Joséphine Ouédraogo’s long slow burn to democracy

Joséphine Ouédraogo

For some, it’s the end of the year, and so a time for reflection and celebration. 2014 has been a year of brave, inspiring young feminists. It has also been a year in which women, young and old and in between, have pushed out long-standing rulers and sparked the process of State transformation. In Burkina Faso, women sparked a revolution with their presence in the streets and their raised spatulas. Joséphine Ouédraogo was there, as she has been for decades.

A number of commentators have identified Burkina Faso as a bright spot for the year, even though they seldom, if ever, recognize women’s role in that brightness:

For protesters in Burkina Faso who have known only one ruler for the last 27 years, 2014 was a very good year. The peaceful overthrow of Blaise Compaoré at the end of October was a victory for democracy.”

Large segments of society were demanding the benefits of genuine representation. Democracy could not be reduced to a facade while old authoritarian networks remained. It was a striking warning to other African autocrats who might be tempted to stay in power indefinitely.”

Over the course of a couple of days in late October, an awe-inspiring display of people power in Burkina Faso forced President Blaise Compaore to scuttle into exile, his tail firmly between his legs. It was a humiliating exit for the man who had ruled Burkina Faso since 1987 … This was a magnificent example that power is not immutable; that people can be in control of their own destinies.”

Call it Spring, call it harmattan, women’s protests led to mass protests led to hope and the promise of democracy. Inside Burkina Faso and around the world, people spoke once again of Thomas Sankara, the President of Burkina from 1983 to 1987, when he was assassinated. In particular, people were reminded of Sankara’s commitment to women’s emancipation. He wrote and spoke of women’s liberation often: “The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.” More to the point, Sankara acted. His government outlawed female genital mutilation, forced marriages and polygamy; encouraged women to work outside the home; encouraged girls and women to stay in school, even if pregnant; promoted the distribution of contraceptives. Finally, he appointed many women to high governmental positions. Joséphine Ouédraogo was one of those women.

During the Sankara years, Ouédraogo was Minister of Family Development and Solidarity. Every attempt to transform women’s status and place in Burkina Faso came out of and was implemented by Ouédraogo’s office, including State support for the Women’s Strike of 1984.

When Sankara was overthrown and murdered, Ouédraogo went into exile. She worked as a consultant on development and gender. She continued to work as a sociologist, researching areas that others overlooked, such as the role of women heads of households in rural Burkina Faso. In 1997, Ouédraogo became Director of Gender and Development at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, followed by a stint as Secretary General of Enda-Third World, based in Dakar. In both positions, she spoke forcefully and directly of the central position of women in any program to improve the world or any of its parts.

And now, Joséphine Ouédraogo is back in Burkina Faso, and back in the government. She is a self-described militant feminist and militant anti-globalization activist, and she is now the Minister of Justice of Burkina Faso. From 1987 to the present, Joséphine Ouédraogo never forgot the revolution she had helped start, and she never tired of working to create the new spaces for militant democratic practice and for women’s emancipation. As she has known all along, the two need each other. And today, Joséphine Ouédraogo’s long slow burn has been a key part of the Burkinabé women’s spark that set off a revolution.

(Photo Credit: Ouaga.com)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.