Professor Speaks on Gender Rights in Senegal

April 16, 2008

In a talk titled "The Challenges of Promoting Gender Rights in Africa: The Case of Senegal," Fatou Kiné Camara described how the remnants of colonialism have restricted access to justice for women.

A professor at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, Camara noted that the country's judicial system mandates French as the official language of the court, which most Senegalese don't understand. (Camara is collaborating with the Ethics Center on the Know Your Rights! project, which aims to create and disseminate information on human and peoples' rights in selected African languages.) In addition, the judicial system abolished the traditional indigenous laws of Senegal, which focused more on restoration than retribution.

"We still see these tribunals as the same tribunals that were there during colonial times," she said. "People still see tribunals as places where people are oppressed and humiliated."

This perception breeds mistrust and fear about using the court system, she said. Women are further constrained, according to Camara, by social pressure that makes it difficult to file a complaint. While indigenous laws empowered women to protect themselves, the family law code says that men have a "master's power" over their families, she said. For example, after a 12-year-old girl fled the man she was forced to marry, a judge sentenced her to two months in jail for abandoning the marital home.

A lack of access to the system particularly affects rural women, with only one judge for every 30,000 citizens and few female lawyers in the country, Camara said. And the cost to file a complaint is prohibitive for most women — often the equivalent of a month's wages.

She advocated that the country "get over [its] colonial hangover" by bringing down the language barrier, establishing state-sponsored alternative dispute resolution centers, and promoting gender parity in the judiciary.

The talk was sponsored by the Ethics Center, the Heller School, and the Brandeis African Student Forum.