By Oumie Mendy
Despite making up over 50% of the country’s population, Gambian women continue to remain marginalised in political leadership positions and decision-making in general.
At least the majority of them are often relegated to clapping and dancing during political events and few of them, who are lucky to be in positions in political party executives, often dance to the tunes of their male counterparts. This is what even in our homes and cultural setups are. At least that has been the history of women in the Gambia and if nothing, tomorrow’s parliamentary elections have further exposed political parties’ lack of consideration for women.
Out of the nine political parties contesting in the parliamentary elections only the United Democratic Party has five women candidates out of the 47 candidates they line up but even that is considered small while the ruling National People’s Party, NPP, and PDOIS each presented three women candidates. The Gambia Democratic Congress, GDC, who came third in the last presidential election, did not present a single women candidate. Out of the 247 candidates contesting in tomorrow’s elections, only 19 are women while in 2017, only three women were elected into the National Assembly out of 53. Two others were nominated by the president.
Concerned by this continued marginalisation, women activists take it upon themselves to sponsor a private member’s bill seeking for more women representation at the National Assembly but the ambitious bill tabled by Banjul South lawmaker Fatoumatta Touma Njai was killed at its first reading.
“We are our worst enemies,” Fatoumatta Touma Njai told lawmakers shortly after the rejection of the bill she presented seeking to amend the 1997 Constitution to enlarge the composition of elected members of the National Assembly and also provide for the reservation of specific seats for women and persons with disabilities in February. “My expectations, the Speaker being a female, should have stood her ground to decide otherwise and give this an opportunity for it to be considered. We also saw the Vice President in the gallery when this was done. She is also a female but as I said, I am beginning to believe now that we (women) are our worst enemies,” a frustrated Touma Njai lamented.
But respected women’s rights advocate and head of Civil Society Gender Platform on Transitional Justice, Tabou Njie-Sarr, said even though Gambian women have performed beyond expectation whenever they called upon, men to continue to dominate in key leadership positions.
“This was why women’s rights advocates proposed a bill to change this narrative at least at the National Assembly but our efforts were frustrated and it hurts me that we will remain under-represented,” Sarr said.
Madame Sarr said she was disappointed because had the bill passed it would have secured 14 seats.
“And if any of the 19 happen to win, we would have exceeded the UN required standard of 30% but as it stands now, we are only relying on the 19 candidates. So as things stand, the country will likely fall short of the UN standard,” she added.
The respected activist said the number of women showing interest to participate in politics signals a bright future.
“But we need the support of our male counterparts to achieve meaningful progress because we cannot do it alone. I believe our fathers and brothers should understand that it is not about us and them. We just believe that we should be part of decision making at the highest level and that is not too much to ask for,” she added.
The Gambia government currently has about three females in cabinet with more men in arms of government than women. Therefore, scores of women activists have raised concerns over this disparity in the governance structure.
“Gambian women continue to be marginalised because there is no legislation and cultural beliefs and practices that confront women and also our constitution dictates that mood of communication is English Language and research has shown that there are more literate men than women but also the electorate believe a woman should not lead and our pattern of voting as well, men are heads of households and in most cases, they are the decision makers of families in most cases vote for a candidate,” Tabou added.
She argued that some “conservative households believe voting for a man is religious and cultural. They believe women should be deputies while men lead”.
“Finance is also another contributing factor; women are facing the challenge of having the required finance to conduct their campaigns and even the nomination. There is need for proactive education and sensitization of women but also social systems need to be looked into for women to be given the opportunity that can help them to overcome some of these challenges,” she noted.
Moving forward, Tabou added, women need to change their attitude towards their fellow women and show solidarity.
“We cannot continue to cry like babies when we constitute the highest number of voters. So we should find a way of breaking the barriers,” she lamented.
Research, she added, has shown that when women are in decision making, they tend to look more into the social sector that will improve the quality of life, communities and nations at large.
“Women make decisions that improve the quality of life of everybody,” she said.
Tabou Sarr said the government has to ensure that there is “a law in place to promote gender equality especially in key decision-making positions, women should be included in key leadership positions”.
“Violence against women in politics and elections is a new phenomenon that is coming up hindering women from getting into leadership. As a country, we need to work on promoting women and girls. The huddles that women have to overcome are difficult because gender equality is not contesting against our cultural norms and values but to promote standards and quality living conditions,” she said.
Political parties react
The GDC has no woman in its fourteen selected parliamentary aspirants. The party’s second deputy party leader, Ahmadou Kah, said his party didn’t deliberately refuse to select female candidates. “We wanted to but no women turned up for selection and obviously we cannot force people to do what they don’t want to do. If you look at the GDC executive, we have women in senior executive positions,” he said.
“Everything was left in the hands of groups that are in the constituency and the constituency executive but we encouraged them to prioritise women if they come forward and show interest to participate but unfortunately, from the report we get, no females turned up,” Kah said.
Asked what the party intends to do to correct that in the future, Kah said: “Yes, I think we have always tried as much as possible to improve and then we have done this by making so we have mediation at all levels of our political party and hierarchy as well. We have met representation throughout”.
The United Democratic Party put up the highest number of candidates, 47, of which 5 are women.
The party’s spokesperson, Almamy Taal said his UDP, being the largest opposition party, has the largest number of women candidates selected to contest for the parliamentary elections.
“We recognise that politics in the Gambia even in the dictatorship era, women have been playing a very pivotal role and have shown not only courage but honest leadership. Whenever you appoint women as leaders, they deliver to the highest level and they are not easily tempted,” he said.
He said the party is making efforts to achieve the UN required standard of 30% representation of women at all leadership positions.
“In the 2018 congress we decided to make a resolution that henceforth, all leadership positions of the party elected, we will endeavour to have minimum 30% female representation and in the congress of 2020, we wrote a resolution and amendment of the party’s constitution to encourage women who are willing to get involved in politics,” Taal said.
The trained lawyer highlighted cultural, religion and personal challenges continue to hinder women from taking leadership positions.