Our struggles are connected; we need a collective voice now more than ever.
Subtitle: Reflections from a gathering of African feminists
“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” Audre Lorde.
To amplify change for equality and strengthen young Feminist Movements in Francophone West Africa, Equipop convened a group of powerful, unapologetic, and fearless feminists from across ten African countries. The aim was to bring together activists to share experiences and to work together collectively to challenge the dominant narrative and struggles we face every day from the anti-rights and anti-feminist movements in Africa and beyond.
From September 19th — 23rd, 2022, 50 feminist activists from; Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroun Niger, Guinea Conakry, Mali, Morocco, Lebanon, Mauritania, Senegal, and Sierra Leone, came together in Niamey, Niger for the first Edition of the Feminist Agora conference.
Niamey, Niger, is a fun city that shares geographical similarities with Freetown, Sierra Leone — my home. But more than that, as with the other ten-plus countries represented, we noted that we share similar everyday misogyny, sexism, and hatred for women and girls. Patriarchy runs strong here, and my sisters and I quickly realized how similar our struggles are.
These struggles are entrenched in religious beliefs and patriarchal practices that seek to destroy women and girls. Even in countries with laws meant to protect us, there are no or limited justice systems to enforce the laws or accompany survivors in terms of psychosocial and reintegration. Survivors are often left at the mercy of the traditional systems that do not prioritise our rights.
“All feminists will go to hell,” says the anti-feminist. As if we are not in hell already, from making decisions about our bodies to religious doctrines that are gendered and policies that all reinforce the deeply entrenched systems to make women, girls, and transgender women continue to be at the mercy of the ecosystem.
As an individual, I resist such a world, and work with other women and girls in informal and formal groups to fight these struggles — I just didn’t know the extent of the collective awakening in the region — that I was part of something greater than our efforts in our communities in Sierra Leone
The rise of collective action in the movement
The paradox here is, yes, we see a wave of feminist consciousness-raising within Africa, allies and activists are rallying and collectivizing for equal rights. And yet in most West African countries, we still struggle to have the basic fundamental human rights: access to safe abortion, systems that criminalize rape and sexual assault, child marriage, FGM and other harmful practices against women and girls.
During this convening, I learned that in Mauritania, “Four witnesses are required to deliver punishment to the perpetrator; in some cases, both the perpetrators and the victim are imprisoned as it is considered as Zina. (illicit sexual relations).’
Meanwhile, I discovered that “there are no systems or safe spaces for Sexual and Gender-Based Violence survivors in Niger.”
The LGBTQIA+ community remains the most marginalized and has little support on both sides. As a participant from Burkina Faso, recounted:
“When these women are raped, they cannot speak about it, talk less of reporting or these cases being prosecuted… I have banned myself from going to Senegal because of my sexuality; the last time I was there, I was not safe.’’
Against this backdrop, we must continue to fight the systems of oppression we’re all too familiar with as they try to discredit us and keep us oppressed, as one feminist sister reminded us about something she’d heard:
“The feminist movement is just an illusion to disrupt the African family setting.’’
We all know that feminism isn’t the problem; the problem is the patriarchy. As long as the survivors of violence are forced to marry their perpetrators, women, and girls are persecuted for having an abortion, there is no safe space for SGBV survivors, girls are married as children, female genital mutilation is culturally accepted and the LGBTQIA+ community is criminalized — let there be no doubt, the problem is the patriarchy.
We African women are organizing, collectivizing, and pushing back. We hold spaces, formal and informal, that affirm our approach to feminist popular education that holds space for us to learn together, analyse together, and imagine a different kind of world. These moments reminded me of the work I do at Purposeful with the Mentors Academy, where we accompany 50 young women across our programmes on their feminist journey of self-recovery, centring on their lived experiences and holding spaces for each other. I have at first hand seen the magic that happens and how feminist ideas are sparking transformational changes in their communities.
I am hoping that in more communities, feminist and their allies would come together, hold spaces for each other, and build a community of activists that would speak about and challenge the systems affecting everyone in these communities. That we would gain awareness of the patriarchal power at play and how we can push back and resist these systems.
Our feminism is an attack on the entrenched patriarchal space and structures around us and we must continue to keep it so. We are not simply “angry and unmarried people”.
Today and every day, we continue to grow, resist and move together. To pick up the baton of the feminists before us and to prepare the ground for the feminists to come.
By: Haja Umu Jalloh
Haja Umu Jalloh is a Programmes Manager at Purposeful working with the Girl’s Circle Collective and Mentors Academy Initiatives, where she works with over 600 hundred young women mentors across 6 districts in Sierra Leone.