Benin’s first female vice-president on women’s bodies, Amazon warriors and being called a feminist

For Mariam Chabi Talata, legalizing abortion and educating girls are essential first steps in giving women control of their future


Years ago, Mariam Chabi Talata says, she knew a girl who got in some trouble. The girl thought she could not tell her parents, and she could not go to hospital, because the solution to her problem was then a crime. So, the girl sought help from an “angel-maker”.

The backstreet abortionist nearly made an angel of the girl, who ended up in hospital, sick with complications from the procedure. Because what she had done was illegal, the girl, who was young and scared, said her mother had given her some herbal tea.

And there they were: the girl, who could have died, and her mother facing a potential prison sentence. Talata, who heard about it through community chatter and isn’t-that-a-shame gossip, was thinking about that girl years later when, as vice-president of Benin, her country legalised abortion. “It’s about saving lives,” she says. “This is a public health issue. We can’t ignore it. Abortion was there. It is a reality. How do we keep it from becoming a real public health issue? That’s what the question is about.

“Some say that abortion is a crime, but when the law does not allow abortion, it is a double crime, sometimes even a triple crime,” she says. Talata, 58, is Benin’s first female vice-president. The former teacher and school inspector is one of a small but growing number of women reaching higher office across sub-Saharan Africa – and often bringing more feminist policies with them. She was appointed in 2021 when Patrice Talon, a wealthy cotton magnate, was re-elected for a second term as president.

But her country has a rich history of empowered legendary women, she says, pointing to Benin’s origins as the kingdom of Dahomey, with its all-female regiment of Amazons – “an army essentially made up of women who went to fight”. Today, the maternal mortality rate in Benin, a west African country of 12 million people on the Gulf of Guinea sandwiched between Togo and Nigeria, is high – nearly 400 women die for every 100,000 live births. A woman’s lifetime risk of dying during pregnancy or in childbirth is one in 49. By comparison, the risk for a woman in the UK is one in 8,400. According to Benin’s minister of health, roughly 20% of maternal deaths are the result of unsafe illegal abortions.

Whatever your opinion on abortion, safe and legal procedures are necessary to prevent girls and women from dying after unsafe and illegal ones, Talata says. A woman walks past a Rwandan flag at a polling station. The county revised its penal code in 2018, restricting abortion to a narrow set of circumstances. A woman, she says, “must have control over her being and her body and she must decide her future. We all know that when pregnancy occurs in certain conditions, these pregnancies can hinder the future of our daughters.” “We have made a great leap,” Talata says. “Everyone knew that it was necessary.”

For many in Benin, the abortion law is a bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture as analysts warn that the country could be moving in a less democratic direction after Talon’s post-election crackdown on critics. But Talata, a mother of four, is using her term in office not just to push for change in women’s health but, more importantly, she says, in education. Educating girls, she says, remains Benin’s greatest challenge – and resource. “An educated woman is able to defend herself,” she says. “An educated woman is able to take charge of her life. An educated woman is able to participate in the management of her country.”

She has done all of that, including becoming one of the founding members of Benin’s Progressive Union party. “People would say that I am a feminist,” she says – a word that continues to engender suspicion among many of her colleagues. “But in fact, I am simply fighting so that everyone enjoys the rights that the law recognizes. I see that women are more victims of social inequalities than men.

“I am a feminist, but I believe that it takes much more than that, much more commitment than that, to be called a feminist. I just do what I can for the promotion of women, for their emancipation.” … we have a small favor to ask. Millions are turning to the Guardian for open, independent, quality news every day, and readers in 180 countries around the world now support us financially.

We believe everyone deserves access to information that’s grounded in science and truth, and analysis rooted in authority and integrity. That’s why we made a different choice: to keep our reporting open for all readers, regardless of where they live or what they can afford to pay. This means more people can be better informed, united, and inspired to take meaningful action.

The Guardian

Posted by on Mar 24 2022. Filed under African News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

Leave a Reply