Women in Togo are at the core of development and political change

Women in Togo are at the core of development and political change

Togolese musician Milly Parkeur talks to young students in rural Togo during her tour in collaboration with Plan International.

(Atomik Corporation)

“When a woman succeeds…it’s the whole village that succeeds.” With these words, Togolese singer Milly Parkeur addressed girls and boys from villages in Togo in June about sexual consent. In this west African country with a population of about 7.8 million people, women still face daily economic and social challenges, despite being the pillars of social change and prosperity. Twenty-two per cent of Togolese women aged between 20 and 24 years first got married before the age of 18, while 22 per cent of women aged 15-49 have experienced intimate partner physical and/or sexual violence at least once in their lifes. In addition, in 2016, Togo ranked 134th in UN Women’s Gender Inequality Index, which reflects inequality between women and men in reproductive health, political power, educational attainment and labour market participation.

The tour of remote villages was organised by Togolese music label African Real Music Industry (ARMI) in collaboration with the NGO Plan International Togo, based on the song Toi et moi contre le monde (You and me against the world) by Milly Parkeur (real name Glawdys Mensah-Neglopke), which addresses the subject of sexual consent and early pregnancy. “We wanted to use her image and show people that women can succeed and follow their dreams,” ARMI’s founder ‘Atomik’ Etse Edem Prudencio tells Equal Times. “Early pregnancy prevents girls from having the same opportunities as boys, as it pushes them outside school. As women contribute to Togo’s evolution, it’s easier if they have an education.” According to data from UNICEF, 14 per cent of women aged between 20 and 24 in Togo gave birth before age 18.

A law student as well as a popular musician, Milly Parkeur quotes Egyptian poet Hafez Ibrahim when talking about why she got involved with Plan International: “A mother is a school. Educate her, and you empower a great nation.”

She says that in her experience, mothers transmit values to young people, which is why the success of a mother has a positive impact on everyone around her: “Women work, they feed their families and they are an important part of the economy,” she says.

Plan International Togo has several programmes to empower women and girls ranging from training on citizenship and political participation to economic empowerment, health, education and early marriage prevention. “Togolese women are at the core of development,” says Atsu Komi G. Eklu, Plan International Togo’s civil society partnership advisor. “But they face challenges which limit their activities and make them economically vulnerable. In politics, for instance, women are under-represented, with only six female ministers out of 26, 17 MPs out of 91, and two territorial prefects out of 39.” Eklu tells Equal Times that: “Education is an essential means for gender equality in Togo, but this won’t happen if negative beliefs and social norms are not analysed and changed”.

Education and awareness can also take place online, as lawyer Mikafui Akue discovered at the beginning of this year. From her personal experience and having worked with local and international organisations on women’s rights, Akue became progressively more interested in sharing her wisdom and experiences on this topic. “[When I was younger] I had access to a good education and I didn’t feel I was being discriminated against,” she tells Equal Times. “But I remember at school, a student got raped by her teacher, and it made me question the situation. I co-led a student’s organisation and then I worked with NGOs, notably giving legal advice to women suffering from marital violence. I also became a mother in July 2017. All of this made me want to be more personally involved and work on building a legacy for my daughter.” On her blog, Mikafui talks about women’s rights, celebrates powerful Togolese women, and addresses the daily challenges girls and women face, as well as offering advice on how to overcome these issues.

She points out that women have always been an important part of Togolese politics, “even before independence [from France in 1960]”. She continues: “Today, women are a part of the opposition [against President Faure Gnassignbé, who has been in power since his father’s death in May 2005, marking almost 50 years of the Gnassignbé ruling dynasty] but they are rarely put in front, although they were often the first ones to actually finance these groups. They are also able to mobilise crowds for protests but are still considered second-rate actors in the political sphere.”

The need for women in politics during crucial times

Women like political activist and blogger Farida Nabourema are part of Togo’s political history. Nabourema’s father was arrested when she was 13 by the former President Eyadema Gnassingbé, which pushed her into politics. She was a student activist in the 1990s calling for political change in the country after joining her father’s party, the Union of Forces for Change, and also joining opposition protests. She even founded in 2011 the ‘Faure Must Go’ movement.

“My mission is to denounce injustice against the Togolese people and mobilise the youth,” she says to Equal Times. “Women have organised protests, even a sex strike, and naked protests, using cultural and religious symbols to fight against the Gnassignbé dictatorship.” Now in exile (she refuses to say where for security reasons), Nabourema continues to spread her message online and during international conferences on peace and democracy. Another figure, Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson, was even a candidate at the 2010 presidential elections and is currently representing a major coalition of opposition parties.

Togolese women have protested naked in the streets twice: in August 2012, after a week-long sex strike week called by the ‘Save Togo’ collective which aimed to mobilise men against President Gnassingbé; and in September 2017 for the same reasons.

Women’s involvement in politics is now crucial as legislative elections are set to take place on 20 December. The current political and social situation is tense: protests have increased since 2017, and people are now demanding a change to the Constitution in a bid to limit the presidency to just two terms.

“Gnassingbé is being destabilised,” says Mathias Hounkpe, programme administrator for Open Society Initiative West Africa (Osiwa). “Protests used to be limited to [the Togolese capital of] Lomé, but now they happen everywhere. Even in regions affiliated to Gnassingbé.”

In January, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) began mediating with the government and this July, it adopted a roadmap for deep political reforms to be applied before December. “I think the timing is set to put pressure on the power,” says Hounkpe. “On 23 September, the reform monitoring committee decided to restructure the electoral committee in order to adopt realistic measures. With all that, I think it’s wiser to expect the elections to be happening in February or March.” The question remains if the reforms will be adopted before or after the elections.

Hounkpe thinks that vote will be higher (in the National Assembly elections of 2013, the turn-out was 46.93 per cent compared with 84.92 per cent in 2007) this time because of the current involvement of women in protests and the opposition movement. “It’s very simple. Women are usually scared for their family if they protest or express their views, but when they are doing it themselves, it pushes not only young people but also elders to join the fight.”