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Senegalese women aim for political role

Female candidate tries to win election to represent her urban constituency.

DAKAR, Senegal — Senegalese women are striving to win a bigger role in their country's politics. For a woman to even be on the ballot here — much less lead her party’s roster — is a step forward in their efforts.

Women took to the streets to campaign in the latest round of local elections. Elderly women blew whistles and waved posters, while members of the younger generation danced, hugged and called out to onlookers.

They were demonstrating for Magatte Wade, a 45-year-old single mother who works for a professional association that supports microfinance efforts and who ran for mayor of Parcelles Assanies, a chaotic Dakar suburb whose population has exploded in the past generation.

Wade ultimately lost, though she plans to run again in 2012. Her party came in eighth out of 13 with less than 2 percent of the votes. This meant that her party only got one of the 65 seats on the city council that would ultimately select the mayor. But her candidacy alone provided a ray of hope for women trying to break into Senegal’s political boys' club. The fact that she headed her party's roster was a noteworthy achievement for women in politics.

“There has been a burst of new energy,” Wade said. “Today, the Senegalese woman is a mature woman who knows what she wants, who knows what she’s capable of and who has a strong understanding of her economic contribution.”

Women hold less than 20 percent of Senegal’s elected posts and many say that undermines the democratic and developmental health of the struggling country. Climbing unemployment rates, rising food and energy prices, and shortages of everyday staples have turned the exhilaration many felt in 2000 when they elected President Abdoulaye Wade (no relation) into a bad hangover.

Yet, it’s that dissatisfaction with the status quo that could be opening a window for female politicians. People want change, so why not look to a woman?

“We’ve had three mayors, all of them men, and things haven’t gotten any better. Why not you?” people said to Wade last December, when she decided to run. “Dafa doy! Dafa doy! We’ve have enough! We’ve had enough!” the crowd chanted at a March rally as Wade spoke about the poverty and unemployment plaguing the district.

Wade had never considered running for office. She didn't even like politics. But her party, Solidarite Active, was insistent. They wanted a woman to lead the list. They wanted Magatte Wade.

“Everything she does, she does with a lot of conviction. She doesn’t lie or cheat. She is sincere,” said Ndiaga Fall, the party’s secretary-general, days before the election. “Being a woman should never be a handicap."