From The Battlefield To The Ballot Box

A Generation Of Guinea-Bissau’s Women Shape The Course Of Their Country’s History.

author : Ricci Shryock

art :  Ricci Shryock

Forty-five Years Before The Election

When she arrived in the hospital in rural southern Guinea-Bissau, the woman had shrapnel lodged in her chest, inches above her pregnant belly. Another Portuguese air strike had hit her village.

Joana Gomes, a medical worker, saw injuries like this regularly. She set to work trying to save mother and child.

It was 1973, and Guinea-Bissauans like Joana were 10 years into a war for independence following more than 400 years of foreign rule. The hospital where she worked sat inside one of a handful of autonomous zones liberated by the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, or PAIGC, a guerrilla army led by charismatic revolutionary Amílcar Cabral. After a decade of fighting, the PAIGC had managed to wrest control of large swaths of the country’s rural areas away from the Portuguese, setting up schools, healthcare centers, and local governing bodies.

To Cabral, independence also meant women’s liberation, a radically progressive notion in a longtime patriarchal society. “We had no liberation, no emancipation,” says Joana. “That started with the fight for independence for the country, with Cabral’s politics.”

With their parents’ blessing, Joana and her sister Teodora had joined the fight as teenagers who felt a sense of urgency for freedom. “Who wants to be colonized? The colonized have no rights,” Joana says. “Everyone wants liberation.”

She was one of many women sent to the then-Soviet Union to train as a healthcare worker in frontline areas. That’s how she found herself at the hospital that day. After 40 minutes of tense surgery, she extracted the shrapnel. The operation worked. Both woman and fetus survived.

Guinea-Bissau won independence a year later—but not before losing Cabral, who was assassinated in early 1973. The new PAIGC run government rewarded many of the female fighters with high-level posts. Joana became a hospital administrator.

Yet the power did not trickle down to most women, and just six years after winning independence, a military coup overthrew the first president in what would become a decades-long pattern of coup attempts. In the army-dominated struggle for power, women’s liberation, as well as much of the country’s development, was left behind.

Nine Days Before The Election

It’s almost 6 p.m. on a Friday evening in downtown Bissau, the capital of Guinea-Bissau. Carnival arrives tomorrow, and the city’s 400,000 residents are busy preparing, putting together outrageously colorful costumes and rehearsing elaborate dance routines. PAIGC headquarters, a two-story building whose high windows look out over the presidential palace, looks empty. But down a long pink hallway, a woman’s raspy voice rings out.

“Alfredo! Alfredo!” Teodora Gomes yells to a Party colleague into a baby-blue Nokia brick phone. Now 74, with a round face full of strength and energy, she carries herself with a gentle authority. Her billowing floor-length dress and yarn necklace have a matching palette of vivid green, red, and yellow. These are the colors of Guinea-Bissau’s flag, and also of the PAIGC—a chromatic reminder that the party and country are inextricably linked.

With the battlefield a distant memory, women like Teodora have transitioned their fight into the halls of Guinea-Bissau’s Parliament, where they continue the struggle for women’s independence. They have gotten some of the worst practices outlawed officially, including violence against women and female genital cutting. But of the 102 members of Parliament, just 14 women won a seat in the most recent election in 2014.

People rally for PAIGC in Bissau.
People rally for PAIGC in Bissau.
In Guinea-Bissau, women gather for an event on International Women's Day, two days before legislative elections.
In Guinea-Bissau, women gather for an event on International Women's Day, two days before legislative elections.
A record number of female candidates this year—409 out of 916 are running for office.

Teodora wants this election, on March 10, 2019, to turn out differently. She wants more women in Parliament. This is why she has stayed inside, yelling into her chunky phone, instead of joining the Carnival spirit.

“Tired, why?” she laughs loudly when asked if all this has worn her out. “We have to continue the fight. Our women are very courageous. Even Cabral wrote that our women were courageous.”

And therein lies the problem: Cabral’s demand for women’s rights was a top-down approach that lost momentum when Guinea-Bissau lost the leader who championed it. “That was the vision of a man who was outside of the norms,” says Nelvin Barreto, a woman running for Parliament for the first time with the National Unity Party (PUN). Of Guinea-Bissau generally, she says, “I don’t think it’s a feminist history.”

Last year, women’s rights activists won a years-long fight for a measure requiring 36 percent of the candidates in parliamentary elections be women. As a result, a record number of female candidates this year—409 out of 916—are running, and activists like Teodora and Barreto want to help turn those candidacies into a National Assembly with a historic number of women.

But there’s a catch. Voters in Guinea-Bissau vote for a party, not a candidate. Each party is allotted a number of seats based on votes received, and the party leaders choose their representatives from a list of candidates ranked before the election. If a party ranks its women last and gets fewer seats than candidates, only men will go to Parliament.

“If the man has to fight once, the woman has to fight twice, three times to win,” Teodora says. “So I think a lot of women now in Guinea-Bissau know that it’s good to fight for their rights, because they are never going to just give them to us.”


With campaigning in full swing, music-blasting trucks plastered with posters of party candidates barrel through cities and villages in the country of 1.9 million people.

In Quinara, a day’s drive from Bissau, Joana is running for a seat with the PAIGC. Now 68, she has traveled to a hospital in Fulacunda, the region’s capital and her birth city, to command an army of women. They scrub down the walls and carry in new beds, Joana’s gift to her potential constituents. Unsurprisingly given her background, Joana is focusing her policy platform on healthcare.

On her lunch break, Joana cracks her teeth over the bones of a plate of cafriela, a Bissau dish of chicken, lemon, and onions. She says she prefers the marrow to the meat—an unusually tough way to to eat this dish. But there is nothing usual about Joana, who explains that it’s not easy for a woman to run for office here. Being well educated and her role in the independence movement grant her special status.

“Other women who might not have a high level of education, even if they are capable, they say they can’t because they do not have an education,” she muses. “But the men? There are so many of them who know nothing, all over the place.”

Although this older generation of women who fought for independence mostly belong to the PAIGC, the 2018 law has also encouraged a new generation to run for office. Many of these women are in new or smaller political parties.

One of them is 50-year-old Aurora Mendes. One hundred and fifty-seven miles from Fulacunda, she’s running for a seat with a smaller party, the United People’s Alliance. She tells me she’s doing it because of the 2018 law. “I think it’s time for women to take part in the national political decisions,” she says.

She wants to help women in rural areas, like Bafatá, in central Guinea-Bissau, voice their experiences at the top levels of government. Men simply don’t understand their struggles: Women are the main producers of rice, and they need better machinery. Women gather the water, and so they need closer and better water points. These details are often missed when they lack representation in the government.

Mendes thinks often of a coed literacy center in Bafatá that took a frustrating turn. “When the women started earning better results than men, the men became jealous, and the women had to stop taking the classes.” She sighs. “This is the kind of thing I want to stop.”

The 2018 law began four years earlier with the Canchungo Declaration, a meeting of women activists in northwestern Guinea-Bissau. Originally, their measure required 40 percent of every party’s candidates to be women. “We said 40 percent, because this is a historical quota,” says Suzi Barbosa, a representative with PAIGC running for re-election who was involved in the Declaration. “It’s the quota that Amílcar Cabral used when he had committees in the villages.” During the independence war, every village in the liberated zone had a council of five decision makers, and Cabral insisted at least two be women.

Losing that quota was one of many concessions the women made as they tried to get the law passed starting in 2015. They had some support among the men, but one key detractor. Men helmed each of the nine committees that must approve bills before a floor vote, and although eight of them supported the bill, the one who ran the Commission for Women and Children blocked it three times.

After three years, Barbosa and her colleagues finally got their floor vote, albeit on a weakened version of their vision. In committee, the percentage of women representative candidates had dropped to 36. An essential element—preventing parties from putting their required women candidates at the bottom of representative rankings—was also stripped out. But finally, on the fourth try, the measure passed. Not all of what they fought for, but a victory nonetheless.

A woman votes in legislative elections in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau.
A woman votes in legislative elections in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau.


After weeks of campaigns taking over public spaces, the streets of downtown Bissau are empty. The government has banned cars during voting hours, so residents walk to their polling places. In a fashion fitting the laid-back attitude and Portuguese influence in Guinea-Bissau, President Jose Mario Vaz casts his ballot at a caipirinha bar.

Joana watches from Fulacunda at her party’s regional headquarters. Voter turnout was at 84 percent, and 52 percent of registered voters were women. The polls were manually entered into Excel spreadsheets at regional out- posts—a process that took nearly three days. On March 13, the results were announced. “I was hopeful that my dream will come true,” Joana says of her anticipation as the polls were tabulated.

It does: She gets a seat. So does Barbosa. Mendes’ party wins five representative spots, but she was too far down on the list to win. Barreto’s party takes no seats, so she will not go to Parliament. But she points out that every party that put a woman at the top of their list won seats, and perhaps leaders will eventually realize that women draw votes.

Ultimately, only 14 women are awarded seats by their parties, the same number as the 2014 elections.

“I did not feel well,” Joana says. “My hope was truly that there would be 36 percent, but what can I do? We are in a tight spot. With more women elected, we could have changed a lot.”

Barbosa takes some hope in the fact that the parity bill was passed only a few months before the election, after most parties had already listed their candidates. She already has plans for her next mandate: She will lobby to amend the law to increase the percentage back up 40 percent and to require each party to list a woman either first or second on their candidate roll in 2023.

Barreto agrees that it was perhaps too hopeful to think such a recent law would help make history. “Sometimes laws are forced a bit before society’s attitudes,” she says.

There is more work to do, and time to do it. The women of Guinea-Bissau will keep fighting. If not for themselves, then for the next generation. “I am sure that for the next elections we will see a significant change, because this has encouraged women,” Barreto says. “Especially the young ones.”

A young girl sweeps the abandoned theater in downton Bissau. “Women are the first to get up in the morning, and the last to go to bed at night” is a phrase you hear female activists in the country say often as they fight for more representation at high levels of government.
A young girl sweeps the abandoned theater in downton Bissau. “Women are the first to get up in the morning, and the last to go to bed at night” is a phrase you hear female activists in the country say often as they fight for more representation at high levels of government.