adds that leaders of these women’s groups need to be incorporated into consultation frameworks at the local, municipal, departmental, and national level. She says it’s necessary to create a process for mobilizing and for communicating, both though media and through people who have a big influence on others.

Women’s associations and networks plan to continue lobbying to effectively integrate women into decision-making bodies in Benin.

This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

Photo: A women’s village savings and loans group in Benin.