On the 27th of October, 2014, a million people marched on the streets of Ouagadougou, demanding then-President Blaise Compaoré resign after 27 years in power.
Among the crowds, many women brandished brooms, spatulas and pestles, objects that symbolised the need to swipe out corruption from Burkina Faso. Today, the country prepares for a new round of elections – but not everything has turned out as the demonstrators had hoped.
The relatively peaceful transition of power that followed the protests – which ended one year later with the appointment of Roch Marc Christian Kaboré as the new president – was hailed as a positive example for nearby African countries. Yet, in recent years, the government has struggled to control a wave of escalating violence, as armed groups linked to ISIS and al-Qaeda have taken control of large swathes of territory, especially in the eastern region and close to the borders with Mali, Niger and Cote d’Ivoire.
As a result, an estimated 1 million people have been displaced, and almost half of them are not able to register to vote. The concern is that, once disenfranchised of their right to vote, some could feel abandoned by the government and become recruiting targets for the same terrorist groups that forced them to flee their homes.
“It’ll be up to the government to ensure that the people living in those areas are represented in Parliament,” says Kabré Habibou, a member of the Association de Femme Juristes du Burkina, a group that works throughout the country to defend and protect the rights of women and girls – a demographic that constitutes 84 percent of those forced to flee conflict.
While the constitution of Burkina Faso clearly enforces gender equality, women are still by far the country’s most vulnerable. According to Oxfam, more than a million women and girls in Burkina Faso are facing increased sexual violence, hunger and water shortage as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, on top of the existing conflict.
The current emergency exacerbates a situation where – especially in rural areas – some village chiefs dismiss the attempt to promote women’s rights as a form of late colonial influence. Amnesty International reports that only 64 percent of girls in the country are able to go to school, and many have to leave to get married or take on domestic work.
The current government has committed to tackle gender-related issues, with mixed results. “In 2016, a law was passed that grants free healthcare for pregnant women and children under five, but only under certain conditions,” explains Kabré. “On the other hand, the new penal code improved the judiciary process for gender-related crimes. As an example, the final verdict for a rape case used to take up to ten years, now it’ll take only three to five months.”
Last January, the government also reviewed a law around female quotas in elections. In a country in which women account for less than 10 percent of the national assembly, every party that enters the race is now required to have women making up at least 30 percent of its candidates.
“The problem is that complying parties receive a financial bonus to use on their campaign, but there are no sanctions for those who don’t apply the female quotas,” explains Kabré. Of the three women who ran for president, only one remains in the race: Yeli Monique Kam, a manager and advocate for women empowerment.
“We will see who gets elected and what he or she’ll do for the women of this country,” says Kabre. As she and other female voters prepare to head to the polls, no candidate should underestimate their role in shaping the future of the county. In their bags, there may still be brooms and pestles.
A number of women in more rural areas are coming together to build communal development associations that might, in future, be key to ensure women in these regions are empowered to fight for change. VICE News spoke to a few about the work they are doing and what they hope will come from it.
A broad smile opens on Jeanne Collogo’s face as she hands a parcel of couscous to a woman from the local neighbourhood. The customer extracts a few francs’ worth, thanks her and walks off along a red earth road on the outskirts of Koudougou, a city west of the capital.
Jeanne, 61, returns to the shop where she sells the goods produced by her association. Local markets were flooded with products processed elsewhere, so Jeanne and her companions decided to create a small company that processes and packages local products. The raw material is cereals, which they buy in local markets to prepare biscuits, couscous and corn spaghetti.
Founded in 2005, the association is called Zeemstaba, which in moré - the local language - means “agreement for the work”, but also “agreement for the group”. It is a collective of about 15 women of all ages.
"I hope that Zeemstaba can become a structure that creates work for the future generations," Jeanne says. “Before founding the association I was a farmer in the savanna. Then, urbanisation and privatisation reduced the arable land, so we decided to quit working in the fields and found the association.”
It’s 7AM in the morning on the outskirts of Koudougou, and about ten women are bent over in a tomato field. They fill a dozen crates, then before the sun is high they get on the back of a moto-taxi and return to the city.
“There are times of the year when many tomatoes are produced, which are largely thrown away because there is not enough demand,” says Sarina Yameogo, the president of the Beonere association of Koudougou. “The idea of making preserves comes from this fact.”
Today, the association is made up of 25 women and five young people, who work hard in its headquarters, a small warehouse inside a large fenced yard. It’s a very organised production process: one group is in charge of washing the tomatoes, another cuts them, and yet another crushes them until they are pulp. Other women take care of sterilising the jars and boiling the preserves.
“My biggest dream is seeing our association grow, and every woman in it become self-sufficient and financially independent,” says Sarina.
As the sun rises over the village of Kindi, Elisabeth Kabore, 43, walks out onto the backyard of her home. A few hens cackle around her, as her daughter rubs her eyes.
It is 7AM. Soon, she will be joined by ten other women from Kindi, who for some years have also been her companions in the Beo Nere association, which in the local language means “a better tomorrow”.
Beo Nere produces soap and neem oil, which are obtained from the leaves of the neem tree. Known for its antibacterial properties, neem is also important in the prevention of malaria, which is a widespread problem in this region.