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date: 22 November 2019

Summary and Keywords

Guinea-Bissau, a small West African country, is home to a multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups with complicated historical entanglements along the Upper Guinea Coast and across European and Afro-Atlantic orbits. Generalizations about women’s lives, given both the longue durée of its precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial history and the diversity of its social systems, are quite easily countered by contradictory—or at least more nuanced—renderings. Nonetheless, it is possible to discern some broad commonalities and continuities, especially in market-related roles and activities. Guinean women have been enterprising traders—sometimes gaining economic and political prominence—since precolonial times and throughout the prolonged Portuguese colonial presence in the region. In particular, Luso-African women, known as nharas, revolutionized and dominated trade in coastal settlements from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but their political and economic autonomy was ultimately curtailed by increasingly repressive colonial policies.

Guinea-Bissau’s unique struggle for independence—spearheaded by the revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral and achieved through an 11-year military struggle against the Portuguese—opened up opportunities for women’s liberation from both Portuguese colonialism and customary patriarchal strictures. Although Guinean women participated in the Luta da Libertação in unprecedented ways, they struggled to maintain an active role in nation-building after formal independence in 1974. The Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde’s (PAIGC) rhetorical commitment to gender equality remains an unfulfilled promise in the postcolonial period, as chronic political instability, deleterious economic policies, and largely unfavorable structural adjustment programs have tended to worsen women’s overall conditions. Women have continued to carve out creative roles in an expanding neoliberal marketplace, often becoming intrepid—although always precarious—players in the informal sector. Although women have gained several protective legislative rights since independence—such as the prohibition of forced and child marriage, and easier access to divorce—these have been implemented unevenly. Guinea-Bissau’s human development indicators are among the lowest in the world, especially for women: life expectancy for women is 59 years, childbirth is the leading cause of women’s mortality, and literacy among women is at 44 percent. The failure of the postcolonial state to fulfill Cabral’s egalitarian vision has not only marginalized women’s political and economic status within the country, it may have contributed to the overall weakening of key state institutions, ultimately enticing international narco-traffickers to its shores in the early 21st century and entrenching a drug economy amidst the ruins of the country’s capital city. The gendered roots of Guinea-Bissau’s present woes cannot be ignored.

Keywords: Guinea-Bissau, nhara, Portuguese colonialism, women’s trade, Afro-Atlantic, PAIGC, structural adjustment, Amílcar Cabral, women in West Africa

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