SHE is the founder and president of Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS), which is a women’s movement.
Time Magazine also listed Senegalese-born Bineta Diop among the world’s most influential people in 2011; she has been instrumental in peace building initiatives in Africa with focus on the protection of women during conflict and their inclusion in peace processes.
Last week she was in Kigali to participate in a two-day conference dubbed ‘Turning the page on hate speech in Africa’ held at Kigali Serena Hotel.
Doreen Umutesi interviewed 63-year-old Diop concerning a range of issues on the women’s movement and what inspired her to start a leading global organisation with the objective to strengthen women’s leadership and participation in peace processes in Africa.
What inspired you to start Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS)?
Many issues inspired me into starting FAS, but first it was my mother. My mother was my role model. She was not supposed to be in politics, but I think the discrimination against women in society pushed her to take on the murky waters of politics. My mother joined politics to change the status quo.
I became a human rights activist and worked for an organisation called International Commission of Jurists at a tender age. I started working with eminent jurists in Africa. I was very young and was trying to learn more about the laws, not just in Africa but also Asia and Latin America. This was when I asked myself whether as Africans we had our own laws. That is how I got involved in writing the charter, protocol on women’s rights. It was a long journey and I realised that if African women unite then we will be able to settle our own problems. So that’s how I decided to form FAS with eminent women of Africa who believed that we could do it. Surprisingly the first women that joined were from Rwanda immediately after the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi; FAS was formed in 1996.
When I came to Rwanda in 1997, I was able to work with the late Aloysea Inyumba and she was one of the women who advocated for a peace movement all over Africa.
Therefore FAS was created to prevent, manage and also resolve the problems that African women face. I can say that we have made tremendous progress today although there is till more to be done. I was in the African Union to fight for parity and the principle has seen many women emerge in decision making organs in the African Union as well as in different governments around the continent. But we still need to do more as the journey is still on.
What do you have to say about men’s roles being abandoned because of women empowerment in Africa today?
This is a big debate, but it also depends on how we socially raise our boys and this rests in the hands of the women. The role of women and men in our society has not changed. It’s still the women who are taking care of the family although they spend long hours in the offices whether they are in the leadership positions or not. Women in leadership positions still come back home to take care of the family. So we can choose to say that anyone doing the workload at home should be paid, thus men or women that stay at home should be paid.
Both the man and woman are supposed to be involved in raising their family and as mothers we need to raise our boys in a manner that will see them take care of their own children and also cook when they go home. It’s a partnership and some men are doing well in gender equality. I think we should encourage these men to sensitize other men on the issue of gender equality.
What do you have to say about the gender and cultural challenges that African women face today?
In regards to the just concluded dialogue ‘Turning the page on hate speech in Africa’ here in Rwanda, I’m happy to say that gender was mainstreamed throughout the whole dialogue. But we also had a specific panel regarding the gender issues which highlighted some of the harmful cultural practices that limit gender equality. Harmful cultural practices exist in our society and we need to fight them. It’s not just the issue of violence against women that we have been talking about but there are so many other issues in our cultures that we need to eliminate. We also know that there are those cultural values that are positive. So how do we make sure that we amplify some of the good things that we have? We need to promote and document the culture of caring and sharing. We have bad cultures that make sure, for instance, that women should not inherit land, traditions such as what most rural women I interact with face. They call themselves ‘Women in Transit’ because they get married and if God forbid their husbands die, they are sent back to their original homes where they don’t belong anymore because they left home to go and get married. These women feel they have no sense of belonging. They are like they are at the airport; it’s not their destination so they are like just in transit. Those are the bad things that culture does that we need to fight against because it impinges development of our continent.
As its part of your mandate as the African Union Special Envoy for women, peace and security, what should be done to deal with stereotypes and misconceptions about women in Africa that are portrayed in the media?
My mandate as special envoy is to see how the media can help me in my work. For example when I’m going to visit a camp in Sahel or to discuss with a women group in Somalia, how can those messages and the faces and the voices of these women be heard all over Africa? How do we portray them? How do you make sure that they are trying to reach the table? For example Southern Sudan women are saying that negotiations are going on in Addis Ababa; they have been the victims but they don’t want to be seen as just victims but as agents of change and they want to be involved in the peace building process though they are not invited in Addis Ababa. Instead the ones that hold the gun are the ones being invited. So instead of the media getting involved in stereotyping, it should be echoing the voice of these women, by interviewing them and saying ‘You can’t go to Addis Ababa without the women there’ because back home, they will be the same women reconstructing the nation and reconciling the community. To promote long lasting peace, women are supposed to be brought at the forefront of peace building.
What were your expectations when you were coming to Rwanda for ‘Turning the page on hate speech in Africa’?
When I came to Rwanda for this dialogue, I really wanted to learn, first of all from the Rwandan experience, how the media is progressing, it’s a good practice. I also wanted to learn more on how Rwanda has been able to deal and fight against the hate media that existed before 1994 as an example of how dangerous hate speech can be. I wanted to know how they have been able to say Never Again. So the fact that it’s taken seriously - we take media as an added value at the end of the day - you know this time we are saying we should put it at the heart of the discussion so that we send the right message to Africa. Africa is rising and the media should be at the forefront. Rwanda is a good example because I was told that there is a strategy of gender mainstreaming in media just like in other sectors. It’s the first time I have heard of a country in Africa that has a strategy of gender mainstreaming within the media; this is great and we need to learn more about its progress. I was told that there is a female media association that women are now taking a lead in and they are acquiring managerial positions and this is great. This shows that women are a part of the mechanism of governance.
In the dialogue, during the discussions about gender issues, a participant raised an issue that the motherhood role of women limits them from being able to get involved in nation building programmes. Briefly tell us how you have been able to balance motherhood and your demanding job?
I will say it’s never easy. If I say it was great I will be telling a lie. For me, I can say that my mother was a feminist and the feminism was passed on to me. She was able to meet the President at the time……… to tell him what the people wanted. She was very close to the people. For me, helping the people was a challenge as I had kids to raise, a daughter and son and seven other children from other family members that I raised. There was a lot on my plate but we managed. But I made sure I raised my boy like I raised my daughter and I made it a point that there was equality in the chores they did. If it meant going to the kitchen to cook, he had to do it, and I’m happy that he is married and I like the relationship he has with his wife. If the wife is in the kitchen cooking, he will wash the dishes or help her in someway.
I had my children when I was young, but I had to go back to school and even at the age of 63, I’m doing a PhD. I want to learn more and more. So challenges are always there but we can’t limit them to motherhood. Women lack economic empowerment. The contributions we make in society as women will help diminish the obstacles and stereotypes we encounter as women.
What can you attribute to Senegal and Rwanda’s having more women in decision making organs?
What Senegal and Rwanda have in common regarding women empowerment in leadership positions is the political will to uplift the women. In Senegal it was a long tradition of feminist movement from our independence; women have been part of the political system. Women have been involved in building a democratic society. Political leaders and mobilisation of women at grass root levels in developmental sectors so that women get to know their rights will demand for laws that defend them.
For example recently women marched demanding for a law to be put in place for children whose fathers are not Senegalese to acquire citizenship and the law was enacted. So there is a movement that is demanding because they are aware of their rights. A country’s development can’t be achieved without women involvement.
Even with empowerment programmes, women in Africa are still facing challenges, where should governments put more emphasis to deal with these challenges?
I think governments should put more emphasis on education. When you educate a girl, you educate a nation. But this does not mean you leave out the boys, they too have to be educated. Education is key in our society, to understand different issues because a lot of things are done out of ignorance.
As a role model what is your message to the young girls out there?
This is my favourite question so far. You know at Femmes Africa Solidarité, I do a lot of mentoring in my own office; I take in young people because I’m inspired by them. They know a lot that I don’t know. They know things that I have not been exposed to. They even tell me things that I don’t even understand especially about technological advancement so I’m inspired by them. I wish to tell all the young girls and boys in Rwanda and Africa at large that they need to get involved in the development of the home, community, country, and continent and impact the world. I think that Africa’s future is in the hands of youth so we need to give them all the education they need. Whatever we preach we have to apply so FAS every year gives scholarships to 30 African boys and girls that offer a Masters on Gender and Peace building at the University of Dakar and the University of Peace in Costa Rica. I was happy to meet one of the graduates here in Rwanda and she is now working at the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion. All hope is in the young generation.