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Meeting West African Feminist Activists

Updated: May 26, 2020

Five students travelled to Dakar and Abidjan for a team project.

Hannah and Sofietou in Dakar with Dr. Selly Ba ©Sciences Po

During the 2019-2020 academic year, five Master’s students took part in a team project: they conducted a research-action project for and with the NGO Equipop. Carolin, Chloé, Hannah, Inaïssa and Sofietou will draw up an in-depth report on the collective actions of young feminists in French-speaking West Africa. In January, they interviewed feminist activists in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Dakar, Senegal.

Why was it important to you to go to Abidjan and Dakar?

Inaïssa: I think it was a good opportunity to learn about the country beyond distance research. Even though, unfortunately, we were not able to leave the capital area, it enabled us to gain a true understanding of the young activists’ activities and the difficulties they face.

Carolin: Indeed, even if long-distance interviews were a good start to better understand the dynamics at work — they helped us elaborate appropriate survey questions — I also feel it was very important to go on this field mission to get a better grasp of the country context. This has enabled us to observe the differences within Abidjan for example, between poorer and more affluent neighborhoods.

Chloé: Yes, although most interviewed activists came from a social background that allowed them to own a phone or an internet connection, we had the chance to meet women from Abidjan’s Adjame market — Ivory Coast’s largest market — and to attend to, and even sometimes take part in, actions directed by these activists. For example we volunteered in the Education Center ICI on lit, ensuite on JOUE.

Sofietou: I agree. Being in the field facilitated human connection. We could adapt to their body language, build trust. Things were going faster.

Hannah: Once in Senegal, it was easier to get in touch with people and we received a great number of contacts and recommendations. Our first interview partners have been a great help in identifying other stakeholders. I think that a personal connection is very important to have meaningful discussions. It is sometimes difficult to build such a trustful relationship via email or Skype.

Can you tell us about the activists you have met?

Marieme Soda Ndiaye, Senegal's youngest MP ©Sciences Po

Hannah: In Senegal we tried to collect as many testimonials as possible from people defining themselves as feminists or people working for the promotion of women’s rights without calling themselves feminists. In our conversations, people often spoke about the need for an intergenerational dialogue amongst feminists. So we listened to all generations in order to gain a better understanding of the history and developments of feminism in Senegal.

Sofietou: In discussions with activists, we realised that the use of the word “feminist” could be a sensitive issue for some people. So we quickly adapted to the country context, by adopting their vocabulary, by characterising them as militants or advocates. With regards to action areas, we had the opportunity to listen to a variety of actors from different fields such as: Education, Art, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Genital Mutilation, political representation of women, etc.

Chloé: For our part, we had a broad definition of “young feminist” from the outset. As a first step, in October/November, we looked for individuals working on women’s rights, gender inequalities and sexuality issues. We conducted this early research on the internet, through press articles, podcasts and social networking. We then found people by word of mouth.

Carolin: In the Ivory Coast, barring a few exceptions, the majority of the people interviewed are between 25 and 35 years old. We did not set any age limit: this enabled us to meet with older people who could explain to us how the situation of women and the feminist (or egalitarian) movement evolved over time.

Inaïssa: We also met both people working with associations and independents. Their claims were widely diverse but common to all of them was the desire to improve the status of Ivorian women. Repeated emphasis was placed on gender-based violence — like forced marriage or female genital mutilation — and empowerment of women.

Carolin: We are aware that the data collected is not representative at a national level as the sample size is too small and the people surveyed too similar. We are aware of the fact that we met more Christian than Muslim individuals, and that all interviewees are relatively well educated (secondary education or higher). Nevertheless, the study remains very important and helps us to better understand the dynamics at work.

Tell us about one interviewee?

Carolin: We started off small with meetings and we just provided Equipop with a draft of our literature review that informs on the socio economic and political contexts and on the feminists’ rights in the three countries under study: Guinea, Ivory Coast and Senegal.

Inaïssa: Then we will carry out a document review and map the feminist movements. We already prepared a questionnaire for a first series of interviews and we are getting in touch with the activists.

Carolin: This is crucial to our work because we get to be well-informed before we carry interviews on the ground.

What have you learned from your literature review?

Inaïssa, Carolin, Chloé & Dr. Aminata Kane in Abidjan ©Sciences Po

Chloé: I was moved by all the women and men we met during the trip. I remember our first meeting with Dr. Aminata Kane in Abidjan. Mother of eight, perpetual student (she holds multiple degrees and still a student) she takes time — in addition to her work and family life — to run a local library in her home which she founded, called Ici on LIT, Ensuite on JOUE (FR). In her view, knowledge is power. She works to empower girls through education and reading. Her library welcomes both boys and girls, but she encourages girls to voice their opinions. She also assists children’s nannies become more literate and thus help them to emancipate.

Sofietou: I have learned a lot from all Senegalese interviewees. I especially remember Ms. Dior Fall Snow. Since my childhood I have lived admiring the elderly and their insights. Ms. Dior Fall Snow has an outstanding background: she was appointed as Senegal’s first female State Prosecutor and is one of the founding members of the Senegalese Association of Women Jurists (FR). Beyond incredible stories on Senegal, she described a woman’s life in a society wracked by patriarchy and gave us life advice. A very formal interview transformed into an informal, I would even say moving, discussion.

Carolin: For my part, I was moved by our meeting with Christine Logbo-Kossi. She is the Executive Director of the Ivorian Professional Mining Association, the Chamber of Mines. She is the first woman ever to lead this organisation. She regards herself as an activist fighting for inclusion and for women’s rights, in particular for the women who are active in the mining sector which is a traditionally male-dominated sector. She is very frank and straightforward. Her speech on how we must advance inclusion and equal rights stands out most as I look back. She stresses that continuously victimizing women, merely reinforces the existing structures. Therefore, the narrative has to change: we must highlight the achievements of strong women and share their success stories.

Hannah: For my part, I must say that the diversity of the encounters was really impressive. In Dakar, we had the chance to talk to many young feminist activists and women’s rights activists. It is the diversity in feminism that struck me: to see how people advocate for feminism through projects in various areas. For instance we met Hyacinthe Coly, a young man who is chairing the Réseau des Jeunes pour la Promotion de l'Abandon des Mutilations Génitales Féminines et de l’Excision (FR), a network working towards the eradication of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). They are working on very difficult issues, the organisation has limited financial resources, but Hyacinthe Coly has demonstrated an ever growing commitment to protect girls and women in Senegal.

Inaïssa: It is the meeting with Carelle Laetitia Goli that impressed me most. She serves as policy advisor at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. After a long-distance interview, we were able to meet in person. She introduced  us to the Foundation’s actions regarding feminism, amongst others a leadership programme some of the feminists we interviewed took part in. She also talked about her outreach, denunciation and support actions. Carelle Laetitia Goli is also a member of the Women’s Alliance for Change (ALFEC) (FR) Network the Foundation has setup. She is guided by a desire for action and I believe she can contribute in terms of reflexions on feminisms in Ivory Coast, on the social and political context and on the issue of the participation of women in politics.


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