rose Challenges to women's rights in Senegal rose

Current situation of women's rights in Senegal

Interview with Ms Penda Mbow, Senegalese Historian, former Minister of Culture and specialist on women and Islam




Ioana:      What are the most important challenges to women’s rights in Senegal?

Ms Penda Mbow: Everything is challenging for women in Senegal, but the most important challenge to women's rights, in my understanding, is the question of poverty. Economical challenges are very important, because if people are poor, it is difficult for them to study, to get a good education, to have access to health care and to live in healthy conditions. It is a kind of circle, if you don’t have good economic conditions, you can’t have access to education, and if you are not educated, it is very difficult for you to get improvements in your life. Everything is complicated, but the economic issue is what affects women from all areas in Senegal.


Then, in rural areas of Senegal especially, it is very difficult for women to find transportation. They have to walk from village to village and to anywhere they want to go. It is very hard, even for women who are pregnant, to find means of transportation. This problem is crucial, because it has a lot of influence on women's lives, it frequently causes maternal mortality. All means of transportation in rural areas belong to men: horses, donkeys, etc. Women are supposed to walk for everything and this has consequences on their health. Being a woman in rural area is very hard.

The daily struggle for water is also a reality; access to clean water is a very important problem. In the rural areas, fight for water needs a lot of time. I think that fighting for water takes up most of  a woman’s time in those areas.

Ioana:      Senegal has the highest polygamy rate in West Africa: 50% of Senegalese women are married to polygamous husbands and one out of four women first marries a polygamous man. Is this family structure regulated by law? Also, this marital practice is linked to another one: forced marriages. To what extent are arranged marriages practiced today in Senegal?

 Ms Penda Mbow: We have a Family Law voted since 1972, and according to it, the question of polygamy is an option: if, as a man, you make the option of being polygamous, you will be considered polygamous all your life, even if you have only one wife. But if you make your option for the monogamous system, you have to have only one wife all your life, even if you divorce your first one. At the beginning, the law found some application, but today, even if people sign it, they don’t respect the law. In the first period of Senegalese independence, the elites were not in favor of the polygamous system, but now, even professors teaching at universities are in favor of it, we have a generalization of polygamy. Some years ago, when we voted a law against female genital mutilation, people tried to create in the mainstream media a debate about polygamy. But it’s still very complicated, because they say: “Perhaps we need to discuss and to limit polygamy to only two wives”. But even if they limit polygamy, this is not what was expected. People aren’t ready to change their attitude and mentality towards the practice of polygamy, even if creates lots of problems.

 As to arranged marriage, in the rural areas I think this custom is still important, but today, in general, it is not a common practice. You can find in some areas, in some religious groups, people saying that the marabout gave me a second wife, but I think it’s more of an excuse used in society to take a second wife, or a third wife.

 Ioana:      You asses in your works that monogamy is the principle on which the social structures of a modern society are funded. Why is the polygamous system still acting as a hindrance to progress and modernity in Senegal?

Ms Penda Mbow: Polygamy is a problem concerning equality and women’s rights. I think the debate about it is superficial in Senegal. People don’t accept to face their own society and don’t make critics. Also, women are not ready to be alone; you can even find some women who pay to have a husband, because it’s very complicated for women to define life without marriage. Marriage is very important for the accomplishment of their own lives. I think that they don’t take into account all the importance of the equality in life, and that women, especially intellectual women, are not fighting to change the situation, they are not fighting to contribute to modernizing the society. It is a country where people are not ready to make the sacrifice to change the existing situation.

Ioana:     How can the situation of women's rights in Senegal be improved and what institutions are most effective in bringing change and progress?

Ms Penda Mbow: I think women in civil society, organizing themselves, in women’s movements can play a very important role in bringing change. But I think also the Parliament, the parliamentarians, need to have what we can call a “feminism of state”.  They need to fight and to face our own society, because as a group they are supposed to bring progress in our society, they need to face conservationism and traditionalism. I think intellectual women and men, and, of course, the state, must work as they did at the beginning of Senegalese independence. It is the role of the elite to change the situation in the society. If they don’t do it, I don’t know what we can do to make a change in our society.