By her own account, the amount of work to be done is “colossal”: improve women’s living conditions and increase their autonomy through training and competence-building; facilitate access to basic social services such as education and healthcare; and provide an environment that is peaceful, safe, and well-governed. For a start.
It is an ambitious undertaking, Salimata Thiam recognizes with a smile. Particularly given that resistance to change in West Africa is, as elsewhere, a force to be reckoned with. But this 45 year old Senegalese woman is not easily discouraged. Having been in charge of the policies and programs for the Economic Community Of West African States’ (ECOWAS) Gender Development Centre (EGDC) for over 12 years, her unrivaled enthusiasm and commitment have ensured that the specialized agency has become a real force for change.
“We work in close collaboration with governments and civil society organizations, forging partnerships around key issues: women's rights, reproductive rights, empowerment, etc. Our resources are, however, limited.” And the needs are urgent. “As in many other places, poverty in Africa has a feminine character”, she laments, citing a variety of causes: conflict zones, natural disasters, disease, and cultural and religious practices. “Women, whose rights are often ignored, are among the most vulnerable groups, and so they tend to suffer the greatest consequences.”
“Improving the economic, social, and cultural conditions of women” by implementing “appropriate policies and mechanisms” is not a new objective for ECOWAS. It was during a revision of its founding documents in 1993 that the intergovernmental organization, which represents fifteen states in the region1, decided to incorporate gender equality as a driver of regional integration and as a development objective in its own right.
Ten years later, with the aim of adding new impetus to the struggle for women’s rights, ECOWAS created a specialized regional agency dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment. The aim of ECOWAS’ Gender Development Centre is to “transform West Africa into a fair and safe community in which men and women have equal opportunities to participate, decide, control and take advantage of all development initiatives.”
Participating in the annual conference of International Volunteer Cooperation Organizations (IVCO) that took place in Montreal last fall, Salimata Thiam underlined the decisive role played by the partnership forged in 2010 between the African agency and Uniterra, a joint program of WUSC and CECI. “It was the Uniterra program volunteers who took the lead in drafting the ‘Supplementary Act relating to Equality of Rights between Women and Men for Sustainable Development in West Africa’, an act which represents the very latest reference framework on GE for the sub-region. They were at the heart of the operation -- and still are, in fact -- and it is clear that without their critical support the supplementary act would never have seen the light of day” she testified. “The program volunteers worked with a network of civil society organizations from eight different francophone countries in the sub-region, and particularly with gender equality coalitions. They collectively denounced the slow pace of progress with regard to women’s rights in West Africa. While most of the member states had signed and ratified various conventions, few of those national and international commitments had actually been respected. With the Uniterra program, we decided therefore to work on a new document that would breathe new life into the commitments of our members.”
Since the consultations began, and throughout the process of reflection and formulation, the EGDC has made a point of involving political institutions from each of the member countries in order to implicate the various governments and thereby ensure their participation during the implementation process. Similarly, all the departments of the ECOWAS Commission were invited to participate in the process, with the aim of then developing operational programs to bring about concrete improvements in women’s rights on the ground.
For the head of EGDC’s gender programs and policies, the adoption of this legislative tool in Accra in May 2015 and its subsequent implementation has represented a real turning point. “West African countries see themselves in this document and have taken it on. This tool is an enormous asset, says Salimata Thiam. “Moreover, the relevant ministers and civil society organizations have agreed to work together on priority actions. Each country has launched public education campaigns to raise awareness on the new protocol. Each goal has a national action plan and monitoring committees have been established. They are ensuring that there is an effective and real implementation of the new measures, and that the resources allocated to the plan are actually properly allocated. We have also created women’s networks to support the implementation of the protocol.”
These concrete advances, affirms Salimata Thiam, demonstrate the current will of the Economic Community of West African States to implement more operational programs that have a real impact on local populations. And she believes that the international context is key: “The time is right. You can sense that there is a resurgence of interest in gender equality. There is more and more attention on women, the moment is ripe to implement new strategies. There is momentum now, and we have to seize it to advance the rights of women, wherever we are.”
Since May 1975, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has represented 15 countries in the region: Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.