Women’s emancipation was a key element in Sankara’s vision and mission for Burkina Faso. As a Marxist/Leninist, he linked women’s oppression to the capitalist and feudal systems which favoured men above women. In his four years as president of Burkina Faso, Sankara initiated policies that addressed these issues and drastically elevated the Burkinabè woman from the margin to the top of the pedestal.
When the people of Burkina Faso and all liberation movements across the world celebrated Sankara’s arrival at the centre of the political arena, men constituted the majority of the celebrants. Thom Sank, as he was affectionately called, would later state that such a celebration was not fair and just, in the sense that it did not consider the role that women played in the mushrooming of the 4 August revolution. Indeed, it is a no brainer that all major actions and changes in society are possible because of the enormous but silent contributions of women. As a result, Sankara wasted no time in unfolding policies that sought to give women the recognition they deserved.
Concrete actions that lifted women to their rightful Place
Sankara identified economic disempowerment as the major bane of women’s emancipation. He argued that the bourgeois suppression of women trickled subtly, but persistently, into the classification of women as the downtrodden since the men who worked on the factory floor of the capitalist, wielded immense power over their wives. To tackle this, Sankara initiated several programmes to address economic inequality by involving women in the country’s economic and socio-political activities. In September 1985, L’Union des Femmes du Burkina (the Union of Burkinabè Women) was created to serve as a platform for women to articulate their concerns and interact directly with the government. Through this forum, women held annual congresses from which emanated suggestions that would influence the revolutionary march.
The union organized women to form cooperative groups to participate in the local production of cloths, soap, cosmetics, and the like. Sankara made it a national policy for all citizens, with him taking the lead, to purchase locally produced items. This gave a huge financial boost to women who were involved in production. The Union of Burkinabè Women took the opportunity to place women at the centre of the economy, just like men.
In the social sphere, special literacy programmes were designed for women. Efforts were made to eradicate abuses in polygamy. Prostitution was classified as a crime. Sankara saw prostitution as exploitative and disrespectful to women. To buttress his mission of women’s empowerment, half of the husbands’ pay was deducted from source and given to women as their due for their work in the household and to fund the running of the home. Unfortunately, this decision was met with staunch resistance and could not be fully implemented.
Military and political representativeness
The Military, under Sankara, was no longer the preserve of men. Both men and women could be members of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR). This special unit required rigorous military training. The CDRs could be counted on for the protection of citizens. Sankara also made the National Popular Service (Service National Populaire) mandatory for graduates of university and other tertiary institutions, regardless of their gender. This programme comprised six months of office work with a very limited stipend and six months of military training. Both men and women had to partake in it as a sign of patriotism to the motherland. No one could get a job if they had not accomplished that national duty which also made women rub shoulders with men.
In the political sphere, for the first time, a good number of women were appointed at administrative positions like hauts commissaires (regional ministers) and prefets (leaders of prefectures, equivalent to mayors). In his last year in government in 1986, five out of the twenty-five ministers were women, making 20 per cent, a figure that represents a record even by today’s standards. In retrospect, Germaine Pitroipa, who was one of those women, said with nostalgia, “today, people are not willing to see women as decision makers. Men were firmly convinced that women’s place is in the kitchen. When one-third of the prefets were women under the CNR, the message was that we, the women, will make constructive criticism that will enrich the revolutionary process because we are endowed with special intelligence and a methodical habit that will erase negative stereotypes”. By including women in the economy and governance, Sankara enhanced the status of women to a record high.
Thus, the lies broadcast on the National Radio of Burkina on 15 October 1987 and the days after Sankara’s assassination were heart wrenching. He was wrongly called a “betrayer of the revolution”, the leader of a “one man show” and surprisingly, “feudal and sexist”. Those declarations were undoubtedly made by partisans of the coup leader Compaoré. However, records never lie. Sankara will go down in history as an indefatigable progressive who improved the lot of the Burkinabè woman. He achieved so much in such a short time, as if he knew that time was not on his side.
As a president and as a man, Sankara loved and respected women. His brother, Valentin Sankara, testified, “Thomas had an extremely close relationship with our mother whom he loved so much. While he was president, he would come to the family house in Paspanga, Ouagadougou, and spend his spare time by her side, playing his guitar to the tune of the Gregorian melodies she sang”.
Moussa Traoré is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of English, University of Cape Coast, Ghana.