LONG known as an important economic power, the market women of Togo have now become a potent political force as well.
At least 50,000 women, mainly traders and entrepreneurs, marched Jan. 25 in the first mass protest against the December military coup. Around their heads they wore red strips of material that, at the end of the march, they burned to demand that the military take a neutral role in the transition.
"We were living in a climate of total insecurity, and we'd had enough," says Josepha Pocanam-Dosseh, a lawyer who helped to organize the march. "Our sons and husbands were being beaten, arrested, and killed. The political men were scared to take their responsibilities, and they needed someone to support them. So the women decided to give them a push."
As the women had hoped, the march triggered an even larger demonstration organized by religious groups. And within days, opposition party leaders began to hold their first rallies since the coup.
The women who work in Loms markets are sometimes referred to as "Nana Benz," because their lucrative trade in textiles from Africa and Europe has allowed some of them to purchase Mercedes Benz cars. But a sharp drop in business resulting from the climate of political instability has encouraged the market women to take to the streets with placards and slogans.
At a meeting this month to educate women about the democratic process and the upcoming elections, a lawyer, Sika Yovo, explained such concepts as majority rule, freedom of association, and the right to a prompt trial - all novel ideas in Togo.
Ms. Yovo also told the audience, composed mainly of market women, not to cede to physical or moral pressure, or to promises or bribes, in selecting their candidates.
"We must come together to bar the road to antidemocratic forces," she declared.
During the meeting, Christine Mensah translated Yovo's words from French into Mina, the language spoken in Loms markets. Ms. Mensah also explained the legal concepts with more familiar illustrations. When she compared the democratic process to a man seeking the opinion of his wife before making a decision, the room burst into laughter and applause.
The meeting concluded with traditional and Christian songs to inspire courage, shouts of "Hallelujah," and angry testimonials from women in the audience who seized the occasion to denounce longtime ruler Gnassingbe Eyadema.