Benin, West Africa: Three Models of Women’s Empowerment

[This post is by Pedro Egounleti & Yanick St Jean]

Africa is patriarchal and the republic of Benin a reflection of this system. In Benin women are often praised, not for hard work or achievements, but for their deep involvement in the performance of chores and total submissiveness to men. In Benin, married men like to have their meals cooked and clothes washed by their wives regardless of profession or social class. Few consult with their wives before making a decision about their household. Yanick St Jean who, for first time in October 2006, came to visit Benin with the Fulbright Program delivered a series of conferences to students at the University of Abomey-Calavion the topic “Black Women Empowerment.” At the end of the program, one of the assignments given to the students was to research West African intellectuals who contributed to the empowerment of women in West Africa and the world. During students’ presentations several names were mentioned including three women from Benin: Rosine Vierra SOGLO, Marie Elise GBEDO and Angelique KIDJO. All studied Law and have a political background that enabled them, to some extent, to cross traditional patriarchal boundaries in their country and help their Beninese counterparts achieve emancipation. Rosine Vierra SOGLO, is the wife of Nicephore Dieu Donné SOGLO, first democratically elected President of Benin

She is the leader of the most influential political party “la Renaissance du Bénin” with the largest number of female parliamentarians during the legislative elections of 1996. In 2002, Rosine Vierra SOGLO introduced an amendment to the Family Code modified in 2004. According to the new Family Code women are allowed, for the first time, to inherit their parents’ estate. Moreover, widows are no longer obliged to marry their late husband son or brother. Most of all, polygamy has become illegal, and women should be consulted by their spouse before any decision concerning their family is made (see here). Rosine Vierra SOGLO has been supporting girls’ primary education and lending money to poor women in rural areas through her Non Governmental Organization (NGO) VIDOLE (children have benefits). The achievements of Rosine Vierra SOGLO have inspired many sub-Sahara parliamentarians who succeeded in modifying the Family Code of their countries such as neighbouring Togo, Niger, and Mali.

Marie Elise GBEDO graduated from Law School in 1984. She is the first African women candidate for presidential elections (2001 and 2006). Appointed Minister of Commerce and Tourism in 1998, GBEDO became chairperson of the first commission of the world Tourism Organization for Africa in 1999. As the vice president of Beninese women lawyers Association, she joined hands with other women intellectuals to fight genital mutilation and other abuses directed to women. Daily in her office in Cotonou, she welcomes women victims of rape and all sorts of abuses. She offers them legal services free of charge. GBEDO resigned from President Mathieu Kerekou’s government in 2000 after being accused of too much transparency over certain political and economic issues (See “Le Matinal” N°153). In “the Amazone Candidate”, a film about African politics translated in two local languages (Fongbe and Mina), GBEDO openly criticized political corruption, injustice, poor governance and set herself against different forms of oppression and exploitation of which women are victims. At the end of the film GBEDO suggests a peaceful solution for women empowerment in Benin – hard work and democracy.

The famous singer Angelique KIDJO nicknamed “the hope of Africa” uses her songs to emphasize the qualities of Black women. Through her hits, she denounces the stumbling blocks to Africa’s development as well as traditional beliefs, in her view, maintain African women in poverty and ignorance. KIDJO who has more than ninety titles recorded many songs for movies. She is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002 and, as such, set up the Batonga foundation which gives girls a secondary as well as higher education. The goal is to train leaders who can change Africa. KIDJO received numerous awards: Octave RFI, 1992; Prix d’Afrique en création; Danish Music Awards for the best African female artist, 1997; Mobo Awards, 2002; NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding world Music Album, 2008; Grammy Award for best Contemporary World Music Album 2008.

Rosine Vierra SOGLO, Marie Elise GBEDO and Angelique KIDJO, three Beninese intellectuals have not only overcome traditional barriers reinforced by institutional structures that keep women in shackles of poverty and illiteracy, but also succeeded in freeing other women from abuses and exploitation in their community. These intellectual endeavours have led to significant changes in governmental decision regarding free primary education for girls, and the inclusion of women in government and other institutions. However, the battle for women empowerment is just beginning.

~Pedro Egounleti
Graduate Student at the University of Abomey-Calavi
Dr. Yanick St. Jean,
Fulbright Fellow in Africa.

Debate on US Foundations: Supporting Racism Studies?

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has an interesting debate on studies of systemic (structural) racism funded by a few foundations. In a May 15, 2008 article, “Philanthropy’s Jeremiah Wright Problem,” William A. Schambra argues sensationally thus:

“Many Americans were startled to learn that the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, whose campaign is built on an uplifting message of national unity and racial reconciliation, belongs to a church in Chicago where a very different view of America is preached by its longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Then he adds melodramatically:

Americans might be further surprised to learn that grants from the nation’s largest foundations sustain a similarly harsh view of a nation riven by an unrelenting and deeply oppressive racial divide. America, in this view, is steeped in “structural racism.” This “refers to a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial-group inequity,” according to “Structural Racism and Community Building,” a 2004 report from the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change (supported by the Annie E. Casey, Charles Stewart Mott, W.K. Kellogg, Rockefeller, and Ford foundations, among others).

He is critical of this foundational support for research and perspectives on structural racism, which concept and historical reality he seems to know nothing about. (He could look here and here, for a little education, perhaps.) He concludes his reactionary piece, thus:

Senator Obama ultimately decided that Mr. Wright’s “incendiary language” — language so similar to that thrown about freely by structural-racism theorists — reflected “views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation.” Could the same be said about some grants made by our largest foundations?

Then there is the supportive view of what a few foundations are doing on systemic racism issues, and a critique of Schambra’s white-oriented thinking playing down systemic racism, by Aaron Dorman & Niki Jagpal, “Foundations and ‘Structural Racism’: Take Another Look,” a reply to the reactionary article on May 28, 2008:

But a clearer, more accurate picture of structural racism begs for a comprehensive definition that takes into account the milieu of the analysis. Moreover, Mr. Schambra uses the most seemingly provocative statements from the many reports he cites, but when read in context, the quotes are far less “startling” than Schambra would have readers believe. Andrew Grant-Thomas and John A. Powell offer a simple framework that describes structural racism as emphasizing “the powerful impact of interinstitutional dynamics, institutional resource inequities, and historical legacies on racial inequalities today.”

Then they point out that foundations are not doing all that much in support of critical systemic racism analysis:

Readers are left with the impression that our large national foundations are aggressively funding some radical leftist agenda that the American public is utterly unfamiliar with and, if enlightened, would be unsupportive of. Unfortunately, he fails to take into account key giving trends, resulting in an inaccurate, if not misleading, picture of the current state of philanthropy in the United States. Let’s look at the numbers. In a 2005 report, Independent Sector and the Foundation Center found that social-justice grant making in 1998 and 2002 comprised a meager 11 percent of overall foundation giving, and only a fraction of that was grants for issues identified by the structural-racism framework as barriers to equality. . . . . Is it true that our large foundations are so acutely aware of race and oppression in their grant making that they prioritize racially specific grants? Again, the data suggest otherwise. The 2008 edition of the Foundation Center’s annual Foundation Giving Trends: Update on Funding Priorities notes that in 2006, funding for racial or ethnic minorities increased by only 5.5 percent, while overall grant making rose by 16.4 percent.

Then they add this:

The structural-racism framework posits that analyses of racial inequality that ignore the historical decisions that led to institutional barriers to equality of achievement are insufficient in understanding race in the United States. To that end, explicitly identifying deliberate policy decisions that persist as barriers to equality is an integral component of any work that truly seeks to affect change in American racial attitudes.

Then take Schambra to task too for misrepresentations of philanthropic foundations:

In fact, a decade of research by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy shows how conservative foundations have been strategically advancing their agenda by providing sympathetic think tanks and advocacy organizations with flexible and multiyear grants, and supporting programs that specifically target public policy and promote conservative ideas.

And conclude with a pregnant question indeed:

In response, we ask: Why are the small percentage of structural-racism grants a cause for concern among Mr. Schambra and leaders of conservative foundations who have been so successful themselves at actually influencing government and policy decisions? Why should progressive foundations apologize for seeking to effectively address the needs of marginalized communities by funding organizations that seek to transform the institutions that perpetuate social inequities?

Why indeed?