LONDON — Women in the civil rights group "Let's Save Togo" planned a sex strike this week to demand the resignation of President Faure Gnassingbe. By withholding sex from their husbands they hope to nudge Togo's men to take action against Gnassingbe. The move has raised questions about the future of women's equality in Africa.
At a rally last weekend, Jean-Pierre Fabre, the leader of the opposition party, the National Alliance for Change, called for the president's resignation. Gnassingbe took the presidency in 2005, shortly after the death of his father, who had held power for 38 years. The opposition maintains that the family must relinquish power after more than four decades of rule.
Despite Fabre's words, it was the sex strike against the president that got people talking. Countless news articles have been written on the topic this past week.
Withholding sex has been used to achieve political goals before. It goes as far back as ancient Greece. In the play "Lysistrata," the women of Athens decide to stop having sex with their husbands until they put an end to the Peloponnesian War.
The question is, do these tactics work?
"If you're talking about a few days where women make a point I think that works. If you're talking about turning a whole nation around because nobody's getting any, I wouldn't put hard money on that," said Pepper Schwartz, sociology professor of sociology at the University of Washington, USA. "Because I don't think people stick to sex strikes. Yes it's good to bring consciousness to your mate, but it's probably hard to stick to. If you do stick to it too long you might lose that other person's willingness to support your issue so it's a tricky thing. I think it's a good headline, a lot harder to put into practice."
Togolese pro-democracy activists say that it was a sex strike in Liberia that gave them cause for optimism.
In 2003, the Liberian people had endured 14 years of a brutal civil war that had torn the country apart. The leaders of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace organized a series of nonviolent actions, including a sex strike, demanding an end to the war. The group's leader, Leymah Gbowe, later won the Nobel Peace Prize, sharing it with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, another Liberian woman about to make history.
"I think if there's a sharing of the gains of this approach with other African women then it will inspire them just like in Liberia. The way in which the mass action for peace, the methods that women used in Liberia for the mass action for peace. They've been written about, a film has been made, so now you know African women are saying, 'Well, we can do that as well," explained Yaliwe Clarke, lecturer in gender studies at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
And, it may be Liberia that sets a precedent of how sex strikes and other efforts by women in Africa can result in a positive outcome.
In 2005, when Liberians went to the polls, the majority voted for Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first woman elected president in Africa's history.
Holding real power, Schwartz says, allows women to express their views and obtain results. "They only work in proportion to the amount of power women have in a society. In other words you have to have a certain amount of power already to tell your husband no. In some societies your husband would pound on you or, you know, enact his own kinds of revenge but you have to have a society where a man respects a woman's opinion and her desire to say no and will, in fact, respect her for it," Schwartz questioned.
As for Togo, it has yet to be seen if their efforts will work to push out Gnassingbe.