SEATTLE — In 2010, Senegal passed the Gender Parity Law, which requires that at least half of all candidates from all political parties in local and national elections are women. After the 2012 election year, the number of female parliamentarians in Senegal’s National Assembly rose from 23 percent to 44 percent, as 65 of the 150 total seats became occupied by women. The country also has a female prime minister, Aminata Touré, appointed in 2014 by President Macky Sall.
Even so, a portion of Senegal remains highly patriarchal in terms of attitudes toward women and their roles in society. In some areas, women are uneducated and live in poverty because of that discrimination, lacking access to proper health knowledge due to still being considered second-class citizens.
Work continues toward a shift in perspectives. Strong role models, opportunities for small businesses and community support groups abound. Fatou Mbacké used her dowry to start a small peanut butter factory and empowers women through employment, running business classes for women out of her home and by giving small no-interest loans to women who want to earn income independently. Coudy Binta De created Senegal’s first “tech hub” run by and for women to help girls and women acquire skills needed in the nation’s booming tech industry. Women in some villages have made use of clean energy to improve their homes and create goods for sale, thereby becoming experts in the energy decision-making process as well.
But gender equality must go from being an emerging trend to a way of life. And women’s empowerment in Senegal starts at the beginning – healthy pregnancy and healthy infancy.
Though women play the key role in raising the nation’s children, so many are still denied proper health education because of their gender. The link between malnutrition and ability to learn is proven, and the impact begins during pregnancy. Maternal malnutrition affects 22 percent of women in Senegal; 18 percent of newborn babies exhibit low birth weight (and a subsequent drop of five IQ points) and anemia caused by iron deficiency prevails in 60 percent of children between the ages of six months and five years old (and a potential eight-point drop in IQ). Subpar breastfeeding practices affect 66 percent of infants six months and younger, adding another IQ drop of four points. And iodine deficiency, preventable yet still common, leads to a permanent 10- to 15-point IQ drop.
Under the prime minister’s direction, Senegal is working toward the reform and implementation of nutrition plans across the nation. Through additional policy changes, women and men in positions of authority can provide the nation’s women with better access to health education. Knowledge of optimal breastfeeding practices and reproductive health encourages thriving pregnancies and infancies. In learning their health rights and responsibilities, women’s empowerment in Senegal creates a stronger community — healthier children attend school longer, resulting in more contributions to productivity and income.
Health and aptitude for learning begin at the maternal and infant stage, and are the core of the nation’s productivity. Support for policymakers promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in Senegal are key to the nation’s progress.
– Jaymie Greenway