Aoua Keita

Aoua Keita (1912-1980) was a Malian midwife and anti-colonial activist.

Pedagogical Unit

3. Aoua Keita, on the front line of the women’s movement

3.1 The struggle for workers’ rights

In concert with her political activism within the RDA, Aoua Keita helped to organize women into trade unions and independent workers’ groups.* In Bamako, in 1956, she co-founded (with the schoolteacher and educator Aïssata Sow) the Committee of Women Workers, which went on to become the Collective Trade Union of Women Workers two years later.

The central objective of this women’s trade union was to defend the rights of women workers, and to participate in the anti-colonial struggle. It demanded the harmonization of salaries (between European and African workers on the one hand, and men and women on the other), the enforcement of the Labour Code, the creation of crèches and nurseries, and the allocation of family allowances.

In 1944, a decree abolished the requirement for ‘married women exercising a profession or professional vocation’ to receive their husbands’ authorization in order to so. Women were now able to join unions freely, and to participate in the administration or management of organizations – the only condition being that should be able to read, write and speak French fluently.

3.2 A women’s panafricanism* (part 1)

At a meeting of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF), the delegates of the Africa Group (Algeria, Senegal, French Sudan, Togo, Tunisia) suggested the creation of a Panafrican women’s organization to ‘raise international awareness as to the suffering of women in countries struggling for independence’. Despite maintaining close links with the International Organization of Antifascist Women, African women nonetheless found it necessary to distinguish themselves from the European women’s movement, and to set up their own organizations anchored in the anti-colonial struggle.

It fell to Aoua Keita to tour the West-African sub-region to raise awareness among African political leaders as to the creation of the Union of West-African Women (UFOA). The first stage consisted in organizing women into ‘national’ structures in the heartlands of each territory. Then came the co-ordination of these various structures at regional level. The Sudanese Women’s Union, presided over by the educator Sira Diop, came into being on the 2nd November 1958.

*From the book by Pascale Barthélémy, Africaines et diplômées à l'époque coloniale (1918-1957), Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010, p. 276.

3.2 A women’s panafricanism (part 2)

The first congress of UFOA was held in July 1959, in Bamako. Its political programme addressed the struggles against both colonialism and women’s oppression. The association openly condemned desertion of the family home and repudiation. It further sought the protection of the institution of civil marriage and the obligatory consent of spouses to marriage, in addition to the prohibition of child marriage and polygamy. Immediately after the congress, however, the Union’s radical positions were criticized not only by the RDA’s male membership, but also by many women.

The Union’s members were accused of articulating an elitist, bourgeois and Western agenda, and of undermining relations between men and women. In the months that followed, women’s organizations in Mali were dissolved in favour of their integration into the national political landscape. UFOA ended its activities and ceased to exist.

3.3 The Marriage and Guardianship Code of 1962

When Mali gained independence on the 22nd September 1960, there were no independent women’s organizations. However, the struggles of the past had not been not forgotten. Aoua Keita – still the only female Member of Parliament in Mali – Sira Diop, and many other female activists, worked towards the drafting of a Marriage Code, which was successfully enacted into legislation in 1962. Mali thereby became the first West-African country to secularize the legal framework governing marriage, limit the amount payable by dowry, prohibit desertion and forced marriage, and fix the minimum legal age for marriage at 15.

Although the activists failed to force through a prohibition on polygamy and female genital mutilation, Aoua Keita nevertheless continued to condemn such practices during the course of regional tours and international women’s conferences (e.g. Tanzania 1962, Moscow 1963). In Mali, she was appointed as head of the drafting committee of the Women’s Social Commission. This was a key position at the heart of the women’s wing of the Party (founded in 1963), and conferred on her overall responsibility for the drafting of the organization’s writings.