Scholar speaks on women’s issues

Alex Belz

Although there have been many steps forward for women in Mali, they are still victimized by physical and emotional abuse, according to a visiting Fulbright scholar from the West African country.

Professor Djeneba Traore, from the University of Bamako in Mali, spoke Tuesday about the empowerment of women in Africa. Her speech, titled the “Empowerment of the African Woman,” discussed the problems women in Africa face in education and marriage.

Traore introduced her speech with a popular saying among African women in Mali today: “To educate a woman means to educate a nation.” She said that she believes a lot of problems could be solved in Africa if women received a better education.

As an example, she used Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the current President of Liberia, and the first black female head of state in Africa. She discussed Sirleaf’s education in America and her forced exile from her home country, which lasted for years. Traore said Sirleaf had struggled her whole life for the education she received, and like most women in Africa, she struggled for political and economic equality.

But Traore said that Sirleaf is a special example.

“For most women, the struggle is much worse,” she said.

Polygamy was still common, both in Mali and throughout Africa. A man was allowed up to four wives. His current wife or wives had no say over whether he could or could not marry other women, according to Traore.

“Once married, the man can do everything he wants,” she said. “The violence against women is still a real problem in Mali.”

After independence, a man had the right to reject his wife, with no reason, and make her leave his home. It was common for the man to do this when his wife grew old, or if she displeased him in some other way, Traore said.

She said that after the first UN World Conference on Women in 1975, Mali began making strides toward equality.

“With the conference,” Traore said, “The government introduced the monogamy option.”

The monogamy option said that if the couple chose to, they could go before the mayor and sign papers to declare themselves monogamous. This did not eradicate polygamy, but was instead an alternative a couple could take.

A man could still force his wife into switching from monogamy back to polygamy. Traore said it was common for a man to beat his wife or threaten to reject her if she did not renounce the monogamy.

After 1990, a democratization movement spread across West Africa. Traore said that before 1990, Mali was ruled by one political party. Now there are 100. But the movement has not created equality for women.

Female genital mutilation, also known as female genital cutting, is still a common practice. Polygamous marriages are still happening throughout Africa. Laws are in place now in Mali against a husband rejecting his wife, but Traore said it still happens.

Traore came to the United States as a Fulbright scholar to the University of Indiana.

Fulbright is a government program that arranges for both American scholars to travel to different nations, and for foreign scholars to come to America.

“I knew there was a Malian scholar in the United States because Fulbright told me,” said Louise Bourgault, an NMU professor and a Fulbright scholar herself. After seeing the announcement which Fulbright sent out to all of its members about Traore, Bourgault arranged for Northern to invite Traore to talk about women’s issues in Africa.

The Kings-Chavez-Parks Initiative played a large role in bringing Traore to NMU. The event was also sponsored by the Communications and Performance Art department, College of Arts and Sciences, College of Professional Studies and the Student Leader Fellowship Program.

Some audience members of the speech were inspired by Traore’s words, such as Susan Pough.

“I thought it was fascinating, sad at times,” said Pough. “It’s like, ‘What can we do to help?'”

When Traore was asked that very question by a different member of the audience, she spoke about several American programs that are helping in Africa and in Mali.

Traore then referenced an old Chinese proverb: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

“America has made an effort, and the people of Africa must do the same,” she said.