This commentary is a feminist reflection on the ‘The Big Debate: Interrogating Party Policies/Position On Women and Youths’. The commentary is a short and non-exhaustive reaction but serves as a starting point for women’s rights organizations or feminist leaders to react to such conversations with the aim of broadening the discussion to highlight issues of our interest, exchange ideas and promote our vision for full equality between Gambian women and men. Globally, political debates are increasing and they give an opportunity for voters to learn about the strategic policies and programs of candidates/parties. In emerging democracies like The Gambia, this has a potential to help voters make informed decisions, vote along policy lines instead of other social factors such as class, tribe or age. Furthermore, it also helps voters to keep political leaders accountable for their in/actions. Voters can keep track of campaign promises – the very convictions – why particular people, groups or parties were voted for instead of others. It is indeed a courageous moment for the increased interest of politicians, voters, the civil society and media to contribute to this process.
REACTIONS TO PARTY POLICIES, PROGRAMS AND STRATEGIES
We acknowledge and appreciate that the party representatives provided us with the feeling of women taking the lead in voicing out issues that mattered to us most, our priorities and interests (such as equality in politics/decision-making, economic rights and equal opportunities) that their male colleagues could have differently acknowledged. However, a lot more could have been delved in by the representatives with more research, involvement, or general preparedness from the part of the women leaders on the lived realities of Gambian women and the status of progress and challenges in addressing gender inequality and other crucial issues such as GBV. To us, this was a missed opportunity. For example, the comment on dialogue about FGM clearly shows the disconnection between party policies and the realities on the ground, given that FGM is already illegal in the country. Our aspiring political leaders must understand that violence against women must be condemned and is non-negotiable. This truth must be told in its entirety.
Furthermore, we feel it is very unprogressive for any party to consider reducing the duration of maternity leave for women owing to the advantages such opportunities provide not just to the new mothers but entire families.
Furthermore, like many other political debates relating to women and women in politics, the issue of female bodies took a centrality during the deliberations from the debaters and the commentaries from listeners and viewers. The vulnerability of women’s bodies to violence through political discourses was manifested in the commentaries on social media platforms during and after the debate. Critics were mostly rooted in patriarchy, with sexism unfolding differently, ranging from the binaries such as women, especially those that do not fear God, cannot represent or take the lead in politics since politics from this perspective is designed for the “God-fearing men”. Policing women’s bodies by controlling decisions on personal image was a recurring theme in the analysis. From the condemnation of representatives because of skin color by suggesting skin bleaching women should stay away from politics to branding the debaters as “artificial hairs,” politicians draw another binary on embracing modernity (Western) vs upholding cultural (African) identity. Thus, reinforcing the embodiment of women as bearers of culture and identity. Therefore, women’s bodies became the agenda for commentaries, deviating from the party policies that these brave women presented or attempted to present to their electorates.
We recommend the continuity of the debate initiative both within and outside the media. We believe it is a great initiative to promote political learning and empowerment, improvement of democratic values such as accountability, transparency, diversity/inclusion, non-violence, tolerance and respect. The following suggestions can be considered for the improvement of the initiative for greater impact and sustainability.
- Include women moderators for equal moderation responsibilities/representativeness.
- Moderator/s to express their principle of ZERO TOLERANCE to misogyny and all forms of abuse against women on their platforms.
- Provide sign language interpretation for people with disabilities to equally participate and benefit.
- Debaters can be offered an opportunity to choose to speak in the language/s they are most comfortable with throughout the debate.
- Partner with or strengthen local/community radio stations to transmit the conversations (possibly, with multiple language interpretations) for people without internet access.
- Women’s rights organizations and political parties need closer and strategic collaboration to improve opportunities and skills building for women politicians towards gender parity in the political process.
In conclusion, we commend the organizers of the debate and express our sincere respect and salute to the four women who graced the political platform to debate their party policies and strategies. As a starting initiative, we are convinced that there is still lots of learning and unlearning to do as a society; as a nation that so much deserves to move forward in the fulfillment of the basic rights and needs of its citizens. The role of women in these processes must be guaranteed, respected and protected at all cost. Women cannot continue to serve as political mobilizers (entertainers, cooks and recruiters) to perpetuate political patriarchy where women’s rights and freedoms are exploited and forgotten with little or no accountability once men are in power. The misogyny against these patriotic women once they were on that debate stage was all evident and we call upon our entire society – and not just men – to remember that women must be accorded equal rights and respect in the political sphere to participate and represent their constituents without insults, threats, abuse and hate. This is because our constitution accords equal rights to women and men to freely participate in our political affairs. We will exercise this right and demand for equal representation and not just participation because we can and should do exactly that. Therefore, be ready to see us more, hear us more and feel us more on those political platforms before, during and after the elections.
Submitted by The Girls’ Agenda