Outskirts online journal

Edith Miguda

Further information

About the author

Edith Miguda is a lecturer in history at the University of Nairobi where she has been employed in this capacity since 1988. She describes her major strength as African history and a special interest in African women's history and African intellectual history.

This paper was given as a guest lecture in the Department of Social Inquiry and Women's Studies on August 24 1999.

Publication details

Volume 4, May 1999

The Women's Movement in Africa


We may define a movement as an organised, or a cohesive effort by a group of people to achieve a desired end or a specific cause. In the case of the women's movement, it entails women coming together to attain a common purpose. This is something that women have done throughout the history of the continent of Africa. We can discern different phases of the women's movement in Africa. For convenience and clarity in understanding the different dimensions of the movement, we may categorise these phases to correspond with the pre-colonial, colonial, and post colonial periods. This lecture will focus mainly on the latter.

We use the term post colonial in this case to mean the period following the overthrow of colonialists, and the attainment of political independence by African states. We note and acknowledge however that the African women's movement in its present form, draws heavily from forms and strategies developed by women in pre-colonial times, and similarly employed by African women during the colonial period, particularly the women's group concept. The history of Africa is rife with instances when women joined forces and formed groups among themselves, sometimes long term and at other times short term, to mobilise and harness their special abilities to champion their specific interests, or societal ones. Such groups ranged from social welfare to economic, military, cultural or political. These marked African women's collective efforts and actions to achieve desired ends.

The Current Consciousness in the African Women's Movement

The women's movement in Africa is largely informed by and revolves around the question of inequalities between men and women, and a desire to cause changes that would ensure gender equity. Manifestations of such inequalities have found expression within the male dominance/female surbodination discourse. The vocabulary for expressing the inequalities include: Discrimination, oppression; marginalisation; exploitation. However, the explanations for the inequalities have neither been restricted to the male domination/female surbodination praxis (patriarchal relations), nor is it confined to this arena, in its strategy for redress.

Secondly, there is a firm belief among women that women can, and ought to draw the attention of the society to existing gender inequalities, identify the reasons for it, suggest remedies, and collectively take action to ensure implementation of the remedies. This has led to both intellectual and practical engagements as integral parts of the women's movement in Africa.

Since the 1970's, the vocabulary of the objectives of the women's movement has varied from: women's liberation, to women's empowerment, advancement, Main streaming, Equality and women's Rights, in areas of Access, decision making and representation, ownership & control, and oppressive social conditions & cultural practices. Obstacles related to these exist in several sectors within the economic, social and political spheres. Women's movement in Africa seems to use these sectors as intervention points. Why?

Most African countries gained their independence from colonial rule in the 1960's. Following this, the independent African states drew up development plans covering various sectors like Agriculture; Education; Health; Social Services; Transport and communication, Industry, etc. Major aim - to eradicate what the newly independent governments considered to be the three enemies of development: poverty, illiteracy and disease.

Instruments of government were set in place, often including 3 arms of government, ie the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Institutions of public administration were also put in place. In areas where Moslems existed, Islamic laws came into play, while a number of African states also incorporated African customary laws alongside the common law.

African Development Agenda & the African Women’s Movement

By mid-1970's, the development agenda in Africa was largely failing. Shifts in the global economy during the 1970s sent shock waves through African economies and one by one, many of these economies began to collapse. (G Mikell: 2) This ushered a need to find solutions to sustainable development in Africa.

A major issue was that women, in spite of their numerical strength, and their major role in certain sectors of development, had largely been ignored in the development agenda. For sustainable development, both governments and donor organisations recognised that women must be integrated in the development agenda. This began the era of Women in Development.

In 1979, a conference of African Ministers resolved that a regional conference on women in development of member states be convened periodically to review progress made in the integration of women in development. these were held in Mauritania 1977; Lusaka, Zambia 1979; Arusha, Tanzania 1984, Abuja Nigeria 1989, Senegal Dakar 1994. The Arusha meeting adapted strategies entitled "Arusha strategies for the Advancement of African women beyond the United Nations decade for women". The Abuja meetings came up with a declaration: "The Abuja Declaration on participatory development: The role of women in Africa in the 1990s". This declaration aimed at ensuring the full participation and involvement of African women in the design and implementation of development programs.

The integration of women in development plans structurally linked the African women's movement to the larger orbit of international agencies and bodies as well as national governments hitherto, active in the African development agenda. This has created a close connection between the women's movement in Africa, the national development sector and international donor agencies. But which model? - a western economic and political model? This of course denies African states the autonomy of decision making. Hence, the dilemma of African women’s movement as they seek to achieve a consensus among themselves about how to respond to persistent gender hierarchy in ways that are personally liberating as well as politically positive.

The close connection between women's participation and sustainable development leads to government support of the women's movement on the one hand, but also government control of the movement in many instances; in most african states- a looming and interventionist role of the state: regulatory, juridical; administrative or military force. For example, some national women's organisations became affiliated to the ruling parties, thus championing government interests rather than women's interests, and hijacking of the women's movement by men, also during elections and party politics.

At the international level, the African women's movement benefits from the efforts by international bodies to improve the conditions of women worldwide, but are at the same time constrained by the dependency on aid and what is considered to be in vogue at any given time by donors. Discourses that have influenced orientations include:

Women in Development (WID), and the idea that development needs women, not vice versa. This discourse called for the inclusion of women in the development process. The problem with this is that women are stirred into development projects that are in fact blind to women’s needs, constraints problems and other responsibilities. Alternatives are:

Women and Development (WAD). This is conceived as a bottom up approach which takes into account what WID discourse ignored. It thus takes women as a special category with special needs and specific obstacles and tries to enable them play their role more effectively.

A third discourse arises from the realisation that women's responsibilities are closely connected with environmental factors, and therefore it tries to factor this into the women's development issues hence: Women, Environment and Development (WEAD) discourse.

These three discourses are still seen to have a certain major limitations. They are seen to remove/isolate women from their socio-economic realities and setting which often include men in some kind of corporate community - if women are abstracted thus, they are rendered dysfunctional as they often need to get male support as well. This brings in a fourth discourse of Gender and Development (GAD), which it is believed, takes into account the fact that women are members of a community.

Such changes and differences may make for discontinuity in lines of action, strategies, targets etc, in the African women's movement in its connection with development

It is within this larger framework therefore, that women activists, and other activists in the women's movement have identified the problems and the areas of redress often very closely connected to principles recognised by the United Nation’s Charters and ratified by national governments. These include:

  • Religious and cultural barriers and constraints: Include dressing code; circumcision and female Genital Mutilation; widow inheritance; paying of dowry and "bride price", husbands power and control over his wife etc.
  • Legal constraints: for example, three different kinds of laws operating side by side with frequent unfair application
  • Existence of discriminatory laws
  • Lack of adequate laws to protect women
  • Poor political representation & barriers to participation in politics
  • Poverty & lack of resources
  • High levels of illiteracy

ARENAS of focus for redress

Legal empowerment through legal awareness campaigns, and legislation enact fair laws, or remove unfair ones; for example, commissions to review laws discriminatory against women.

Economic empowerment, such as:

  • Income generating activities
  • Identification of cultural barriers
  • Education
  • Access to resources (credit, technology).

Political empowerment, such as:

  • Lobbying, pressure and caucus groups,
  • Attempts to encourage and support women to contest parliamentary and civic seats.

Social empowerment, such as:

  • Education and health


Local, national; regional and international levels.

- Gender Conscientization and sensitisation

  • among women
  • among government agents.

- Advocacy and lobbying by women's organisations around specific issues, eg violence against women.

- Formation of associations and women's groups at local, national or regional levels to address specific issues regarding women eg national chapters to regional or international women's organisations.

  • programs and projects to advance the women's cause

Is the Women's Movement in Africa a Feminist Movement?

The women's movement in Africa shares several things with the feminist movement, and has certainly interacted closely with feminist thought and practice from the West, cross fertilising each other. No doubt there is, among African women active in this movement or supporting the movement, an intellectual and a political commitment to women - an objective that is at par with feminist thought. The African women's movement also attempts to explain African women's oppression and propose solutions for its elimination, and aims to achieve "gender justice" in society.

Yet a significant number of African women, active in the women's movement are wary of the terms "feminist" and "feminism." They are ill at ease with the African women's movement being termed a feminist movement. A number of such women reject outright identification as feminists.

I have had occasion to listen to African women speakers at diverse fora: from the pulpit to women's seminars & workshops, academic and professional fora, committees and meetings, begin their talks with these words: I am not a feminist, but...............; I am not propounding feminist ideas, however.............; or I am not representing feminists, but.............., and all the buts go on and talk about gender equity, women's marginalisation and obstacles or special needs needing redress. A number of women do not wish to be categorised as feminists.

Why the Wariness with the Terms "Feminism" and "Feminist" within the African Women's Movement?

There are perhaps as many explanations to this as there are women who shun this term, ranging from simple to more complex explanations.

There are those women who may:

  • be wary of labels - any label;
  • consider using the term "feminist" as synonymous with making some kind of an apology for being a woman;
  • associate the term with a fight against men which may not necessarily be their aim;
  • see an association between the terms "feminist" and "feminism" with "aping" the western women (read radical feminists), and thereby;
  • creating a misunderstanding within society (both men and women), about what women really want;
  • tied to the above, with the consequence that the entire women's movement and efforts are dismissed, as the term gives men a weapon with which to disarm the women's movement due to what 'feminism' is understood, or misunderstood to mean within the African context. This results in defeating the entire purpose of the movement - hence to avoid this such women shun the term altogether.

Feminism is represented as subversive:

  • perceived failure of the term "feminist" to give meaning to what African women believe they are doing;
  • perceived failure of the term "feminist" to speak in a meaningful way to the audience to which the African women's movement is directed and hence the inability of the term "feminist" to create a meaningful engagement or discourse between that audience and the women movement;
  • at the heart of all this perhaps is a whole series of political questions; whose property is the term? who owns it and therefore can appropriate it to their own advantage given a world skewed in different identities of binary oppositions with one advantaged and another disadvantaged? Is the term itself a possible tool of control, creating some cultural dependency among African women? How much bargaining power does the term leave the African women in the "feminist market" of ideas and values? In other words, whose values and world view dominates the market place of ideas about women, particularly regarding the proposed solutions, thus unfairly shaping the range of options that African women may consider as realistic political and social possibilities for the advancement of African women. Such questions may encase the feeling that African women do not enter the feminist discourse in their own terms but rather, are drawn into the orbit of feminism which is already designed and packaged as an "absolute", ordering ideas around itself. This may bring about parallels between the term and imperialism, colonisation, dependency.

In concrete terms: the manner in which western feminist discourse has entered the African women's movement, the response of the African women and the resultant conflict is of great interest.

There is a definite variance between the concerns of the two. For example, in general, western feminists debate essentialism; the female body and radical feminist positions while African feminism is distinctly heterosexual and pro-natal, often concerned with survival and basic needs issues. African feminism, if it be referred to as such, recognises colonial and neo colonial links between all kinds of oppression; political economic and ideological dimensions of oppression We therefore see different reference points between the two groups.

Many Western feminists seem to emphasise individual female autonomy while African women emphasise culturally linked forms of public participation. In their emphasis on female reproductive autonomy, western feminists often represented the relationship between FGM in Africa & Human Rights, based on one privileged premise: that the goal of this practice is to mutilate the sexual pleasure and satisfaction of woman hence, control of woman's sexuality.

Western feminists have often privileged those aspects of African women which coincide with the concerns of western feminism, often to prove their theories or legitimate their actions, and to a large extent regardless of the position assigned to such matters in the hierarchy of priorities by the African women themselves. For example, African women have tended to emphasise economic and political issues rather than sexual and reproductive issues, sometimes underscored that oppression as women is not nearly as bad as oppression as third world people, and that it is a mistake to think that feminists must always privilege women's issues over political issues

Successes of the Women's Movement in Africa

African women have re-introduced themselves as an integral social category in all sectors of the society which must be taken into account in matters affecting the society. African women have become more vocal about our social, personal, economic and political challenges.

This may be discerned in varying degrees of success in the following activities among others:

  • they have identified and clearly articulated their concerns and issues, as well as various causal factors of gender inequality in Africa;
  • they have engaged the state to lobby for changes leading to affirmative action in some states regarding women's representation;
  • there has been active participation by African women at international women's conferences and meetings; Mexico (1975); Copenhagen (1980); Nairobi (1985); and Beijing (1995). These have been preceded by Africa region preparatory meetings involving women all the way from the grassroots to the national levels (particularly the preparatory meetings for the Beijing conference), hence giving African women a voice at international fora;
  • gender conscientisation, sensitisation and awareness efforts which became a major role of the women’s movement activists in the 1990s have resulted in removing women from the periphery of several sectors of the society and bringing them closer to the centre. Examples include:
  • establishment of commissions to check laws discriminatory against women;
  • national Gender sensitive development plans and implementation;
  • national gender sensitive statistics;
  • women have actively participated in the democratisation process sweeping throughout Africa since the early 1990's
  • harnessing energies to lobby; caucus, and push for women's course, ability to make their voices heard in al matters affecting them in particular and society in general eg, their current active participation in constitutional review processes, general elections, including presidential candidature, for example, in Kenya;
  • monitoring and recording progress made by women.

Back to top


Outskirts online journal

This Page

Last updated:
Thursday, 15 September, 2011 11:43 AM