Fighting for the Women of the Sahel

Niger's leading women's rights activist, Mariama Cissé, has been awarded the German Judges Association's Human Rights Award. Sandra van Edig portrays the founder of the Association of Women Lawyers of Niger

‘Even as a young girl, I went to court with my friends in the afternoon to watch the court cases,’ recalls Mariama Cissé. ‘Even then, I only had one goal in life: I wanted to be a lawyer!’ She has long since surpassed that goal.

On Monday, the German Judges Association announced that the judge from Niger would be the recipient of this year’s Human Rights Award. This award is presented on an annual basis and is intended to protect the recipient in his or her native country.

A pioneer for women's rights

Mariama Cissé’s career is not a matter of course in a country like Niger, where the majority of girls never even get the chance to go to school. Cissé was born the second of eight children in the south Nigerien town of Fillingue in 1962.

Her father, an Arab merchant, sent all his children to school. She later studied in Niger’s capital Niamey and Paris. In 1989, she returned to Niamey as a judge. She was made assistant to the public prosecutor and later a judge at the court of justice.

But Cissé did not limit her work to the courtroom. After work, and often late into the night, the mother of three children came to the assistance of women looking for advice. The most frequently discussed topics were divorce and inheritance matters. Mariama Cissé wanted to help these women in more than just a private capacity.

In order to do so, she joined forces with other women lawyers and founded two associations: the Association to Protect the Rights of Women and Children, and the Association of Women Lawyers of Niger (AFJN). She was aided in her efforts by the political situation in Niger at the time: in 1989, the former military dictatorship initiated a process of democratisation. At the time, associations to strengthen civil society were springing up all over the country.

Knowledge is power

The aim of the AFJN is to promote women’s rights. In Niger, an extremely traditionalist, Islamic country in the African Sahel, 90 per cent of women can neither read nor write. This means that they are unable to read written legal texts, most of which are in French. Cissé set about trying to change this situation.

Together with her colleagues, she spent the 1990s travelling through the country educating women and providing them with information. The lawyers in the AFJN organised public debates and negotiated with village leaders. Some women in rural areas were trained by the AFJN as assistant legal experts who could provide legal assistance at local level.

In the fight against genital mutilation, Cissé also founded Coniprat, a national committee to combat traditional practices harmful to the health of women and girls. The aim of this committee is to put a stop to the traditional practice of female circumcision in Niger.

Mariama Cissé played an active role in the committee’s education campaigns. She was also involved in the drafting of a bill to combat genital mutilation. This year, Niger’s parliament adopted the draft. It is now a criminal offence to conduct a clitoridectomy in Niger.

As a dedicated women’s rights activist, Mariama Cissé is unpopular in conservative Islamic circles and has been threatened on many occasions. But she has never let herself be intimidated.

She says that through her dedication and enthusiasm she would like to strengthen the young democracy in Niger, be a role model, and support the development of civil society because this is the only way of ensuring that democracy and human rights have a chance to survive in Africa.

Sandra van Edig

This article was previously published by the German daily TAZ.

© TAZ/ 2003