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Senegal: Women fight for leadership in local government

It’s almost 10 p.m. on an October night and it’s 31 degrees in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. But the street in front of Dieuppeul-Derklé’s town hall is teeming with passers-by. Inside the town hall, Aminata Faye is still in her office. Ms. Faye has been a municipal councilor in Dieuppeul-Derklé since the last local elections in 2014. She is in the midst of the nomination period for the next local elections, scheduled for January 2022.

In 2010, a law was introduced in Senegal which requires that half of all candidates in every political party must be women. The law doubled the number of women in elected positions. But even when they are elected, most women do not occupy leadership positions. Instead, they are limited to smaller, local roles such as municipal councilor. 

Ms. Faye says, “With my 40 years of experience in politics, I am sure that if I were a man, I would be mayor, or at least a candidate for mayor.”

Despite her long experience years in politics and unwavering commitment, Ms. Faye has not yet risen past the position of municipal councilor. She faces challenges that many women in politics in Senegal recognize—sexism.

Ms. Fatou Sow Sarr is a sociologist and researcher at the Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire. She is also the president of the Caucus of Women Leaders of Senegal. She says that the lack of women leaders in Senegal is unacceptable.

She says that women occupy decision-making positions at various levels of government in only 15 of the 557 communes in Senegal.

So what accounts for this lack of women in leadership positions?

Ms. Faye explains that, in Senegalese culture, men are considered the heads of the family, and are responsible for making important decisions. For women, deferring to men is considered a virtue. These social norms are reflected in men and women’s professions. 

Amsatou Sow Sidibé is a local professor who works closely with the West Africa office of UN Women. She says that women in Senegal are generally viewed as inferior to men. 

She explains: “The majority of municipalities in Senegal are rural, and rural women rarely have the right to speak. In addition, the violence that accompanies politics in Africa means that women do not want to get too involved. They generally have a sense of vulnerability in the face of political intimidation and violence. Moreover, it is frowned upon in Senegal for a woman to stay out late at night—and often, political meetings run quite late.” 

But women are increasingly creating organizations to encourage female leadership in positions of power. For example, Ms. Faye is president of the federation of women in Dieuppeul-Derklé, which includes several hundred women from all walks of life. Groups such as these organize awareness campaigns and training workshops to help women engage meaningfully in politics.

Professor Amsatou Sow Sidibé leads another association, the Dialogue Security Peace in Africa network. This group organized a training workshop for 50 women in mid-December on electoral observation and monitoring techniques.

A third association, the Senegalese Women Leaders Caucus, aims to help women succeed in politics by improving their media presence. It trains women to speak on air and to journalists in order to boost media coverage of women in politics. The group has also committed to supporting all independent women running in the upcoming elections. They have promised to make their network and a local representative available to candidates to help them plan and run local events, promote their campaign, and provide candidates with training. One of these women is Soham Wardini, the interim mayor of Dakar, who decided to run for office as an independent candidate after not being selected by her political party.

Ngoné Ndoye is the former mayor of the department of Rufisque. She believes that the lack of women in leadership positions is linked to their relative lack of education, but that the situation is changing. 

She explains: “It is socio-cultural norms that maintain that women do not speak for themselves, and this limits their participation in politics. But I am happy to see a lot of women candidates for the upcoming election. And when they were not selected by a political party, many have decided to continue their campaign under their own banners—and that is great.”

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

Photo: A voter from Zam Zam Internally Displaced Persons Camp, North Darfur, submits her ballot on the first day of Sudan’s national elections, 2010. Credit: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran.