Analysis

Sankara – A Fierce Advocate For Women’s Rights

By Pinky Khoabane

THIRTY-THREE years after his assassination, the late revolutionary leader of Burkino Faso, Thomas Sankara, still inspires the dream of a self-sufficient Africa, where men and women stand side-by-side as equals in a continent which carries a stamp of freedom, honour and dignity.

Born on 21 December 1949, Sankara led a popular uprising in the West African nation known then as Upper Volta – a former colony of France and among the world’s poorest countries. He was thirty-three at the time. It was in August 1983 when Sankara, an army captain, together with his National Council of the Revolution (NCR) seized power from the previous military junta. He would embark on a radical programme that has cemented his legacy as Africa’s greatest sons of the revolution – Africa’s Che Guevara. This accolade, made more notable by the short span of his revolutionary government – from August 1983 to  October 1987 when he was assassinated by his right hand man Blaise Compaoré.

A year later, the country was renamed Burkino Faso – Land of Upright Men. In the years that were to come before his assassination, across the country, people came together to build schoolhouses, health care centres, dams, water reservoirs, and irrigation systems. Sankara nationalised all land and invested heavily in agriculture.

In the next four years, Sankara and his popular revolutionary government, mobilised peasants, workers, women, the elderly to carry-out drastic economic and social measures that curtailed the rights of the landed aristocratic and wealthy merchants. They united with people around the world in their opposition to imperialism.

The Revolution  Cannot Triumph Without The Emancipation of Women” Thomas Sankara’s speech to several thousands of women on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1987. 

But it is his commitment to gender equality – at a time when women’s struggle for freedom against colonialism was often, if not always, overshadowed and omitted by male leaders – that Sankara’s uniqueness as a leader and president stood out. 

He placed women’s resistance agency at the centre of the August revolution of 1983, long before the United Nations 2010 General Assembly resolution, 64/289, which created UN Women and was seen as a symbolically important bridge between rhetoric and action.

He saw the emancipation of women as the abolition of slavery to which they had been subjected for centuries. At the International Women’s Day, March 8, 1987, he said: 

Posing the question of women in Burkinabè society today means posing the abolition of the system of slavery to which they have been subjected for millennia. The first step is to try to understand how this system works, to grasp its real nature in all its subtlety, in order then to work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation. In other words, in order to win this battle that men and women have in common, we must be familiar with all aspects of the woman question on a world scale and here in Burkina. We must understand how the struggle of the Burkinabè woman is part of a worldwide struggle of all women and, beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. Thus, women’s emancipation is at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here and everywhere. The question is thus universal in character.

His government established many economic and social structures specifically geared at women. They included special literacy classes for women and maternity training in rural areas. He appointed women in his cabinet and in leadership positions long before it was fashionable to do so. The Sankara government appointed women judges, and in each of the last two cabinets, in 1986 and 1987, he appointed five women ministers, almost a fifth of the entire cabinet. 

He believed so naturally in gender equality that he believed girls should get the same education as boys. He passed a decree that girls who fell pregnant must remain in school in the same way boys wh impregnated them were allowed to remain in school. He outlawed forced marriages and female genital mutilation and to this end, he  instituted a new code of conduct that instituted a minimum age for marriage in order to protect the girl child.

He outlawed polygamy and allowed widows to inherit their marital estate, something that had not been done before in Burkina Faso. 

Sankara on Prostitution – A man ahead of his time

Sankara was ahead of his time. Even as world leaders today grapple with the world’s oldest profession or the world’s oldest exploitation depending on which side of the debate, he knew that prostitution was not a job anybody chose. He knew then that the fate of the prostituted person was determined by their social circumstances – poverty, illiteracy, inequality. 

When he came into power, he banned prostitution and children begging in the streets. He set up ”solidarity compounds” to teach artisan skills to beggars and prostitutes. He followed up the decree with a conference for prostitutes in the Officers’ Mess in the centre of Ouagadougou, according to Canadian writer, Joan Baxter. “Five hundred women — many mere girls — showed up to hear him speak, most of them Ghanaian, Nigerian, Nigerien (from Niger), Togolese or Ivorian; few Burkinabé girls could admit publicly to their work in the sex trade without intense social ostracism and rejection by their families. He told the assembled women that they were victims of “social injustice” and advised them to take up more “honourable professions” as hairdressers, seamstresses or waitresses. State-owned restaurants that had been opened in the newly designated ‘green spaces’ or neighbourhood parks in Ouagadougou (another kiti) were to employ these women immediately”. http://bit.ly/38nbFCm

Thomas Sankara’s speech in the aftermath of the war with Mali known as the “Christmas war” on January 3, 1986

What is prostitution? Prostitution is that profession which consists in selling oneself, offering one’s body to earn a living. Offering one’s body, in its purest form. And so we are going to denounce this trade. We are going to denounce this trade so that never again will there be any confusion between love and trade. This means that we must give every woman a job. We must give every woman the means to earn an honest and dignified living. We must ensure that every woman refuses to surrender to a man’s lustful or unwanted needs.

We must ensure that never again will a man feel that he can conquer a woman with what he has in his pocket; usually it is stolen money”. https://bit.ly/2KJoYES

A Translation from French to English, of Thomas Sankara’s Telex to The 2nd World Congress of Women in Prostitution 

“We learned with respect and admiration about the 2nd World Congress of Women in Prostitution.

We welcome this initiative and congratulate you on addressing this important issue.

Our view is that prostitution is only a product of the social injustices and exploitative philosophy that lead societies to degeneration.

This is why in Burkina Faso we are fighting prostitution, but our strategy clearly lays down the obligation for us to kill the evil without killing the patient – that is to say, to eliminate prostitution while protecting the prostituted woman.

Yes, for us in Burkina Faso, the prostituted woman is just an innocent victim of societies transformed into a jungle where everything is used to live, sometimes just to survive.

Prostitution is the organised theft of a woman’s grace, the savage exploitation of the bodies of others. It is the exploitation of human beings by the power system of « purchasing capacity ». 

In Burkina Faso, we are fighting to provide women in prostitution with jobs that would free them from the exploitation of others and allow them to flourish and regain their dignity and rights.

We would like to affirm that in this ongoing struggle, Burkina Faso has acquired an experience that it would be pleased to share with your assembled community.

And if one day, in a spirit of enlargement, you associate sisters from Africa, we would lend you our availability to host other meetings.

All rights are to be conquered, and it is only through persistent struggle that you will wrest your right to escape from the police and harassing methods that would want to marginalise you and reduce you to simply seeking in resignation a few palliatives to organise and protect what unjust societies would hypocritically like to present as your profession.

You have no right to surrender,                                

You do not have the right to resign.

A great success at your congress”. 

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