A Discussion with Safietou Diop, President of the Women’s Collective to Defend the Family (COFDEF)
July 22, 2014
Background: Safietou Diop is an advisor to the Senegalese prime minister, as well as the president of the Women’s Collective to Defend the Family (Collectif des Femmes pour la Défense de la Famille, COFDEF) and the Network for the Promotion of Women (Réseau Siggil Jigeen, RSJ) in Senegal. She is a very active member of civil society, specifically in the cause of women’s rights and empowerment in Senegalese society. She has focused extensively on youth and women’s movements in all of her work. In July 2014, Hannah Fitter, a WFDD research assistant, met in Senegal with Safietou. Their discussion focused on the work of COFDEF and RSJ, women’s movements in Senegal, comparing approaches between the state, civil society, and religious leaders on the issue of women’s rights, the next generation and social movements, and lastly the role of religious actors in society and development.
How was the Women’s Collective to Defend the Family (COFDEF) founded and what are the organizational objectives?
COFDEF was founded in 1993 after we realized that Senegalese women suffer enormously from inequality in the family, even as simultaneously our society was in the process of transforming. With the financial crisis and structural adjustments, women have been, willingly or unwillingly, taken out of the family sphere and forced into the work force. They have been automatically thrown into production, whether they want to be or not. The reality is that they cannot continue to manage their relationships on an unequal or exclusive basis and as if it were the man who continues to provide for the needs of the family. The Senegalese woman is no longer an inactive figure in the family who needs to obey the man out of tradition. There needs to be a change in mentality which accepts that women have become actors in public life and commercial production.
So, this realization was the reasoning behind the creation of COFDEF, and the name itself conveys our objectives. We consider the family to be the source of socialization and the foundation for social and spiritual values, and we must defend that despite the risks that may arise. There needs to be a change in the relationships between men and women, husband and wife, and children and parents.
The organization focuses on the enforcement of healthcare and reproductive rights, political rights, and particularly, the ability of women to make decisions for themselves. We are also involved in leading the struggle for the enforcement of the gender parity law in Senegal. Since our establishment, we have been concerned with three main issues:
First, there is the issue of reproductive health and the well-being of the family. Women can no longer be left to reproduce naturally, to have closely-spaced pregnancies and children that they are unable to support, either in terms of education or healthcare. A woman's control over her own body and reproductive health continues to be an issue, and family size is becoming a priority in development.
Second, there is the issue of HIV/AIDS, which continues to be a menace to family health. We have worked on raising awareness among men, women, and children in families to encourage behavior change and to avoid the risk of spreading the epidemic. Our strategy includes house visits, training sessions, and educating couples.
The final issue is related to the struggle against the exclusion of women from public power and decision-making in societal affairs. Although women constitute more than 80 percent of political activists and political party members, in 1996, they were less than 6 percent of the local authorities in Senegal.
The cross-cutting area in all of our programs is the fight against poverty to reduce the economic vulnerability of women and families. We strive to train women, to organize them in groups, and to facilitate their access to credit to finance their activities.
Do you reach out to religious leaders and incorporate them into your advocacy work? Why or why not?
Yes, because our society is deeply rooted in religious values. Whether we are talking about Islam or Christianity, the communities develop a bond to faith so strong that if you want to have an input or be heard in those communities, you need approval from the religious leader first.
We have also seen that in Islam there is every opportunity to approach the issues that we are concerned with, including family planning, women’s empowerment, and the fight against poverty. Islam, which is a religion based on the Qur’an—and I am not saying by interpretation, but based on the text of the Qur’an—absolutely supports women’s progress. It is a religion that promotes women’s integration and participation in society.
Since the dawn of Islam, women have been a strong foundation of its followers. In all of the Quranic texts and even in Islamic law, they mention men and women. The woman is privileged in Islam because, according to the Prophet Muhammad, women are the superior beings and men come second. However, what is explicit in the text and how men have interpreted that text, especially to establish their power, are two different things.
A biased interpretation of the text originates with the story of the Battle of the Camel—the famous war between Aisha and Ali that decided their succession and power. Interpreters have misconstrued this text to show that men are those who dominate, although that is not the reality of the teachings of Islam. It was a political strategy to dominate and diminish the force of Aisha in the battle of succession.
We are told that we must go to the source, and speak with genuine Muslims who believe in the religion and who do not have a biased interpretation and who can understand that society evolves and that the woman needs to reclaim her place in society and her rights. Once we have the attention of the religious leaders that are truly just, then we can have the community. They are the key to reaching the community, to taking into account the needs of the community in a development strategy that is fair and inclusive, and to mobilizing all social strata.
That is why each time that we start a new project to raise awareness on family planning, we first hold a meeting with religious leaders who endorse it and support our strategy. Each time that we launch a new project on HIV/AIDS, we speak with religious leaders who support the awareness of families against the spreading of HIV/AIDS.
We must continue to engage with religion because our society cannot eliminate the religious dimension from development. So, with this in mind, we take every possible measure to work through religious networks in order to reach the community and foster the conditions for a positive transformation in society’s mentality, all the while respecting their faith and beliefs.
This strategy has brought us a great deal of success. Today, in all of the religious families [Sufi orders in Senegal] and everywhere that you go, people generally accept that the woman is someone who is truly equal to men in the context of development. They accept that women have the right to provide the resources for her family, to protect herself from sickness, and to pursue activities outside of the family sphere. We strive for a harmonious family despite the actual socio-economic risks—such as the resurgence of gender-based violence brought on by poverty and the instability of daily life.
Anyway, it is through the Réseaux Siggil Jigeen (RSJ)—which was established in 1995—that COFDEF and many more organizations were founded to promote human rights and now share the same philosophy toward engaging religious leaders. RSJ adopted the same strategy, but with a dimension that is more closely linked to the government [more important to the actual state]. They developed programs on family planning with Advanced Family Planning [an international non-governmental organization], and their strategy includes an approach toward religious leaders in the community to spread awareness on family planning. I think that so far we have really had extraordinary results.
The women’s social movements in Senegal often characterize their organizations as “feminine” [a women’s organization] or “feminist.” Where do you think that COFDEF falls in that categorization?
For me, feminism is a basic theory which promotes the emancipation and advancement of women on the path to development. One cannot call an organization “feminine”—it is a judgment based on gender stating that women are involved. Other organizations are considered “feminist” because they are tied to the ideology. However, we must characterize all “feminine,” or women’s organizations, as being tied to the feminist ideology.
Depending on the degree and mastery of knowledge, the utilization of instruments or theory, and the types of interests that are taken into account, maybe the two types of organizations can differ. In development, there are two aspects to consider: there is the practical interest and the strategic interest. There are organizations that are practical in their interests, and these women’s organizations do not explicitly include feminist theory in their strategic vision. But, they are still feminist—whether they are cultivating carrots and turnips, or if they work in economics—because it is a pillar of feminism that allows women to advance in the economy. The women’s organizations that work in agriculture are feminist because, in developing agricultural activities, they are participating in the production of wealth. They are repositioning their status in the economy.
Take for example the Executive Women in Farming, an organization that is quite feminist, but that works in the practical interest because they strive to economically reposition women. On the contrary, there are organizations that do not participate in production but that participate in strategic debates which list the strategic interests in the “lobby,” by advocating repositioning the status of women in the strategic plan. For example, Yewwu Yewwi was a strategic feminist organization that took charge of the strategic interests of women in the context of opinion, awareness, and the application of laws.
Feminism is a theory of development. It is open to interpretation, and anyone can develop a strategy based on it and not be in compliance with others’ interpretation. It is this diversity that makes up the wealth of feminism. Yet, in the end, we are striving to improve women’s status in their community. This is how I see feminism.
If you take for example the case of the Family Code, there were debates surrounding its content among religious actors and women’s organizations. What is the relationship between religious actors and women’s organizations? Does the relationship still exist, or has the relationship changed over the years?
I think that at the beginning of the development of the Family Code, around 1972, there were a lot of issues. The level of awareness was not high among religious actors and women’s organizations, and they were both defending theories that were not progressive.
But recently, religious leaders, and especially Islamic scholars, have made significant progress in addressing these issues. People have come to understand Islam as a religion of development, a very flexible religion that adapts with societal changes. They have developed theories to help the most vulnerable groups regain their rights through religion. I can give you examples of some of the most progressive Islamic scholars: Dr. Aboul Aziz Kébé, who is one of our scholars and a theorist of feminism within Islamic law; and Imam Tahirou Fall and the imam from Kaolack, who are part of the imams and ulamas.
Currently, there is a lot of hope that it will be possible to reform the Family Code. All it would take to begin the dialogue on reform is for the appropriate Senegalese authorities to summon actors in this sector, but it is important to choose the timing well. At the very least, we need to modify the law to allow women the right to sue, to ask for a divorce before the court instead of facing repudiation by men, and to have the possibility of deciding their own marital status and whether they prefer polygamy or monogamy.
But, there remain issues that we must resolve through this dialogue, such as the central point that forms the spirit of the Family Code: the statute of the head of the family, which states that the man is the leader. This positioning is drawn from tradition, because the government of Senghor [first president of Senegal] wanted to work out a compromise between tradition, religion, and modernity and thus to have a law that can support everyone without causing offense. He made that compromise by including that “man is the head of the family” in the Family Code. This statute is currently being disputed by feminist organizations, who propose that the responsibility should instead be shared by the parents in the family, both the man and the woman, and call for reforming the law in this sense of “parental authority.”
Choosing the right moment to advance the law is crucial, especially given all of the national and international crises that we are experiencing. Now is not the best time to bring up the reform and the question of the head of the family; it would only begin a fruitless debate. We must proceed carefully and move toward an extensive reform that incorporates international law within our domestic law. What we need most right now is to advance female leadership and power to ensure that women are involved in the decision-making process. What we have now is not enough, but it is not the moment to reignite pointless disputes over what is left to reform.
There are a lot of organizations and associations tied to women’s issues in Senegal. Are there tensions between the organizations or do you see more solidarity?
The tensions that exist are a result of the rivalry in gaining access to resources, and that is normal. We live in a world of competition, and if you do not take the initiative, then you remain unseen, you do not develop, and you will not have access to resources. There are a tremendous number of organizations, so naturally people will be fighting for resources.
But there is still a very strong sense of solidarity. I can give you an example: women have suffered the violation of their political rights with the lack of enforcement of the gender parity law. All of the women’s organizations have formed a single group that protests the violation and expresses their opposition to the limited engagement of elected women in local government bodies. They have denounced this violation of their rights in the elections.
In every region of Senegal, each of the women’s organizations in RSJ serve as a center of solidarity. For example, Thiès is managed by COFDEF; Kaolack is managed by APROFES; and Tambacounda is managed by DIRFEL. The common area is Dakar, where there are boundary organizations—like RSJ, COSEF, AJS, WILDAF—which bring together all of the organizations. We act together and we speak with one voice.
We have taken action before the court on the enforcement of the gender parity law in city and village councils. We have formulated an appeal to aid elected women who are the victims of the [gender parity law] discrimination. We have distributed the appeal to all of the female candidates and voters in the country so that they can use it before the Court of Appeals in their district. If the Court of Appeals does not deal with it, we will make an appeal to the Supreme Court, and all of the civil society organizations will come together to make an appeal to the Supreme Court.
When we are subjected to an attack on our rights, we become a united force that is indivisible to deal with the perpetrators of the attack, and generally, we win the battle. The women’s organizations are all in solidarity with the core strategic areas concerning the defense of women’s rights, and this is something truly unique in Senegal.
Is COFDEF associated with the Senegalese government?
No, COFDEF is an instrument of the people. It is not associated with the government, and it has nothing to do with the state. It is an organization that is part of civil society.
What is the organizational structure? Are there full-time staff members or is it volunteer-based?
All of the members are volunteers, of course, because COFDEF is rooted in volunteer activism. None of the members or volunteers are paid at the organization. We are engaged in advancing our society, and it has been pure volunteerism and activism that has motivated us since the organization’s creation.
The volunteers have day jobs that pay the bills, but they are not paid by COFDEF. Personally, I am a professional in the Senegalese government, but, as a citizen, I am free to pursue my activism outside of work. I work for my community through COFDEF and RSJ.
The women’s associations that are the most powerful are associated with women that work for the government; sometimes they work for the ministries and sometimes they are ministers themselves. Is there something important about having ties with the government or is this solely a coincidence?
It is just a coincidence. Personally, when I founded COFDEF with the other members in Thiès in 1993, I was a government employee in the office of regional inspection, but I was not well-known before COFDEF.
The reason that so many women in government are associated with women’s organizations may originate from our education. Since high school, we have been involved in leadership training, because we were the leaders as hallways guards of our high school and members of the university’s student union. With this training, awareness, and involvement at the community level, we progressed as leaders. We knew that we had to play a role in the transformation of our communities, but this had nothing to do with the government.
On the contrary, the government fought against us. If our political vision was not aligned with politicians’ ideas, then they treated us as subversives, and as a result we were victims sometimes. However, being treated as subversives has not changed our attitudes because our vision is a conviction. It is an ideology, and we know perfectly well that this society needs to change. There needs to be a commitment to social change, no matter the cost.
Now, the challenge that we face as leaders is that when we are in organizations that strive for social change, we are expected to be among the best there. In high school, our slogan was, “red and expert,” meaning keep demanding until the last drop of blood, but be an expert in all that is asked of you, or else you will be accused of being mediocre. It is that generation which was trained in leadership that today leads the autonomous development organizations.
Do you think that the young women of today—the generation of women who are in high school and college—are motivated in the same way that your generation was?
Unfortunately, no. Their generation is more interested with success in the social lives, which does not include involvement with others in your community, a commitment that is altruistic and often thankless.
For example, I have daughters who are in college, and I know that I have taught them leadership skills. They have continued learning how to be good leaders, and they are now part of the leadership at their schools. However, although they commit themselves to being leaders, they only do so in order to have a better social status and a more comfortable standard of living. Maybe they can continue to lead their society with that goal in mind, but it is not how we lead our communities. We made the commitment to our society without expecting anything in return, and we continue to do it for free. It was our choice, our vision, and our ideology, but the current generation is not engaged in the same way.
Do you have any ideas as to why that is? Why the change?
It is a consequence of social change and transformation. My generation felt like it belonged to the community, and so we felt an obligation to invest our time for the good of our community. But the younger generations do not have the same feeling of belonging or commitment.
Coming back to the idea of development, what do you think the interaction is between religion and development?
It is not only Senegalese society that is transitioning. The world is constantly changing, and every society has a strategy to adopt itself to these social mutations. What we knew 30 years ago is no longer true for today. It is necessary to do research on the capacity of society to change and to integrate new ideas for a positive change.
Senegal is in the Francophone zone, and since independence, we have observed that the era of secularism—which separated the church from power—that followed from the French Revolution has begun to pass. However, it is necessary to refer to shared beliefs and values, whether Christian or Muslim, to enlist and inspire citizens toward a transformational leadership that is both positive, and inclusive, and respectful of diversity.
The same goes in France, where the revolution began. There are questions today about the relationship between social values and human spirituality in the quest for a better life. So, it is necessary to pursue research on these issues, not just in the developed countries of Europe and America, but also in the underdeveloped countries, and specifically in Africa.
Societies need to pull themselves together, because in our current state we can see the resurgence of violence in all its forms, of intolerance, and the reports of dehumanization. We have come to know a type of development focused solely on production and the enjoyment of material goods, but it has not resolved the psycho-social and spiritual dimension of the human being, which needs to feel human, even in poverty. Thus, there is a need to revisit these paradigms of development.
I think those are all of my questions. Thank you so much for this conversation. Do you have any final thoughts that you would like to share?
My final bit of advice is that you spread the theory of repositioning faith in society and development. To save our society, we need to return to spirituality and faith, and to reposition mankind in this dimension. For the young generation of researchers, I would like to see someone really research this agenda. How can we return to the spiritual dimension to ensure a world that is more tranquil, more equal, more united, and cleared of hate and competition? Do we create the necessary conditions to live in harmony with diversity and to respect differences? I have a lot of hope, mostly with the young women, and I am certain that if they master knowledge and science that they will make a difference. I truly have a lot of hope.