The revolution and the emancipation of women

Published on Pambazuka News, by Amber Murrey, June 20, 2012.

The life and work of Thomas Sankara can be taken as a reminder of both the power and potential for human agency to enact transformation … //

… The revolutionary transformation of the West African country Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (what is known as the August revolution of 1983) occurred during a previous neoliberal crisis, that of the 1980s African debt crisis. Sankara vehemently and publicly denounced odious debt and rallied African political leaders to do the same. 

Sankara’s politics and political leadership challenged the idea that the global capitalist system cannot be undone. During four years as the president of Burkina Faso, he worked with the people to construct an emancipatory politics informed by human, social, ecological and planetary wellbeing. The people-centred revolution was a pivotal point for a shift towards new societies on the continent. We have much to learn from the Burkinabé revolution.

What distinguishes Sankara from many other revolutionary leaders was his confidence in the revolutionary capabilities of ordinary human beings. He did not see himself as a messiah or prophet, as he famously said before the United Nations General Assembly in October of 1984. It is worth quoting from Sankara at length, when before the delegation of 159 nations, he said:

-I make no claim to lay out any doctrines here. I am neither a messiah nor a prophet. I possess no truths. My only aspiration is…to speak on behalf of my people…to speak on behalf of the “great disinherited people of the world”, those who belong to the world so ironically christened the Third World. And to state, though I may not succeed in making them understood, the reasons for our revolt … //


To a rally of several thousand women in Ouagadougou commemorating International Women’s Day on 8 March 1987, Thomas Sankara took a distinctive position as a revolutionary leader and addressed in great detail women’s oppression. He outlined the historical origins of women’s oppression and the ways in which acts of oppression continued to be perpetuated during his lifetime.

He said:

‘Imbued with the invigorating sap of freedom, the men of Burkina, the humiliated and outlawed of yesterday, received the stamp of what is most precious in the world: honor and dignity. From this moment on, happiness became accessible. Every day we advance toward it, heady with the first fruits of our struggles, themselves proof of the great strides we have already taken. But the selfish happiness is an illusion. There is something crucial missing: women. They have been excluded from the joyful procession…The revolution’s promises are already a reality for men. But for women, they are still merely a rumor. And yet the authenticity and the future of our revolution depend on women. Nothing definitive or lasting can be accomplished in our country as long as a crucial part of ourselves is kept in this condition of subjugation – a condition imposed…by various systems of exploitation.

Posing the question of women in Burkinabe society today means posing the abolition of the system of slavery to which they have been subjected for millennia. The first step is to try to understand how this system functions, to grasp its real nature in all its subtlety, in order then to work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation.

We must understand how the struggle of Burkinabe women today is part of the worldwide struggle of all women and, beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. The condition of women is therefore at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here, there, and everywhere.’

His words display a profound understanding of, and active solidarity with, women’s struggles, of which he posits as a struggle belonging to all of humanity.

He locates the roots of African women’s oppression in the historical processes of European colonialism and the unequal social relations of capitalism and capital exploitation. Most importantly, he stressed the importance of women’s equal mobilisation. He urges Burkinabé women into revolutionary action, not as passive victims but as respected, equal partners in the revolution and wellbeing of the nation. He acknowledges the central space of African women in African society and demanded that other Burkinabé men do the same.

In an interview with the Cameroonian anticolonial historian Mongo Beti, he said, ‘We are fighting for the equality of men and women – not a mechanical, mathematical equality but making women the equal of men before the law and especially in relation to wage labor. The emancipation of women requires their education and their gaining economic power. In this way, labor on an equal footing with men on all levels, having the same responsibilities and the same rights and obligations…’.

This means that while the revolutionary government included a large number of women, Sankara did not believe that an increase in female representation was an automatic indicator of gender equality. He truly believed in grassroots organising and that change had to originate with the energy and actions of the people themselves.

He urged his sisters to be more compassionate with each other, less judging and more understanding. He questioned the need to pressure women into marriage, saying that there is nothing more natural about the married state than the single. He criticised the oppressive gendered nature of the capitalist system, where women (particularly women with children to support) make an ideal labour force because the need to support their families renders them malleable and controllable to exploitative labour practices. He characterised the system as a ‘cycle of violence’ and emphasised that ‘inequality can be done away with only by establishing a new society, where men and women enjoy equal rights’.

HIs focus on labour rights and the gendered means of production was symbolised through the day of solidarity that he established with Burkinabé housewives. On this day, men were to adopt the roles of their wives, going to the marketplace, working in the family agricultural plot and taking responsibility for the household work.

This speech provides a powerful heritage of political leadership and stands as a source of political ideas and inspiration for liberation movements on the continent. Sankara offers a possibility for continued male political engagement and solidarity with women’s oppression.



I’ve been told that the first time that my daughter’s paternal grandfather cried was at the news of Thomas Sankara’s assassination. It was certainly the first time that my daughter’s father saw his father cry. He recalls, even at the age of seven, his sense of confusion and sadness over Sankara’s death.

The image of my daughter’s grandfather entering his home and collapsing onto the sofa, holding his face in his hands and crying emerges in my head each time I think of Sankara. This image of a middle aged Cameroonian man, Jacque Ndewa, thousands of miles away, who had never travelled to Burkina Faso, crying quietly on his sofa. This is the resonance that Sankara had, across the African continent and among disenfranchised and dispossessed people everywhere.

In honour of his memory, I praise and celebrate his fearlessness, his resilience and his political leadership for human emancipation.

(full long text).

Links – find Thomas Sankara:

on en.wikipedia: Thomas Isidore Noël Sankara (December 21, 1949 – October 15, 1987) was a Burkinabé military captain, Marxist revolutionary, Pan-Africanist theorist, and President of Burkina Faso from 1983 to 1987.[1][2] Viewed as a charismatic and iconic figure of revolution, he is commonly referred to as “Africa’s Che Guevara …

on Google Images-search;


on YouTube: on short videos, and on videos longer than 20 minutes;

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