Dakar — A record number of women were sworn in as legislators as Senegal's new parliament was inaugurated on Monday.
Sixty-four women now have seats in this West African country's 150-member National Assembly, thanks to a law on gender parity.
But the breakthrough made by women candidates has relaunched a debate on the quality of their work in the legislature.
Elections to the National Assembly, the lower of two houses of parliament, took place on Jul 1, and were comfortably won by the Benno Bokk Yaakaar coalition (BBY), whose candidate - Macky Sall - won the presidential election in March.
But the poll also served as a test of a Parity Law passed in 2010 which required all 24 parties and coalitions to put forward equal numbers of men and women on their candidate lists.
Shortly before the legislative elections, the government and women's organisations conducted a major awareness campaign about the law.
"Our objective was to see women take 40 to 45 percent of the seats," said Fatou Kiné Diop, president of the National Parity Observatory (ONP), which was set up under the presidency in 2011.
The campaign would seem to have been a success, with the proportion of female legislators jumping from 22 percent in the previous parliament to 43 percent for the incoming session.
"The Parity Law has been decisive. It has been a big boost for women," Diop told IPS.
"The critical mass of women elected - thanks to the Parity Law - should allow us to make some important changes in the National Assembly," new MP Elène Tine told IPS.
But the breakthrough has already attracted criticism.
The lower house of parliament is often considered to be a rubber stamp for the president's decisions. Sall's BBY coalition took 119 of the 150 seats, but the new MPs - men and women alike - campaigned with a view to breaking with the past and restoring an independent role for the National Assembly in passing legislation and serving as a check on the executive.
Questions have been raised over the role that women will play in a newly assertive legislature.
"The quality of debate in the National Assembly is seen as relatively low, particularly since the passing of the Parity Law," said Diop. "And the people who feel that way place the blame for this on women."
But Georges Nesta Diop, political editor for the privately owned daily newspaper Walfadjri, disagreed. "The quality of women's contribution to parliamentary debate can only be as good as the quality of the new legislature itself," he said.
"Most of the newly-elected women have demonstrated a high intellectual level - even if that's not necessarily the case for those from the BBY majority. They are nearly all of leadership calibre and have established profiles," the journalist told IPS.
"A woman like Sokhna Dieng Mbacké (a journalist and former senator) will be on familiar ground in parliament. Mama Mbayame Guèye is a doctor. Fatou Thiam is a health worker. Elène Tine, trained as an archivist, was the long-time spokesperson for the Alliance of Progressive Forces (an opposition party)," said Nesta Diop.
"This group won't want to just make up the numbers in the National Assembly. These women will want to take up the challenge of the quality of parliamentary debate at all costs," he added.
Sociologist Fanta Diallo, a member of the Dakar City Council, also hoped for a strong performance by women members over the five-year term of the legislature. "Contrary to what many people think, for the most part the women who have been elected are strong candidates," she told IPS.
The breakthrough in the legislature has sparked ambitions in Senegal, where women make up 52 percent of the population. The Parity Law needs to be applied to state-owned enterprises and several important economic sectors, such as agriculture and fisheries, said Diop, "to ensure that resources are allocated equitably between men and women."
Unfortunately the law applies only to elected positions, said Khady Fall Tall, president of the West African Women's Association.
Walfadjri's Nesta Diop thinks that coming out of these legislative elections, women will be emboldened to press for equal access to decision-making. "Women have won a victory and will no longer back down or make concessions over their representation in institutions, whether they are elected or not."
But he warned that parity will not be achieved based on simple mathematical calculations. "It's not easy to find politically engaged women, yet this type of engagement is needed to challenge for elected positions," he said. "But I believe that women are ready to lead this political fight."
The presence of 64 women in the National Assembly will encourage women to enter politics, said Fall. But, she added, "It would be terrible if they enter politics only to keep their seats warm."
For her part, Tine said: "The social roles assigned to Senegalese women should have a positive impact on the National Assembly in terms of our mandate; if not, this will be a failure."
Copyright © 2012 Inter Press Service. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.
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