The long march of African women

(CC) Zzilch/Flickr

African women have won victories and seen their hopes dashed since independence. There’s still a long way to go on the road to parity with men – even though significant political progress has been made.


"Whether they are members of the elite or the middle and working classes, rural or urban, African women supported the fathers of independence," Fatoumata Sow, director of the African Institute of Basic Research (Ifan), reminds us. "African nationalism largely relied on their energies.”

Sow cites great women entrepreneurs of the Gulf of Benin, from Accra to Cotonou and Lomé, who "financed the future leaders Kwame Nkrumah, Sylvanus Olympio, and many others".

In Algeria and then in Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and South Africa, women actively participated in the national liberation struggles. And in the colonial period they were active in the major political movements such as the African Democratic Rally (RDA) in French West Africa and the Convention Peoples Party (CPP) in English-speaking Ghana.

However "awareness of the importance of the women’s vote has often led to their exploitation for political reasons," points out Odile Goerg, professor of contemporary African history at the Paris 7 University. There were very few women in the leadership of political parties before independence and, rare exceptions aside, the situation didn’t change much in the following two decades.

Political exclusion

Women did hold ministerial portfolios between in Guinea under Ahmed Sékou Touré and in Ghana under Nkrumah between 1958 and 1960. There’s also the example of Awa Keita, the first woman to join the political bureau of the Sudanese Union African Democratic Rally in 1958. Elected a member to parliament in French Sudan in 1959, she participated in drafting the constitution of the Federation of Mali under Modibo Keita.

"The 1960s saw a series of coup d’états and self-styled powers that excluded both men and women from any active political participation at all," adds Goerg.

In the era of single party rule, from Bangui to Kinshasa and Abidjan, women were allowed into local councils, public administration and women’s groups, using them as a springboard to ministerial positions or to becoming secretaries of state for Women and Social Development - the so-called subordinate jobs.

It was a revolution when, in 1983 in Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara appointed women to the technical ministries of Budget, Economy and Finance. Elsewhere, "the traditional political sphere remains masculine and the women’s ‘gesticulation’ for integration as a political partner on equal terms a pipe dream," says Sow, noting that the democratic transitions of the late 1980s have not increased female participation either.

Nevertheless, "nobody today can deny the role played in 1991 by the women of Mali in bringing about a more democratic regime," stresses Codou Bop, a Senegalese consultant who recalls more generally the importance of women's associations and NGOs, in spearheading the birth of civil society.

In the markets of Conakry and Lomé, women took to the streets, at the beginning of 1990, often at the cost of their lives, to protest against despotic powers, and thus contributed to the rise of "popular movements that have shaken regimes and led to the organisation of national conferences.”

"Hands off my skirt!"

Whether on the side of those in power or in opposition, African women were not yet fighting for women’s rights.

Although some African women were present at the World Conference on Women in Mexico (1975), they did not support the demands of Western feminists, whom they viewed as imperialist. They considered their oppression secondary or even stemming from traditional customs linked to their identity. And they preferred to stress the "integration of women in economic development”, in solidarity with men.

Those issues included access to land, credit and income "Touche pas à mon pagne!” (Hands off my skirt) they proclaimed in Copenhagen (1980) where the debate over genital mutilation raged. Finally, in Nairobi (1985), a hesitant dialogue began between NGOs of the South and the North.

Despite small women's projects in microfinance, the economic situation of African women got worse in the 1980s and 1990s. Confined to ghettos, they bore the brunt of budget cuts resulting from structural adjustment plans and globalisation. Political liberalisation clearly decreased, along with states’ incapacity to boost development, pushing women, like men, towards ethnic or conservative religious movements that reinforce patriarchy.

"In Africa, poverty wears a woman’s face," said the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa in a report submitted to the eighth African Regional Conference on Women, in Gambia in November 2009. Its report examined the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), which recommended equality of men and women in decision-making.

Women and the state

In 2002, the Beijing summit's target of women holding 30 per cent of seats in national assemblies was far from being achieved in west Africa, with ten per cent in Senegal, 15 per cent in Côte d'Ivoire.

But east and southern Africa were getting close.

Mozambique and South Africa had succeeded, and Rwanda had exceeded the target with 49 per cent, bringing it closer to the 50-50 parity level sought by the African Union (AU) in July 2004 in its Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa.

The AU has adopted a gender policy to strengthen national policies that promote women. And it has declared 2010-2020 African women’s decade.

In 2004, Luisa Dias Diogo, a woman with a PhD in development economics, was appointed Prime Minister of Mozambique. The following year Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first elected woman head of state, having first survived the Liberian warlords.

The list lengthened in 2009, when in Gabon the President of the Senate, Rose Francine Rogombé, successfully and wisely exercised the delicate role of acting President of Gabon.

These examples have had a great impact and provided role models.

However, women are increasingly the targets of violence in the civil wars that have proliferated on the continent, as witnessed recently by the intolerable rape of Guinean women during the events of 28 September in Conakry, and rapes committed in DR Congo, in the Central African Republic and in Côte d'Ivoire.

Several recent UN Security Council resolutions aim to strengthen the implementation of Resolution 1325 adopted in 2000, which commits member states to find solutions to issues of gender and security. But these have yet to be put into effect.

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