/ 16 April 2024

New Senegal president, new cabinet, same limits on women

Bassirou Diomaye Faye Sworn In As Senegal's Youngest President
Senegalese newly elected president Bassirou Diomaye Faye. (Photo by Senegalese Presidency / Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Senegal provided democracy in Africa with a much-needed shot in the arm when opposition leader Bassirou Diomaye Faye defeated Amadou Ba, the ruling party’s candidate, winning 54% in the first round of voting on 24 March.

Faye won despite having been imprisoned just weeks before the polls by a government that seemed determined to use intimidation to retain power.

But, after the celebration comes the hard task of governing, and for many of the country’s women, euphoria is turning into concern.

The cabinet selected by Faye and Prime Minister Ousmane Sonko — who was the main opposition leader but supported Faye’s candidacy after he himself was barred from running — includes only four women out of 25 ministers. 

This is similar to previous governments, but Faye and Sonko campaigned on a change agenda. Women expected an improvement in their access to decision-making bodies.

If the absence of women ministers is worrying, so too is the deletion of the words “women’’ and “child protection” from the name of the “ministry of women, family and child protection”. It has become the “ministry of family and children”.

This “sends a strong signal regarding the priorities of this new regime for the next five years,” says Maïmouna Astou Yade, a gender specialist and the executive director of JGEN Sénégal.

Aby Sène, a Senegalese public scholar working at Clemson University in South Carolina, believes the new government has taken a step backwards in terms of women’s equality and political power.

“You cannot tell me that they couldn’t find more women qualified to serve in the government,” she says. “Especially for their very first cabinet of ministers.”

Underpinning this trepidation is the knowledge that, for the first time, Senegal has a polygamous president and prime minister. Both Faye and Sonko have two wives.

In the build-up to the election things looked much more positive. In the last hours of the presidential campaign, the Caroline Faye Stadium was filled with young men and women awaiting the arrival of Sonko and Faye.

The choice of this stadium suggested an encouraging symbolism, as it bears the name of a female politician from the 1950s, who was the first female minister following independence.

Caroline Faye –— no relation to the new president — was also the only woman to have been appointed to the commission that contributed to the country’s Family Code. 

The code allowed women to emancipate themselves in significant ways but is in dire need of reform many years after its inception.

Today, men are the supreme heads of the family by law, including in family financial matters, despite the fact that the majority of women use their earnings to provide for their children and for themselves.

According to Jaly Badiane, a women’s rights activist, the law also stipulates that “when the woman who has contributed all her life to her retirement dies, nothing is paid to her spouse or minor children”.

Article 196 of the Family Code renders women vulnerable by giving men the choice of whether to legally recognise the children they fathered.

Diodo, a 25-year-old tea-seller, argues that “it is a little too early to denigrate a government that is not established”. But she believes that women must fight to maintain the few rights they have acquired over generations.

On social media, there is considerable solidarity among women. Given the mounting frustrations among young women, and the high stakes in a country that remains politically divided, the nation is watching for what the youngest democratically elected president in Africa will do next.

This article first appeared in The Continent , the pan-African weekly  newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian . It’s designed to be read and  shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here