Women’s voices prevent conflict in the Sahel

The empowerment of women in local debate clubs that cooperate with local community radios is an effective tool to prevent conflict in the troubled border zones between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.

In the conflict-ridden border zones between the three Sahelian countries Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, combining women listeners’ clubs (see info box, ed.) and community radios has proven a solid approach not only for change, democratisation and rural development, but also for countering conflict and consolidating peace.

“We try to avoid that society’s social tissue is torn apart,” says Aminata Idrissa.

She sits proudly in the warm, sandy light of the descending sun on a hotel terrace with a view over the Niger River that flows through the Nigerien capital Niamey. Aminata Idrissa, born in 1966 and mother of six, is the president of a listener’s club in the city of Gao in Northern Mali.

A region where the population is more than aware of what happens when the social tissue of society is shredded to pieces.


Info box: Listener’s clubs

A listeners’ club can be characterised as a group of local citizens meeting on a regular basis with the aim of listening actively and discussing the content of community radio programmes and applying their newly gained knowledge in their personal lives and in the community as a whole.

At the heart of the clubs is the facilitation of information, communication, dialogue and action. The clubs in Sahel have had a significant impact on rural development, as well as gender equality, as they in many ways help to improve the status of rural women.

As part of IMS’ Sahel media development programme, covering the conflict-ridden border zone between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, 20 all-women listeners’ clubs from the three countries have been connected with 10 local community radios which broadcast the discussions of the clubs for the benefit of all their listeners.


Violence is never far away

In January 2012 Mali imploded.

The fall of Gadhafi and his regime in Libya in 2011 unleashed a vast number of weapons and munition – some of which found their way down through the Sahara, to the northern part of Mali through returning migrant workers and mercenaries from various tribes.

The result was a successful armed uprising in the northern areas which in its turn enhanced the frustrations of many rank-and-file officers in the army with the government’s inability to control the northern territories. A successful coup d’état was launched in March 2012, and the political instability that followed allowed for the Northern rebels to gain further ground and to announce an Islamic republic was announced with the application of Sharia law system.

Though the Malian authorities with international assistance mainly from France obtained a ceasefire already in April 2012, the fighting continued and even today instability and insecurity remain. Especially in the northern part of the country – far from the power centre and capital Bamako – where terrorists are still hiding, and groups of bandits roam and benefit from the overall lack of security.

Here, a new eruption of violence never seems far away. One example was the presidential elections in summer of 2018.

“The elections will pass, but our life together continues”

From her home in Gao, Aminata Idrissa suspected that the elections could cause problems and she wanted to prevent it.

Through the IMS’ Sahel programme her listeners’ club had struck a partnership with the community radio Radio Anniya, the second biggest of ten community radios in the larger area of Gao. In this partnership, the radio commits to record, edit and broadcast the discussions in the women’s listeners’ club, which thereby surpass their local community reaching the entire audience of Radio Anniya.

Aminata Idrissa’s club counting 35 women between 25-70 and Radio Anniya made two programmes in connection with the elections. The first one was made before the elections encouraging citizens to get their voting card and use their democratic right to vote.

“We of course did not tell people who to vote for, but we explained that to be a good citizen in this country, you need to take your voting card and go vote,” explains Aminata Idrissa.

As tensions between people who supported the president and those who supported the opposition were palpable, the women’s club also encouraged people to behave and avoid confrontations with people they disagreed with.

“We sent the message that the elections will pass, but our life together continues.”

The second programme was made after the elections when it became clear that the opposition did not accept the result and started organising demonstrations in the streets of the capital of Bamako.

“We did not want that in Gao. So, we took the lead and arranged a radio programme on peaceful elections to explain to the population that the president elect is the president of all Malians and we need to support him. A divided population does not constitute a country.”

Gao avoided uprisings and Aminata Idrissa says that some people reacted to the programme by phoning the listeners’ club saying: “Had it not been for your radio programme, we would have destroyed Gao.”

The sentinels of Gao

Situations like these are good examples of why listeners’ clubs can play a big difference in combination with media. The radios visit local communities to record the programmes, but the members of the clubs live there and can therefore suggest themes for discussion that they know are relevant to the local populations. The residents thus feel their issues are addressed and may also benefit from any positive impact that the radio programmes may have.

“My vision is, that it is the clubs that will develop the communities; that it is the clubs that are able to debate the problems of their societies and find a solution or create behavioural change,” Aminata Idrissa says with a confident smile.

This has already proven true.

Radio programmes on early marriages and conflicts between farmers and herders broadcast in the lucrative hours where most people are listening (early in the morning, during the midday break at 2 PM and in the evenings) have resulted in positive changes and created better understanding. Both radio and the members of the listeners’ club get a lot of reactions from the listeners congratulating them on their programmes.

“Some call us the sentinels of democracy in Gao… If I said there was no impact, I would be lying.”

Female empowerment

A positive gain stemming from the radios’ broadcasting of the female listeners’ club discussions is that more female voices are now on air through the radios.

Aminata Idrissa recalls that a couple of years ago, there were no female presenters at the radio, but with all the female voices being broadcast through the programmes with the listeners’ clubs, now only one of ten radios do not have a female presenter.

“The clubs have contributed to getting women to join the radios. It motivates women to hear female voices on the radio,” she explains.

Her own quest for securing women’s rights began when her former husband divorced her and kicked her out onto the streets.

“This was what made me a feminist…” she recalls.

“After that, I started to fight for myself and for the rights of women. Because in my opinion, as a citizen I must fight for the development of my community, so my achievements will go on in history. And I know now, that you cannot speak about the listeners’ clubs in Gao without mentioning me. That is impossible.”