Last May I had this conversation with Ngenarr-Yassin Jeng, Outreach and Advocacy lead of Equals now, a feminist organization in The Gambia. The interview was on the phone, with Ngenarr babysitting and the voice of children in the back.
When did Equals now appear? What was its core main principle?
Equals now was created in 2019 and the main goal was to create a space where women and girls felt free to express themselves and do advocacy work. An inclusive space, different from other spaces in Gambia. We wanted to create a space where any women, whether from rural areas or urban, whether you went to school or not was able to feel included in our program.
Is cyber bullying against women very common in the Gambia? What is the #LetsTalkOGBVGambia and #Online GBV exactly about?
It is very common in Gambia, and this is why we created the campaign #LetsTalkOGBVGambia, which is online gender based violence in the Gambia. Women are being harassed for simply stating their opinion, or for how they’re being dressed, something they’ve said… there’s a lot of attacks, specially on feminists. Most of the attacks come with the message that we don’t know our religion nor our culture. There’s also a lot of non-consenting sharing of women images online, and victim blaming for women who have been abused or raped. It’s very common, so with the campaign we tried to raise awareness about it. We tried to raise awareness and we invited women who suffered it and who shared their stories about how they were attacked and how it affected them in real life. We did that to show that what happens online affects women off line as well.
Genital Mutilation is officially illegal in your country, if I’m not misguided. How is the situation nowadays? Do you work with women who have gone trhough that?
It has been criminalized since 2015 but there’s still situations in which people are doing it. So just because it has been criminalized doesn’t mean people aren’t doing it. Even child marriage has been criminalized but it’s very deeply rooted in people’s culture, so they still tend to hide and do it and a lot of the time nothing comes out of it. We don’t directly work with any victims or surviors of FGM but we do advocate against the practices and if someone comes to us about a case like that we’d have them filed.
Is child marriage or convenience marriage a struggle you have to deal with in the gambian society? Do you work closely with that?
It’s still a struggle in the Gambia in spite of its criminalization, especially in the rural areas. A lot of people still go ahead and give their children away for marriages when they’re still minors; they believe that it’s correct; we do not work with any survivors of child marriages. But we can help report it to the right in and we educate the general public on why they should not engage in such practices.
What about poligamy? Is it outdated and not a problem any more or is it still a situation Gambian women have to put up with?
Poligamy is very very common in the Gambia (she laughs) because it’s a Muslim country. There’s a fine line with determining whether you have to deal with poligamy or not. A lot of people do fall into it, they just want to get married so they do that, but a lot of people also have the choice of saying no if they don’t want it but they still decide to do it because they want to be in a poligamous marriage for women. Advocacy work doesn’t really focus on poligamy, rather we focus on things like child marriage or forced marriages, other than that we don’t interfere in a polygamous relationship that is consensual, we don’t work in that area.
Are your activities based only in Banjul or do you also function in less urban areas? What different needs do women have, in and out of urban environaments?
Our program has been focused on greater Banjul area, mostly urban areas. However we organized a training where we had participants of every region of the Gambia. It was on gender based violence; we also have a network of volunteers all over the Gambia where people can share their stories and things that they would like to learn so that we include in our program. We’re also doing research on gender based violence during the COVID 19 pandemic.
Is LGTBI a part of your struggle or do you think this is another struggle that doesn’t have much to do with your feminist struggle?
Our feminism is intersectional, so we advocate for the rights of all women, and this includes the LGTBI community. We advocate for the criminalization of homosexuality and also try to raise awareness and dissuade people from engaging in targeted harassment that is problematic or might lead harassment against the community.
You’re hiring, for what I can see. This is great news! How have you managed to create an NGO that can also offer jobs? Was the funding diffcitult to get?
The funding that we have right now comes from the Open Society Initiative For West Africa, Osiwa. Funding can be difficult to get because you need to apply for grants; we’ve been lucky enough to receive a few grants over the last year. That aside, Equals now has a core membership of seven individuals and we also work on a volunteer basis. We also have digital volunteers, people who have skills and want to help out in a certain area: we’re also open to that. However when we get more funding that requires more people to do extra work we budget it and we open new positions that are not permanent but can help in specific projects.
How do you interact with other feminist foudnations or associations abroad? I’m thinking about Sistah Sistah foundation in Zambia or Choose Yourself in Burkina Faso. Do you collaborate with them or other associations?
We try to collaborate with other organizations that have the same goals as we do. Sistah Sistah Organization from Zambia; one of the founders was invited to one of our events to give a talk; we work with other organizations from the Gambia too. We have a project that we’re implementing with She treats and they are funded by ITC to do a training on workplace harassment. We’re very open to collaborating, not just in the Gambia but also outside of the Gambia: we feel this is a way to strengthen feminism in Africa.
Spain is a country with a big gambian (mandinka-fulani mostly) community. Do you keep in touch with the feminist diaspora in Europe?
We try to keep up with the feminist diaspora we have. Some of our network members are abroad; we’ve Gambian feminists living in the UK that are part of our network, we try to open the discussion to people who are outside of the Gambia if they have anything they think they can support with, like advocacy online. Intercontinental communication is not easy, because it’s not easy to get information in real time. However we’re working on it.