Senegal’s Bineta Diop (pictured above) is known from coast to coast as perhaps Africa’s most formidable fighter for women’s rights and their empowerment. Group Publisher Omar Ben Yedder met her during the recent Africa Industrialisation Week in Niamey, Niger, for this exclusive interview with one of Africa’s most extraordinary campaigners.
Bineta Diop became an activist fairly early in life. She was one of four daughters of Marèma Lô, a formidable politician and one of the continent’s early feminists who insisted that all her daughters get an education.
As the leader of the women’s movement in the Socialist Party of Senegal (founded in 1958 by Léopold Sédar Senghor), her mother, herself very young, fought to transform the community while bringing women’s issues to the fore.
Watching her mother’s strenuous efforts on behalf of women, Bineta grew up determined to bring the voices of Africans, particularly women, to the development of the continent and to help them take their destiny in their own hands.
She studied business in Paris and also international relations. After over a decade at the International Commission of Jurists – a human rights NGO based in Geneva – which was a further eye-opening experience,
Diop set up Femmes Africa Solidarité back in 1996 to pursue what had become her life’s vocation – the empowerment of African women. “I was doing this work in Asia, in Latin America working with another mentor, Neal McDermott, on issues of human rights. And I wanted to make a difference back home, like my mother had. I’m passionate about women’s rights. It’s transforming society.
“We can have the Agenda 2063 or Agenda 2030 but as long as we don’t consider women as equal, we will be missing a lot,” she argues. “Women and youth have to be at the centre, at the core,” she says of her life-long labour of love.
But it is not only women who must wage this fight, she says. Her philosophy is that men must also be equally involved. Men can be part of the solutions, she says, adding that she shares this belief with another tower of the African establishment, former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, who is also Patron of the African Women Leaders Network.
Hence the launch of a movement called ‘Positive Masculinity’. The second edition of its annual conference was held in Dakar in December and was hosted by President Macky
“One thing we have found as African women leaders is that we have, for many years, been talking to ourselves,” she says. “We realised that if we have to advance gender issues in our society, we need to bring the men into the discourse, that’s the reality. We cannot continue to talk to ourselves. So we have this strategy to promote what we call ‘positive masculinity’, which is bringing men to the centre, to the core of the gender equality discourse.”
This is Diop’s eighth year as the AU’s Special Envoy for Women, Peace and Security. She never expected to be in the position this long and extended it by a year at the request of the AU chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat.
As she nears the end of her tenure, speaking to us during Africa Industrialisation Week in Niamey, Diop has a lot to reflect on. She says that the fight has not always been easy, and it has been a struggle to get her message across.
Yet it is her tireless energy that is raising women’s rights, especially in conflict zones and in the area of peace and security. She says she was disappointed that other than Phumzile Mlambo Ngcuka, who was part of the mediation team, no women were at the table in the latest Ethiopian peace negotiations, but that it’s generally accepted that women are part of the solution today when it comes to conflict resolution.
African framework is leading rest of the world
When she was first appointed as an AU Special Envoy in 2014, few countries in Africa even had formal plans in place to advance women’s rights. Now there are 35 and counting that have adopted legislation to give them equal rights.
She led the implementation of a Continental Results Framework that allows for the progress of women in areas of conflict to be measured against concrete indicators. It is a matter of some pride to Diop that following the publication of the African framework, similar models have been developed in Europe and America. For once, she points out, Africa is leading the rest of the world.
Away from conflict, African women are also making progress in leadership and in business, she points out. Diop and other leaders have long advocated that there must be deliberate policies to empower African women, promoting their participation at the higher levels of politics and business.
This has led to some victories. In Kenya, the public procurement system gives women not only opportunities to participate in the process but also access to finance to help them take advantage of those opportunities.
A similar policy has been approved in Senegal, although implementation is yet to commence. Access to finance for women will be helped in no small way when more women are in charge of investment funds.
The African Women Impact Fund, created in partnership with the United Nations, the African Union, the Economic Commission for Africa, is a response to this need.
Diop says funders have to be sensitive to the unique circumstances of women. “We realised that in the normal traditional bank, women can come and ask for $10m and men will ask for $10bn but the bank will spend the same time looking at the issues and the business plans of the women and the men. Of course, their interest is where the big money is but we think that they should spend more time on looking at the business plans of the women, because tomorrow that woman can present something that is
Is she satisfied with the progress made so far? It’s a mixed bag, she admits. There are pragmatic and practical solutions to create safe spaces for women and young girls. In Niger, she explains, President Mohamed Bazoum is looking at building boarding schools for young girls to ensure they complete their education and are not married young.
In Rwanda, the Isanga project is a safe space where women who have experienced violence can go, knowing that they will be protected and offered support.
But more needs to be done across the continent, she insists, including having free and anonymous hotlines that can offer women help and protection. So for her, governments are still too slow in getting things done, and getting the message across, she admits, has been painstakingly hard, often because she is having to fight a very entrenched patriarchal society.
“Implementation often lags conceptualisation and women in Africa continue to suffer the effects of conflict and marginalisation. The pandemic was a particularly testing period, with many women facing increasing violence and poverty,” she explains.
“The stay-at-home orders implemented by governments to curb infections led to a spike in domestic violence, while the economic impact was also felt disproportionately by women.”
But Diop says Covid-19 is only one of the three Cs that are threatening the well-being of women. The other two – climate change and conflict – must also be effectively addressed in order to protect the interests of women. “In the last three years, we see that we have been going backwards on gender equality issues. We need to reenergise ourselves and we need to reinvent and innovate and make sure that we scale it up, [put] our solutions in our actions,” she emphasises.
Passing the baton
However, as Diop approaches the end of her term, some of that energy will have to come from other sources.
It is a mark of the weight of her legacy that the African Union has institutionalised the office and a new envoy will be appointed when she leaves. She is sure, however, that she has laid a foundation solid enough to support the success of whoever will replace her.
She herself, she says, will continue to give her energy to the women of Africa, which is good, because few know as well as she does how difficult the task in hand is. Success requires
building alliances, convincing people that the change is needed and working to overcome resistance wherever you find it.
Of her own experience she says, “For me, it was important that I negotiate and sometimes name and shame or compare, and also say that this country is doing better than this one. Where I have been successful is when I brought solutions, when I said, this is possible because it has been done somewhere else.”
These are the skills that her successor – and all those engaged in the battle for women’s empowerment – must bring to the task.
But like going to the moon, fighting for women’s empowerment is something that must be done because the process is hard. The challenges, she says, must be used as opportunities and are a wake-up call that action is needed.
“For me, I believe Africa has to take ownership of our destiny. With all that we have seen at the multilateral level, it is time we realise that we need to develop ourselves. No one will come and develop us. That is the reality and we are facing it now.”
This realisation must bring Africa’s leaders, youth and of course women together to build the Africa of the future, one that is not known for suffering but rather, developing at a pace akin to other continents.