The State of Freedom of Speech and the Political Correctness of Development Work in Senegal

July 10, 2017

BY Diakhoumba Gassama

As a human rights defender of all the rights of all humans, I am finding it more and more difficult to do just that in my national context. I am confronted daily with fellow “activists” or INGO representatives who encourage me to “measure what I say and where I say it”, “not stigmatize people especially when they can feel attacked in their religion and culture”, “talk about abortion only from the perspective of the consequences of unsafe abortion on the health of a mother and her child and not from a choice and rights perspective” “leave issues of comprehensive sexuality education and sexual orientation to foreigners” to quote just a few things I’ve heard.

The latest incident was about me mentioning on national TV that child marriage was a form of pedophilia. I was instantly attacked by all “allies” around me who were adamant about the fact that this was too harsh of a word to use in advocacy in a campaign to say no to child marriage.

The truth is, I now realize what is so obvious but took time to sink in: the very people in charge of protecting the lives of the most vulnerable among us have developed two terrible diseases: cowardice and self-censorship based on some paternalistic views that villagers or Africans have values that condone the daily rape and all other forms of physical and emotional violence that child brides go through. It is no surprise that in 2017, in a country of 14 million people, prevalence rate of this well-documented harmful practice are very high ranging from 33% nationally to 68% in southern region of Kolda where I am from.

Campaigns will continue to be launched and millions will be disbursed in polite advocacy addressing only the consequences and not challenging the practice itself. As long as we are not going to call for every Senegalese person to express their indignation, as long as we are not going to denounce what is to some extent condoned by our discriminatory law (putting age of consent to marriage of girls at 16 versus 18 for boys) and having exceptions for marriage under 16, we will have to accept our status as silent accomplices to one of the most egregious breaches of the girl child rights.

Rather than feel defeated, I am even more determined to use the little space I have to continue denouncing all harmful practices, with the support of research and facts and by confronting  all people  to their incoherence whenever I can. I will try as much as possible to walk with others whom I know share my views and are also fighting to resist the silencing of our necessary voices.

Yes, you guessed it, when the taped segment finally aired on National TV the word pedophilia was censored and my answers “cut and pasted” in a sad attempt to make me look as reasonable and respectful as my companions of debate. We are living sad days in a Senegal some of us recognize less and less.