Top Guinean Leaders Visit Chico

Hadja Aissatow Bella Diallo, director of Guinean National
Television at Ministry of Communication and Culture (photo KM)
Twelve leaders from Guinea, visiting Chico this summer as part of a three-week whirlwind "Women Leaders Study Tour," included members of the National Assembly, national administrators and ministers, locally elected officials, and representatives from the private sector and non-governmental organizations.

The tour included classes to develop action plans and increase leadership skills, and visits to women's organizations in Chico, Sacramento, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., where they met with Senator Dianne Feinstein. Why Chico? CSU, Chico's International Programs successfully applied for the USAID grant that funded this opportunity for Guinean and American women to talk about empowerment and leadership, and to forge new international links.

Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world, is a predominantly Muslim country in west Africa and a former French colony. Women in Guinea face a higher rate of illiteracy and fewer educational, political, and economic opportunities than Guinean men. The visiting French-speaking dignitaries stated their belief that conditions for women will improve as they gain more political and administrative power.

Under such circumstances, how do women become influential? For Aissatou Sacko, national director of territorial administration at the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization, the road to her position began with a university education, rare for Guinean women (an estimated 78 percent of Guinean women in 1996 were illiterate). After graduation, she completed a government training program, and then took a job at the lowest level. "I worked my way up to where I am now," she said. During the six years it took, she was the only woman in her department.

At the one television station in Guinea, thirty of the seventy-five journalists are women. Hadja Aissatou Bella Diallo, director of Guinean National Television Channel at the Ministry of Communication and Culture, started as a journalist reporting on women's issues and is now the first woman director. For ten years she was head of Pour Vous, Madame, a show devoted to information important to women's lives, such as breast-feeding. At a time when many babies were dying because bottled formula was popular and sterilization of bottles difficult, Pour Vous, Madame focused on the health advantages of breast-feeding.

Hadja Diallo and other women commented that one of the highlights of their tour of Chico was the site visit to Women's Health Specialists. In the rural regions of Guinea, older women help other women with birthing and pregnancy prevention. Abortion is only allowed under very limited circumstances for married women and is a rare event. There are no women-run clinics.

Eileen Schnitger of Women's Health Specialists presented a brief history of American women's struggle for reproductive freedom. Her explanation of self-exam provoked reactions ranging from avid interest and discussion to polite silence. Self-exam is not practiced in Guinea. Schnitger said that by becoming knowledgeable about "how our bodies are made" and what is normal, women can identify vaginal and cervical changes that may require medical help. Women also learn when they are most fertile and likely to conceive. "Sharing information is a way to give women control over their own bodies and their own destinies," said Schnitger. At the end of the presentation, the Guinean leaders were invited to observe a demonstration of self-exam. About half chose to do so. Schnitger exchanged address information with women, offering to send materials and workshop leaders to Guinea.

Women leaders, according to the Guineans, need to have self-control, calmness, experience, relationships, a little luck, and a lot of confidence. Madeline Thea, a mayor and national assembly deputy, suggested that Project Coordinator Diana Parks, International Studies, was an excellent example of women's leadership. Thea, speaking through an interpreter, said, "Parks is courageous; she doesn't tire; she's easily contacted; she's a good example. She keeps her cool and that's important for a woman leader." All these characteristics were demonstrated by the women leaders of Guinea.


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