Agathe Uwilingiyimana was the first woman prime minister of Rwanda and only the second woman prime minister on the African continent. A Hutu from southern Rwanda, she was among the first Rwandans killed in the 1994 genocide of Tutsi. She was a political moderate from an opposition political party who rejected ethnic extremism. As the constitutional leader of the country in the wake of the president’s assassination, Hutu extremists killed her so that they could take control of the government. Born to uneducated parents, Uwilingiyimana was among the first women to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Rwanda in 1985. Before entering politics, she taught high-school science for over a decade. She dedicated her life to promoting women’s equality, removing obstacles to girls’ education, and speaking on behalf of the poor. As one of Rwanda’s first prominent women politicians, Uwilingiyimana faced intense misogyny, particularly from members of extremist Hutu political parties. The media frequently portrayed her naked or in sexual contexts. She was attacked in her own home on multiple occasions and menaced when she appeared in public. She was killed on April 7, 1994, along with her husband and an aide. The Belgian United Nations peacekeepers guarding her were also killed. Her death paved the way for Hutu extremists to take over the government and carry out a genocide targeting Tutsi, members of opposition political parties, human rights activists, and journalists.
Cameroon is a nation-state in West Central Africa. Historical evidence about the precolonial period has revealed the diverse ways women valued their motherhood and fertility, knowledge of agriculture production, membership in secret societies, and their role in transitioning deceased women and men through dance and ritual. Women exercised varying levels of power and experienced a spectrum of belonging as wives, mothers, concubines, slaves, queen mothers, and political intermediaries. Near the turn of the 19th century, political centralization and the expansion of long-distance trade produced new forms of inequality for women as wealth became more concentrated in the hands of elite men who sought to control women’s labor and sexuality. With colonial rule and postcolonial nationhood in the 20th century, Cameroonian women were increasingly integrated into a capitalist political economy that supported local patriarchal authority, changed women’s relationships to land, and engendered new socioeconomic inequalities. At the same time, women worked to check gendered disempowerment through secret societies, cooperative groups, schooling, religious conversion, changes in marriage and family structure, entrepreneurship, and new avenues for political engagement. In so doing, Cameroonian women transformed gender roles, struggled against new forms of discrimination, and altered lines of difference among themselves.
This examination of the history of women’s situation in Central Africa from the late colonial period of the 19th to the early 21st century sheds light on women’s experiences by highlighting their agency in confronting the changes they faced. The colonizers’ introduction of cash crop production and forced labor in the late 19th century to modernize the economy impacted the sexual division of labor, transforming the organization of the work within the family and community. In the post-independence period, traditional gender expectations continued to shape the lives of the majority of women, but a small number were able to take advantage of social mutations in the domains of education, politics, and work to become leaders. Transformations brought about by postcolonial armed conflict in three Central African countries profoundly affected women’s lives.
Claire H. Griffiths
Gabon, a small oil-rich country straddling the equator on the west coast of Africa, is the wealthiest of France’s former colonies. An early period of colonization in the 19th century resulted in disease, famine, and economic failure. The creation of French Equatorial Africa in 1910 marked the beginning of the sustained lucrative exploitation of Gabon’s natural resources. Gabon began off-shore oil production while still a colony of France. Uranium was also discovered in the last decade of the French Equatorial African empire. Coupled with rich reserves in tropical woods, Gabon has achieved, since independence in 1960, a higher level of export revenue per capita of population than any other country in sub-Saharan Africa in the postcolonial era. However, significant inequality has characterized access to wealth through paid employment throughout the recorded history of monetized labor. While fortunes have been amassed by a minute proportion of the female population of Gabon associated with the ruling regime, and a professional female middle-class has emerged, inequalities of opportunity and reward continue to mark women’s experience of life in this little-known country of West Central Africa. The key challenge facing scholars researching the history of women in Gabon remains the relative lack of historical resources. While significant strides have been made over the past decade, research on women’s history in Francophone Africa published in English or French remains embryonic. French research on African women began to make a mark in the last decade of colonization, notably with the work of Denise Paulme, but then remained a neglected area for decades. The publication in 1994 of Les Africaines by French historian Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch was hailed at the time as a pioneering work in French historiography. But even this new research contained no analysis of and only a passing reference to women in Gabon.