Zoe Weinberg ’09 Presents Brace Research on Senegalese Women in Business and Politics

Out of the 177 countries the United Nations Development Program included in its Human Development Index, Senegal ranks 156th in terms of gender equality. While 69 percent of Senegalese women are financially engaged in business in some way, only one fifth of Senegal’s parliament is female. These are just two of the many facts about the West African nation of Senegal that Zoe Weinberg ’09 provided in her Brace Center for Gender Studies presentation on Monday. Weinberg’s presentation focused on how non-governmental organizations (NGOs) could help bridge the gap between women’s involvement in the economy and in politics. As Weinberg said in her presentation, Senegalese women are often forced into the workplace by dire economic conditions and must therefore face a number of challenges and prejudices. Currently, Senegal has a 48 percent unemployment rate and 54 percent of its inhabitants are below the poverty line, according to Weinberg. In that way, she said, the poor economic conditions have been good for women, in that it has given them a bigger financial role within their families. However, while women are gaining financial ground, it is still very difficult for women to get into politics on the local level, and they always need the assistance of men, Weinberg said. No NGOs offer loans for women with political aspirations, she continued. Weinberg has personally experienced Senegal by traveling to this nation for the past two summers. The first time, she went with a group of fellow high-school students. Weinberg said she had wanted to visit a French-speaking African country that was far-removed from her own life experience but that her choice of Senegal specifically was a bit arbitrary and based on the opportunities available to her. On Weinberg’s second journey to Senegal, she went alone and worked for an NGO called Tostan, which means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof. Tostan helps out communities and, among other things, provides loans to deserving Senegalese women. Weinberg lived with one of Tostan’s employees and often went from city to city by herself, which meant she had to figure out the public transportation system. She said that she was often concerned about fitting in wherever she went and knew she stood out as an American. Weinberg also worried about how she was perceived when she talked to women and tried to make herself as humble as possible, in part by wearing customary Senegalese clothing. Weinberg also said that speaking Wolof was a good way to show respect and adapt to the Senegalese culture, which holds tradition in high regard. Weinberg’s interest in this area began with a 10-page spring term paper for English 200 she had written after the class read the book Nervous Conditions. For the assignment, Weinberg decided to focus on issues with institutions such as education and healthcare in Southern African countries. Weinberg’s English teacher at the time, Flavia Vidal, became her faculty advisor for the project. Vidal said that she had warned Weinberg before the second trip to Senegal that people might not want to talk to her. However, Vidal was pleasantly surprised by Weinberg’s gaining access to a great range of people. “I was very impressed by her depth of sensitivity and her amazing ability to work independently,” continued Vidal. Weinberg’s knowledge of French was very useful in talking to Senegalese people, she said. Still, there was a language barrier due to the fact that her questions, posed in French, had to be then translated into Wolof, and then back again when the answer was given. The presentation had a profound impact on all those attending. “She really exemplifies service learning,” said Eliza Nguyen ’09. In the conclusion of her presentation, Weinberg said that the key to women’s success both in the political and economic arenas was to close the existing gap based on gender and age and have everyone work along with NGO’s. Weinberg is the Executive Editor of The Phillipian.