by Nancy Palus
DAKAR – On July 30, Senegal inaugurates its first national assembly since the passage of a gender parity law two years ago. Experts say much is at stake, both for restoring people’s faith in the much-maligned body and for solidifying gender equality.
The fact that 65 of the 150 newly elected representatives are women is a big step forward, but women are quick to say it is just a first step. Gender experts and activists in Dakar say much is riding on their effectiveness as parliamentarians.
Safiétou Diop, president of the civil society coalition Reseau Siggil Jigeen, or “network to advance women” in the local Wolof language, says there are still pockets of resistance to gender equality in decision-making positions. But this is no time for backtracking, she says. According to Diop, the women in the new national assembly must safeguard the gains they have made by standing together and being effective representatives.
Just more than half of Senegal’s 12.5 million population is female. The 2010 gender parity law requires political parties to ensure that at least half their candidates in local and national elections are women.
Diop says a critical next step in solidifying this advancement for women is to ensure gender equality in committees within the national assembly.
Standing committees include health and education - areas where women say they are determined to see that government spending translates into real benefits for the general population. Women activists and new parliamentarians say improving people’s living conditions is paramount: better access to health care, better sanitation, and increased youth and female employment.
Historically women in Senegal have known how to collaborate to improve conditions in their communities, Diop says, citing women-led cooperatives that have deep roots in Senegalese society. Female lawmakers bring this women’s perspective, this women’s vision when they study pending legislation or pending government expenditures.
About 36% of eligible voters in Senegal came out for the July 1 legislative election. The low turnout is widely seen as a reflection of people’s disdain for the body; many Senegalese tell VOA members seem to be out for personal or party interests, not there to truly represent the people.
Awa Niang, a newly-elected representative for the department of Pikine, says women are determined to change that, and are well-placed to do so.
"We must represent our communities at the national assembly," she says, "and we are determined to stand by the people’s side and take into account the realities they live every day." Niang adds that "women naturally tend to stand together and we will put the force of this solidarity behind actions that will foster development and better conditions for the people."
The new national assembly, whose members serve five-year terms, is scheduled to take office on July 30.