#HumanRights75: interview with Ms. Isatou Njie, REFELA National Coordinator in Gambia

On the occasion of the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Committee on Social Inclusion, Participatory Democracy, and Human Rights of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG-CSIPDHR) interviews Ms. Isatou Njie, the National Coordinator in Gambia of the Network of Local Women Elected in Africa (REFELA). Ms. Njie shares the initiatives that REFELA is undertaking in Gambia and particularly in the capital Banjul to promote women's rights, the thematic spotlight that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has selected for June within the UN75 campaign

1. Why promote women's rights in your city?

Despite the efforts made, the inclusion of women in Banjul remains a major challenge. Women are under-represented in all areas: political, economic and in all aspects of improving their lives. This situation is problematic and affects everyone's lives.

At a time when the whole world is pushing for women to have the same rights as men, it is more essential than ever to continue promoting women's rights at local level. International organisations have highlighted the need to improve the lives of women.

There is a long way to go, but with the assistance of organisations like REFELA, we are coordinating to do as much as we can to fight for the representation of women in civil service and in the political sphere in the country, promote the empowerment of women in place, and combat violence against women. It is crucial that governance is gender-balanced and that there are women in decision-making bodies.

2. Which initiatives is the City of Banjul supporting to promote women's rights?

REFELA came to The Gambia when the Mayor of Banjul, Mrs Rohey Malick Lowe, took power. Since then, positive steps have been taken to bring women into politics and empower them. Mrs Rohey Malick Lowe is also the President of REFELA and has succeeded in obtaining projects for women in the areas of housing, economic emancipation and the eradication of violence against women and street children. 

As far as our housing project is concerned, we want to secure land with the approval of the national government to build 1,500 houses so that women have somewhere to live. In cases of violence against women, the issue of housing is central, as many women are evicted because their homes belong to their husbands. 

Our housing strategy is complemented by an economic empowerment project, which involves giving women the means to acquire the skills they need to promote their businesses. A grant is also available to support their projects. We have also realised that if women's economic empowerment is maximised, violence decreases. Once women are able to manage their own economy, they are 100% independent. Combating violence against women is one of the pillars that REFELA is striving to eradicate. 

Our gender strategy also takes care of children to prevent them from ending up on the streets as a result of domestic and/or family violence. Women are responsible for their homes and families. If they are not supported in a situation of violence, their children run the risk of ending up on the streets. 

REFELA also has a special programme for children and young people: Youth Volunteering. The aim of this programme is to send 500 young people abroad to acquire skills and knowledge in different trades, for example to China to learn car mechanics. We understand that not everyone can get a desk job, so this programme is aimed at young people interested in developing a particular skill. This programme is being implemented in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme, and we are convinced that this strategy will enable us to reduce poverty.

3. Which kind of international cooperation would you aspire for better promotion of women's rights?

The first and most important is to help women enter politics. Today, politics for women is not easy: nationally, we have less than 10% of women in public office, and our mayor is the first female mayor of Banjul. At REFELA we conducted a survey that showed that the basic needs of women aspiring to political office are financial support for their campaigns and training.

International organizations could help women in their political ventures. This can be made through a six-month training program in women's political leadership, so they can learn public speaking, how to put up a program for a campaign, develop the methodologies they will use, and protect them during the political and electoral processes. 

In our context, once women stand for political positions, they are subjects of political violence so they will fear and most likely step back. International organisations already help us a lot, but they can also help women aspiring to political positions overcome political violence and fear. When international organisations firmly support women from the very start of their political careers, there will undoubtedly be changes in the next five years.When the mayor of Banjul came to power, she managed to get some women into national politics because now that people have seen her, she has become an inspiration.
Politics is a very complex field, especially for women and in terms of political violence against them. Women help every man in politics - they put on their uniform and they mobilise, but when it comes to public appearance, they ignore women. In REFELA, we do sensitization campaigns. We come to political parties and tell them how important it is to put women in positions at least to balance the gender gap. A woman helps everyone who succeeds in politics.

As the national coordinator of REFELA, I am responsible for supporting women in politics, even if they are not in my political party. For example, before the Banjul mayoral elections, a woman who belonged to another political party came back to us and supported us because our mayor is a woman. When women stand together, we can fight. But the main thing again is: who is going to support women in their political ventures? How do they get the funding for posters, transportation, media, television appearances, and so on? You need the media in politics - publicity is the most critical and complex thing. 

In Africa, if you don't belong to the ruling party, you might be unable to achieve your aspirations. How will women's rights be promoted if 100 men and three women are ruling? Currently, we have 55 assembly members, of which only four are women, and it takes time for these women to convince all of these men. Thus, how can we support the women's agenda? But if an international organisation comes to help women to build their capacities, once we get into politics, we will see the issues necessary to promote women’s rights. Also, we need to ensure that more than 20% of people in public service are women. When they get into the Parliament, we have to be there supporting the female local leaders. It is time for us to fight.