Bustling Senegal set the scene for passionate debate, robust reflection, slam poetry and much laughter this April at the first West Africa transformative feminist leadership workshop – brought together by our Women’s Empowerment and Leadership Development for Democratization programme (WELDD). An impressive group of emerging female leaders from Mali, Niger and Senegal came together for five intense days of capacity building, awareness-raising and strategizing under the blazing Dakar sun. Young women from the grassroots, our participants were a diverse and dynamic group from policy, journalism, NGO, legal, development and political backgrounds, all committed to the ultimate pursuit of gender justice. Amidst a backdrop of instability and violence brought on by militant fundamentalists in Mali, these women shared their stories of strength and resilience in the face of ongoing challenges to women’s equality, and discussed their dreams for the future.
These feisty young activists had the opportunity to engage with inspirational and committed trainers from Senegal, Niger, Nigeria, Algeria and abroad. Sessions and group debates and discussions were chaired by this collection of highly experienced women’s rights activists and academics, including the irrepressible WLUML International Director Fatou Sow.
Human rights lawyers met campaigners and researchers, professors met lobbyists and NGO founders, all with a long history of fighting on the front-lines, during sessions on Islam and feminism, lobbying through the law, women’s political participation, cultural/religious fundamentalism, campaigning, communications and new technology, and human rights mechanisms. These in-depth discussions allowed workshop participants the space to work through a wide range of modes of feminist activism and discuss the complex dynamics of inter-generational feminism.
Together these changemakers, participants and trainers both, worked to answer the burning questions – what is feminist leadership? How does one become a transformative feminist leader? What can a feminist leader do to address persistent and multi-varied gender inequality and discrimination, and how can they negotiate positive change in their local contexts? By the end of those heady five days, these young women had explored a broad conceptual and practical understanding of feminist leadership by locating it within contemporary contexts and by arriving at an understanding that a truly feminist form of leadership must be transformative, inclusive, supportive and sustainable. In order to further explore what it means for a feminist movement to be sustainable, our group of activists also attended important sessions on self-care for women human rights defenders.
Our workshop participants and trainers all face different struggles in their respective environments, yet they are simultaneously drawn together by the sense of solidarity in common struggle for women’s rights, and by the commonalities that arise from living in Muslim contexts.
Ultimately our time in Dakar brought us together and tapped into our increased hope and vision for the future. The workshop was a vibrant space to debate feminist alternatives to the legal, political, socio-cultural and economic status quo. It was a space to look out on to the azure Atlantic Ocean and reflect with feminist colleagues on our shared struggle across the region and around the world. And it was a time for reflection and realization that we carry the kernel of change within us. Our time is now.