Bineta Diop is the Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security to the African Union (AU). The first woman to hold the position of special envoy, Diop is also the founder of Femmes Africa Solidarite (FAS), a non-governmental organisation that promotes women’s rights and interests in Africa. As the daughter of a feminist mother, she managed to complete school in her home country of Senegal, at a time and place where not many women were able to. She studied business in Paris, where she accompanied her husband, a career diplomat, over various countries and events, including to Ethiopia for three years during Emperor Haile Selassie. Having joined the International Commission of Jurists, human rights NGO in Geneva in 1981, she then started FAS in 1996. Diop was also involved in in the development of the African Charter on Human and People’s rights (also known as the Banjul Charter), as well as the Protocol to African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women In Africa (the Maputo Protocol), alongside a group of African lawyers. In her position as Special Envoy, she was instrumental in the development of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda for the AU, and the subsequent Continental Results Framework. She sat down with EBR’s Menna Asrat on the sidelines of the recent African Union Summit, to discuss the developments in the position of women on the continent in light of International Women’s Day 2019. Diop stressed that the AU will continue working on the grassroots level by putting federations of women’s groups, which she calls them ‘the army without guns’ together all over Africa to amplify women voices.
EBR: Was there specific spark that pushed you into a life of championing women’s rights and interests?
Diop: I was mentored by my own mother. I come from a religious and traditional family. I was not supposed to go to school. I was supposed to read the Quran, and get married very early, but my mother was a champion of women’s human rights. She made sure that I attended school. Since childhood, I have been trained in human rights. That’s why I became who I am today.
Being exposed at the international level further helped me to realise that something needed to be done in Africa. When I joined the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights was being drafted. I was recruited to the committee that was in charge of drafting the Human Rights Charter. When the Charter was adopted, I realised that something was missing: women. We were working on the charter, but we didn’t include the rights of women. That was why an additional protocol included later, which is currently known as the Maputo Protocol.
What motivated you to establish Femmes Africa Solidarite (FAS)?
I started my NGO in 1996. During that time, there were a lot of women coming from warzones. The women in crisis motivated many of us, because all of us have suffered in one way or another. We all came from rural areas, we walked kilometres to go to school, we have experienced a lot of suffering. Early marriage happened to many of us, female genital mutilation happened to many of us, even if it’s not my case. So when you see African women suffering, you find yourself in that body. In one way or another, your rights have been violated. Maybe it’s your mother, or your grandmother, or your aunt. This is the suffering that makes you realise that you need to change the status quo, and make sure that the next generation will not suffer in the same way.
What has FAS accomplished so far?
When we started, we brought all our networks together to see where we could make an impact. We advocated for solidarity with women at the grassroots level, who were suffering, for their voices to be heard. Since 1996, FAS has been helping women to transform the conflict filled environment they were residing in. This was done in Liberia and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Our battle was not only to go to and work at the grassroots level, but also to engage with the institutions that could bring the necessary transformations. That has been our approach at FAS, and I think that is why the African Union (AU), under the leadership of [former AU chairperson], Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma requested me to be the AU Special Envoy on Women, Peace and Security.
More and more African governments are embracing gender equality. Countries like Ethiopia have a gender balanced cabinets, and more women are in parliament and other decision making positions. Still, there is dismissive attitude in Africa towards women in leadership positions. What causes this mind set?
First of all, there is a patriarchy. We live in an African society where men have dominated and we women have been part of that. From childhood, men and women are raised differently. Boys are treated like kings while girls are forced to be beneath boys.
This patriarchal system that has sown a seed in the mind of the men will take time to disappear. But we need to fight that and changing the mind-set by showing the cost of losing half of the population in development.
What is the role of women in changing this mind-set?
At the end of the day it is about power. Men tend to ‘know’ everything, but women tend to say, “I’m going to learn about it, or I need experience”. We are modest in showing our experience and expertise. In this world, I think it is time for women to say “I can do it”. This is what I see with the young people. My generation are still shy and don’t want to be involved in politics. But men don’t know either. We have the same experience, or even better because we have been managing our communities and families as well as our societies. We need to fight for the same cause by putting women leaders at the core of the process.
It’s also important that we continue to put our children in universities and encourage learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics. That is where we need to excel, to show the world, not just the continent, what we can do. We are not only fighting the battle for development, but also the battle for our position in society.
As women we should stick together. Women cannot isolate from each other. This is where the men are gaining, because they divide us and make room for themselves. For instance, in the work place when women started to go up the career ladder, you see other women criticising them because the space is so narrow. We should understand this strategy and work to dismantle it. That’s what the African Women Leadership Network is trying to do, to make sure that in our ecosystem of women leadership, we have a support system and protection system.
Men are cruel. The society we have created is cruel. The men fight and we don’t have the same tools for that fight. In the evening, you finish your job without equal pay, and go home and take care of your children. But the men go to the bar and start strategizing. When do we have time to strategize? You are running to pick the kids up from school, and take your mother in law to hospital. But the men have created their own space where they can network and talk. If we don’t have that support we are gone. We need to create our own space.
So women need to create their own safe space and network.
Yes. Just around the coffee table, where we candiscuss our experience, our issues and the problems we are facing. We need to be together, we need to understand each other. If you have a network like the African Women Leadership Network, when you have challenges in your workplace, you can talk about how to solve it. That’s what we need to understand about networks. That’s why we need to stick together. We need to be together, whatever position you occupy. Even more, we have to support women in higher positions because it is by putting women leaders at the core of the process that we can make a difference.
Some critics say that it doesn’t matter if there are women on the top levels, nothing will change in everyday life for women on the ground.
First of all, we have not been clever enough to show the difference we make. For example, we’ve seen the former president of Liberia and other women transforming their countries. But do we quantify their contributions to that process? No.
It’s time for us to start saying it and showing it, documenting it and quantifying it. That’s where the media comes in. That’s where the researchers come in. It’s a societal change that men and women need to make together. We don’t show that we are transforming, so everyone says where is the evidence?
The World Bank talks about how much the economy loses without women. Now we are collecting data to show it. We need African women to get involved in that and share our experiences.
The women of Liberia have done it, the women in this country have done it and the women in South Africa have done it. At the end of the day we deliver. Women will never stop until it’s done. They only sit down after they are finished. But they never claim that they have done it. It’s important for the next generation to see what we do, and learn from it.
For example, the Pan African Women’s Organisation (PAWO), was the first to talk about pan-Africanism. They were created one or two years before the OAU. It’s only now we are recognising them.
So it’s still this problem of being modest about achievements.
Generally, the experience of women is different from men, and we need both to make sure we do the right thing for the society. I think the transformation also goes through education. We need to educate our children, especially right now. The world is moving very fast. New technology is coming. We need to understand science and innovation. We haven’t transformed and we don’t have industry in Africa. Africa has to do research, and give resources to universities and think-thanks to make sure the reform is successful.
That should be, for us as women, a priority to be at the front of everything, equal to men. It’s not just men can and women can’t.
Regarding the framework for Women, Peace and Security, there were only 23 countries that signed. Is there a plan to get other AU member states involved?
Currently, we are rolling out the framework and we are going to make sure that it is adopted by all our member states. We hope that in the coming years, we make sure that at least two-thirds of member states will have an instrument that talks about implementation. We started with 16 countries, but we have more now. I think we will not stop there. We will make sure each member has an instrument for Women Peace and Security. Our motto is ‘Silencing the Guns by 2020’, but it has to continue with prevention. It’s not because you are in conflict that you need this instrument, but because you need to prevent, because you want to resolve conflict without violence, and because you need to rebuild your society. That’s why it needs to be adopted and implemented by all member states.
The report we are publishing annually will show the face of the African women. We wanted to show their stories and practices to other countries to share good practices.
The resolutions are signed by more but nothing happens. Is there a solution to that?
Most of it is about leadership. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD) surprised everyone when he went to Eritrea and silenced the guns between the two countries and ensured peace. That is leadership, the will of the leader. If you want you can do it.
What we need is to implement the policy. We adopt a lot but we don’t implement. I think there is a political will at play as well. What is missing is the operationalization. So we decided to help our member states to operationalise. When we started we had maybe 16 countries that had national action plans for Women, Peace and Security, but now we have around 23 countries. We also have regional entities that have adopted regional action plans.
During this February summit, we launched the Continental Framework which was adopted by the Peace and Security Council. In April, we will be launching the first report based on the Continental Reporting Framework. It’s about action and implementation.
We continue working on the ground, putting federations of women’s groups together. The network of women will amplify our voices. I call them the army without guns. If you have the army without guns, we will be able to change those who have guns. Women are the backbone of society. They have the tools, they have the knowledge, and they have the expertise. You can have a beautiful strategy, but you need the doers and the makers.
That’s why we pushed for women mediators. We train them in centres of excellence in Ghana, Senegal and South Africa. Now we have a pool, called Fem-Wise. Tomorrow, when any former president or IGAD, or someone does talks in South Sudan for example, we will have enough women mediators who can represent the women’s voices and make sure they are included in the peace accord.
Most of the time, our crises are the result of bad governance. So let’s make sure that women are included in the preventive measures and in governance. When they see that war is coming, they also see what they’re going to lose.
I applaud Prime Minister Abiy. He’s bringing women to the forefront. It was really inspiring even to us who are his elders. He has not been in genocide to understand there is a need to get was out of this zone, but also to get women to the front.
One of the things he did is to have women in charge of peace. We are now changing the narrative. I see in many countries, they talk about not just health ministers, but also minister of prosperity, or minister of joy. Those are things we need to promote. I think Abiy really is changing the narrative for Africa.
Last year, you headed up a committee to investigate what was termed ‘gender apartheid’ at the AU. At the end of it, there was some talk about implementing a gender guideline for the Union. Has that been done?
There is something I want to rectify here. Our mandate was not about investigating sexual harassment. The ‘Me Too’ movement has shifted our minds on sexual harassment. Zero tolerance, like Chairman Moussa Faki says. But this investigation was on harassment, which you have the workplace in many forms. It can be bullying, it can be anything. Also, the issue is that sometimes, you will see that men harass, but also women harass. It becomes a system. For us it’s important not to talk about the findings because the person, who asked us, the Chairperson, received our recommendations to look at the cases and study them and give justice to those who came forward. It is implemented quietly because people need to be protected. It’s important that he’s not making noise about it, but he’s started implementing it.
Some say that the AU has not fulfilled its objective of helping countries solve conflicts. Somalia and South Sudan are still in crisis, among other countries.
I think it’s a matter of looking at the glass as half full, or half empty. Being in conflict zones, I’ve seen tremendous efforts to solve conflicts. When I started in the 90s, there was a lot of crisis in West Africa. We solved some of those problems. It was African troops that went in. We solved conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In addition, we prevented conflict in Gambia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. We have invested a lot as Africans. We have the experience. That’s why when you go to Somalia, you see Ethiopian troops. We have the tools and instruments, whatever we need to make sure we can solve our problems ourselves by having the right tools for mediation. There is one good thing we did. We said, no military coups. If you carry out a military coup, you don’t sit in the AU.
Of course on the other side, you see that still we can’t solve the conflict in South Sudan, because of various reasons. But I’m sure that because we really want to silence the guns, there will be more and more resources to put together.
I think we’ll invest more and more in our peace ourselves, because we need peace. Without peace, we will not have development. We need development because Africa needs to take its right seat in the global world. We are not represented in the UN’s Security Council as a permanent seat. Maybe we have to create our own seat in Africa. When you have your own seat in the continent you will be able to get your seat elsewhere.
8th Year • Mar.16 – Apr.15 2019 • No. 72