Burkinabé women face obstacles in achieving and ensuring their rights. To help them, a group of women legal experts have come together as the Association des Femmes Juristes (Association of Legal Expert Women) of Burkina Faso. Its programme coordinator, Christiane Zaï/Nikiema, sheds light on the obstacles to women’s rights and highlights possible changes.
Introduce us in a few words to the Association des Femmes Juristes of Burkina Faso (AFJ/BF). Why was the association created?
The Association des Femmes Juristes of Burkina Faso was created in 1993 and was officially recognised in 1994. This association of women legal experts realised that women in Burkina Faso had difficulties in accessing justice. They created this association to help their sisters in Burkina Faso.
Currently, the association has more than 270 members: women legal experts and girls who hold a Bachelor’s degree in law or higher.
The association is organised along four pillars: training, legal assistance, awareness-raising and advocacy. The association works for the promotion, defence and protection of the rights of women and girls in Burkina Faso. Its vision is to contribute to the effectiveness of women’s and girls’ rights in Burkina.
What are the obstacles that prevent women from fully exercising their rights in Burkina?
There are many obstacles.
There are difficulties related to the lack of knowledge of their rights and the fear of going to court. Women ask themselves: will I be able to express myself and be heard so that I can defend my rights?
Other barriers related to socio-cultural constraints and customs mean that women do not really have access to their rights. For example, a woman who wants to ask for a divorce or make a paternity claim will encounter obstacles because in our customs, the woman must be submissive. The patriarchal system makes it difficult for women to fully enjoy their rights, to express themselves. When faced with a problem, people usually say that the man should speak. The woman just listens.
Society’s view is also an obstacle. Will a woman who wants a divorce or who wants to be a politician be well regarded? Women leaders at the political level are sometimes considered to be rebellious.
There are also barriers related to women’s workload and pay. In Burkina Faso, there are many duties that fall to women. She has to get pregnant, then take care of the children’s education. The man is much freer. The workload does not allow women to be really involved in politics or even to enjoy their rights. In addition, a woman who wants to go to court, if she cannot afford a lawyer for her defence, will lose her case. It must also cover travel expenses, as the justice system is not always close to the people.
There is also a lack of political will. The majority of politicians are men, and they are not ready – they often say so – to give up power.
Barriers also arise from a lack of trust: there is a perception that as women they cannot run the country and participate meaningfully in development. They are thus excluded from the system. And they lack self-confidence because they have not been prepared to take the stage, and this hinders their commitment.
At the political level, what is the share of women elected at local and national level?
Currently, at the Transitional Legislative Assembly level, we have 14 women out of 71 people, i.e. a share of 19.7%, and at the government level, we have 5 women out of 23 people, i.e. 21.7%. Since 2016 and the last elections in Burkina Faso, the figures are mixed. Apart from the presence of women at the municipal level as councillors, the numbers have decreased with each election.
The 2009 Gender Quota Act showed its limitations and the 2020 revised text did not help women’s participation in the new politics. This law contains what we call “bonus sanctions” because if you don’t comply with the law, you don’t have any sanctions. As a result, political parties did not feel obliged to nominate women for election. We are not satisfied with this law and we believe that we must work to improve it.
How does the Association des Femmes Juristes support women to facilitate their participation in politics?
The Association des Femmes Juristes of Burkina Faso is apolitical, but it is involved in political education. The association organises training for women, whether in political parties or in civil society, on the themes of women’s leadership, communication and political rights.
We also raise awareness among the population to show the importance of politics for everyone, the importance of enrolment, and for men to encourage their sisters and wives to get involved in politics to participate in development.
We also do advocacy work. We are involved in the advocacy for the gender quota law, so that these texts are favourable to women and that they can really get involved.
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In law school, are women as well represented as men in Burkina Faso? And what about the representation of women in the legal profession?
I don’t have the exact enrolment figures, but when I was in law school, there were quite a few girls, just like in health and some other fields. So I don’t think that training is a barrier to the enjoyment and development of women’s rights.
But the education of young girls is not as easy as that of men because the young girl encounters several obstacles that can impact her and prevent her from going all the way: menstrual problems, pregnancies, children to raise. The training courses are long: currently in Burkina Faso it can take two years to complete the first year. Women get married when they are still in school, at university or even in high school. They end up with pregnancies that can really impact their lives.
What actions carried out by the Association des Femmes Juristes of Burkina Faso have really enabled women to enjoy their rights?
On the ground, we are seeing changes and developments. Our association and other structures train judicial stakeholders on the legal texts that exist and that are favourable to women.
There is also training for extrajudicial stakeholders (social services, health workers, teachers, etc.) on women’s rights in general and on gender-based violence, to enable them to be referral actors, since women turn to them when they are victims of violence. Once these actors are trained and made aware, they become allies and they accompany women more easily.
We have also set up what we call legal clinics at the level of the Association of Women Lawyers. We currently have four, two of which are in Ouagadougou, where we treat women victims of violence. They receive legal, judicial and psychological assistance. In the legal clinic at our headquarters in Ouagadougou, we received nearly 500 women in 2022.
As a woman legal expert, on what issues are you most solicited by Burkinabe women?
Women ask us to inform them about their rights. These awareness-raising events are a time for women to get together and talk about their daily problems. They take advantage of these moments to ask questions, share their difficulties and get solutions on the spot. These awareness-raising activities enable women to open up and access justice when needed.
We are also asked about gender-based violence. You have been brought up in a certain way for years, you have accepted certain ‘normal’ practices and through awareness raising you realise that such actions were in fact acts of violence. Thus, they come to know what violence is and which structures they can turn to for a solution to their problem.
What are the main areas of advocacy of the Association des Femmes Juristes of Burkina Faso for women’s rights?
Today, we are making a plea to obtain the implementation decree of Act 061 on the prevention, repression and reparation of violence against women. The law has been in place since 2015, but it does not have an implementing decree. If this law is implemented, it will really help women.
There is also the Gender Quota Act that needs to be revised because it is not binding enough. Sometimes men say: “we are not going to make room for women”, but the debate can be distorted between men and women. Thanks to these texts, women will be able to participate at the same level as men. There is no point in women being numerous and men deciding for them. Capable, intelligent women are resources that we are losing because they don’t speak out.
There is also the law on reproductive health, Act 049, which does not have an implementing decree either.
The revision of the Persons and Family Code is currently underway. There have been workshops, but it is not yet on the agenda of the National Assembly for adoption.
What message do you want to send to the women of Burkina Faso?
If we want to move forward, we need to use the education of our children to achieve our goals. If today it is difficult for women to participate, to access their rights, we can do it by starting with our children.
We usually say that women are not educated. But you don’t have to go to school to say what you think or what you need. You can say it in your own language. This dialogue must be initiated so that women can express themselves, say what they think, in the way that is easiest for them. Often one has the impression that political debates take place between intellectuals. I think that for participation in development, one does not need to speak French. We just need to be understood and it is important to allow women to express themselves. If we want them to reach a certain level, they have to be trained in politics to really get involved.