DAKAR, Senegal — Senegalese women are striving to win a bigger role in their country's politics. For a woman to even be on the ballot here — much less lead her party’s roster — is a step forward in their efforts.
Women took to the streets to campaign in the latest round of local elections. Elderly women blew whistles and waved posters, while members of the younger generation danced, hugged and called out to onlookers.
They were demonstrating for Magatte Wade, a 45-year-old single mother who works for a professional association that supports microfinance efforts and who ran for mayor of Parcelles Assanies, a chaotic Dakar suburb whose population has exploded in the past generation.
Wade ultimately lost, though she plans to run again in 2012. Her party came in eighth out of 13 with less than 2 percent of the votes. This meant that her party only got one of the 65 seats on the city council that would ultimately select the mayor. But her candidacy alone provided a ray of hope for women trying to break into Senegal’s political boys' club. The fact that she headed her party's roster was a noteworthy achievement for women in politics.
“There has been a burst of new energy,” Wade said. “Today, the Senegalese woman is a mature woman who knows what she wants, who knows what she’s capable of and who has a strong understanding of her economic contribution.”
Women hold less than 20 percent of Senegal’s elected posts and many say that undermines the democratic and developmental health of the struggling country. Climbing unemployment rates, rising food and energy prices, and shortages of everyday staples have turned the exhilaration many felt in 2000 when they elected President Abdoulaye Wade (no relation) into a bad hangover.
Yet, it’s that dissatisfaction with the status quo that could be opening a window for female politicians. People want change, so why not look to a woman?
“We’ve had three mayors, all of them men, and things haven’t gotten any better. Why not you?” people said to Wade last December, when she decided to run. “Dafa doy! Dafa doy! We’ve have enough! We’ve had enough!” the crowd chanted at a March rally as Wade spoke about the poverty and unemployment plaguing the district.
Wade had never considered running for office. She didn't even like politics. But her party, Solidarite Active, was insistent. They wanted a woman to lead the list. They wanted Magatte Wade.
“Everything she does, she does with a lot of conviction. She doesn’t lie or cheat. She is sincere,” said Ndiaga Fall, the party’s secretary-general, days before the election. “Being a woman should never be a handicap."
Since 1994, Senegalese women’s groups have been fighting for parity in the electoral process, where they say female candidates are neglected and underrepresented. They are currently lobbying for a law requiring each party to present a minimum number of female candidates in order to take part in elections, a kind of political affirmative action.
Senegal’s complex political landscape is made up of countless political parties, many of them united into the formidable coalitions that dominate elections.
“It’s not easy to be a woman in Senegal’s political world,” Wade said. “You’re an accessory, unless you’re a charismatic woman who refuses to be that, who has a good head on her shoulders, who knows what she wants and how to fight for her ideas.”
Wade’s speeches were unabashedly feminist, and some men have told her she needs to tone it down. Her campaign budget was a fraction of that of other candidates. Vandals ripped her face off the campaign signs posted around the neighborhood.
“They are so afraid of the female presence,” Wade said. “When I see that, I tell myself at least I’ve achieved a part of my objective because it means that they have started to take women into account.”
Wade emphasized that, as a woman and a single mother, she understands families' struggles better than her male competitors. It’s not a bad strategy. The majority of Parcelles Assainies’s 500,000 inhabitants are women and youth, and women typically turn out en masse at the polls.
“Women are the foundation of society. Everything comes from a woman and everything comes back to a woman,” Wade said.
Before the polls closed on election day, Wade left her house to make the rounds at a few more polling places. As she climbed into the backseat of her silver SUV, a chorus of boys crowded around the car, chanting “Magatte, Magatte.”
“Don’t be afraid, Magatte,” shouted one smiling boy in a faded green sweatshirt that came almost to his knees. “Don’t worry. Everything will work out.”
Wade’s defeat on March 22 didn’t come as a huge surprise. It had been her first election, and she is still relatively unknown politically. Her campaign, much like the women’s march she organized, was about more than politics.
“I urge the people who listen to me to believe in themselves and know that change is possible if they do their part,” she said.
Just then Wade got a call from a local woman who had heard her speak about her plan to use microfinance — quite possibly Wade’s favorite word — to help families supplement their incomes. Shocked that a politician would present such a detailed plan and anxious to learn more, the woman had asked around for Wade’s phone number.
After a spirited conversation in Wolof, Wade set down her pink cell phone with a smile.
“Now, that’s what this is all about,” she said before returning to the stack of work in front of her.
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