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Development is a process that transforms societies. Despite considerable variation across world regions and over time, one commonality of development has been that the initial phase, from 1950 to 1975, likely led to growing inequality between men and women in both opportunities and well-being. The first decades of planning and promotion of development largely excluded women, partly as a result of unequal gender relations in many societies as development began: the slave trade, colonial indifference to women’s rights, and missionary activities may have worsened the status of women. More importantly, the men who controlled the late colonial and early post-independence state saw little reason to promote a pro-woman agenda in development. The initial phase of development thus reinforced male privilege. After 1975, national and international social movements arose to pressure governments and institutions to undo the legacies of gender inequality. Women-centered development flourished in the 2000s. There have been uncertainties, however, over the cost-effectiveness of some of the various policies and programs implemented as a result of the movements to include women in development.
Genocide, defined in international law as killings and related mass atrocities that are committed “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” has negatively impacted countless communities across Africa over the centuries. The resulting historical literature is strongest regarding those genocides that occurred in the 20th and 21st centuries due to a tendency to privilege written sources. Within this literature, African women’s experiences remain understudied compared to the experiences of men, despite widespread recognition that genocides often affect people differently according to their gender identity. However, in looking at the widely studied examples of colonial genocides in Belgian-occupied Congo (1885–1908) and German-occupied Namibia (1904–1908), and the subsequent genocides in Burundi (1972), Rwanda (1994), and Sudan (2003–2008), it becomes evident that perpetrators have targeted women in particular ways as part of their broader efforts to exterminate unwanted communities. While women are frequently killed alongside men during genocides, the literature on these case studies abounds with examples of sexual violence, particularly rape, that the perpetrators inflict upon women as part of their efforts to undermine the social vitality of their intended victims’ communities. Women’s experiences of genocide are often far more diverse than the literature’s singular focus on sexual violence suggests, however. The case of Rwanda demonstrates that women can also serve as combatants and perpetrators, while the case of Belgian-occupied Congo reveals that women can lead resistance movements in opposition to genocidal violence. Similarly, German-occupied Namibia and Rwanda demonstrate that women can serve important roles in rebuilding their communities and advocating for recognition and reparations in the post-genocide period. Scholars are beginning to pay greater attention to women’s diverse experiences of genocide, but there is a great deal of research to be undertaken, particularly regarding how different facets of women’s identities, such as class, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, among others, shape their experiences of genocide.
Lesley Nicole Braun
African women’s experiences of migration and transregional movements have long been eclipsed by men’s histories of travel and journeying. However, this certainly does not mean that women have not historically participated in geographical movement, both with their families and independently. Reasons for women’s migratory practices are divergent, and they are informed by a kaleidoscope of shifting historical internal and external sociopolitical forces. Some of these include escape from violent conflict and war, slavery, environmental and economic hardship, and oppressive family constraints. The colonial era marked a period of intense migration in which men were forcibly moved to labor within extractive economies. Women, for their part, sometimes migrated without the approval of their own families, and against the colonial administration’s sanctions. Their experiences were shaped by struggles against all forms of patriarchal authority. As a result of changing demographics and social roles, the colonial city also assumed a reputation among colonials and Africans as a space of moral depravity motivated by consumer culture. Consequently, migrant women often faced stigma when they entered cities, and sometimes when they returned home.
Women were attracted to towns and cities and what they came to represent—spaces where new opportunities could be explored. Opportunity came in the form of economic independence, marriage, romantic liaisons, and education. Most migrant women were confronted with being marginalized to the domestic sphere and informal sector. However, many women also acquired and honed their market acumen, amassing wealth which they often reinvested in family networks back in their natal villages, thus revealing circular modes of migration associated with multilocal networks.
Women played a central role in the development of Pan-Africanism. It can even be claimed that it was a woman, the South African Alice Kinloch, who initiated the modern Pan-African movement at the dawn of the 20th century. In the early 21st century it has become fashionable, mainly in some academic circles in the United States, to use the term “Black Internationalism” as an alternative to Pan-Africanism. This phrase was also first coined by a woman, Jeanne Nardal, an influential and important Martinican writer in Paris in the 1920s, who used the term internationalisme noir to refer to the growing links between “Negroes of all origins and nationalities.” There is no doubt that she also used the phrase to refer to the growing Pan-Africanism of the period, and therefore it is difficult to see what distinguishes the two terms.
There has never been one universally accepted definition of exactly what constitutes Pan-Africanism. It has taken different forms at different historical moments and geographical locations. What underlies the manifold visions and approaches of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Africanists is a belief in the unity, common history, and common purpose of the peoples of Africa and the African diaspora and the notion that their destinies are interconnected. In addition, many would highlight the importance of the liberation and advancement of the African continent itself, not just for its inhabitants but also as the homeland of the entire African diaspora. Pan-Africanist thought and action is principally connected with, and provoked by, the modern dispersal of Africans resulting from the trafficking of captives across the Atlantic to the Americas, as well as elsewhere. The largest forced migration in history, and the creation of the African diaspora, was accompanied by the emergence of global capitalism, European colonial rule, and anti-African racism.
Pan-Africanism evolved as a variety of ideas, activities, organizations, and movements that, sometimes in concert, resisted the exploitation and oppression of all those of African heritage; opposed and refuted the ideologies of anti-African racism; and celebrated African achievement, history, and the very notion of being African. Pan-Africanism looks forward to a genuinely united and independent Africa as the basis for the liberation of all Africans, both those on the continent and in the diaspora. However, it should be made clear that historically there have been two main strands of Pan-Africanism. The earlier form emerging during and after the period of trans-Atlantic enslavement originated from the African diaspora and stressed the unity of all Africans and looked toward their liberation and that of the African continent. The more recent form emerged in the context of the anti-colonial struggle on the African continent in the period after 1945. This form of Pan-Africanism stressed the unity, liberation, and advancement of the states of the African continent, although often recognizing the importance of the diaspora and its inclusion. The continental focus of this form of Pan-Africanism can be seen in the orientation and activities of such organizations as the Organisation of African Unity and the African Union. The more recent continental form of Pan-Africanism is likely to include the peoples and states of North Africa, while the earlier form sometimes does not.
Although women such Alice Kinloch and Jeanne Nardal have played an important role in the emergence and development of the modern Pan-African movement and its ideologies, there have been few studies devoted solely to women’s involvement with Pan-Africanism. Some significant organizations such as the Pan-African Women’s Organisation, founded in 1962 and still in existence, have no written history and have therefore been excluded from many accounts. It is evident that women were generally less prominent than men in the Pan-African movement, but also that the literature has often overlooked, underestimated, and sometimes ignored the role of women.
Aili Marie Tripp
While women were never fully equal to men in the political sphere, women in precolonial Africa governed kingdoms, established cities, launched military conquests, and founded states. Some governed as sole rulers often as queens, while others governed together with a king, as a mother or sister of the king. A third arrangement involved a tripartite sharing of power among the king, mother, and sister, and a fourth arrangement involved societies in which an age set or group of elders governed the society and in which women exerted either direct or indirect power.
Women lost out in such arrangements, first, with the spread of Islam and Christianity and later with colonization. Women participated actively in nationalist movements, but their motivations sometimes differed from those of men, and were related, for example, to taxation and the desire to improve female education. After independence, women were further sidelined from political life with a few exceptions. It was not until the 1990s that we began to see the reemergence of women political leaders. This happened with the opening of political space, which allowed for the emergence of women’s organizations, coalitions, and movements that pressed for an increased political role for women. The decline of conflict after 2000 created greater stability that enhanced these trends. Pressures from the United Nations after 1995 and from foreign donors strengthened domestic actors pressing for women’s-rights reforms in the area of political representation.
Gretchen Bauer, Akosua Darkwah, and Donna Patterson
Building upon their participation in anti-colonial struggles across Africa in the mid-20th century, African women have taken on many political roles in the post-independence period. While military rule and single-party rule precluded access to elected office in many countries in the early years after independence, female combatants fought alongside their male counterparts in ongoing struggles for national liberation in other parts of Africa, especially southern Africa, into the 1980s and 1990s. In many countries, national gender machineries established in the 1970s provided an institutional infrastructure for pursuing women’s rights even if they were often not fully implemented. State feminism, articulated through First Ladyism and state-led national women’s associations, sought to co-opt women’s struggles for political gain. In some instances, it did ameliorate women’s economic hardships and promote political participation. Women’s mobilization in the 1980s, in part a response to the severe impact of structural adjustment programs on devastated African economies, led to local-level organizing and eventually to a focus on women’s access to political office. Since the political transitions that swept the continent beginning in the early 1990s, women have accessed political office in all three branches of government in unprecedented numbers just as new forms of mobilization have emerged around issues like the rights of sexual minorities.
Mariana P. Candido
Kidnapping, warfare, seizure, and enslavement were gendered experiences in the sense that men, women, and children did not necessarily face the same process. Each enslaved woman and man was an individual who navigated bondage, resistance, dependency, and violence with different degrees of success within specific contexts. Recognizing their complexities and the variations regarding their enslavement and bondage is vital to avoiding essentialization of African slavery as a monolithic or an ahistorical institution. Women composed most of the enslaved population within the African continent, due in part to the operation of internal markets and local demands. The internal demand for enslaved women affected prices, values, and flows of the external slave trades, as well as gender imbalance.
Women in bondage played major economic roles in the domestic and public spheres as farmers, skilled craftspersons, street vendors, miners, healers, and cooks, performing tasks that respectable and honorable free women would not do. They were valued as producers and reproducers who could attend to sexual demands and be incorporated into lineages as unfree people. In different societies within and outside of Africa, enslaved women in bondage were sexually objectified and exploited. There is thus nothing “African” about this violence, since one of the premises of enslaving girls and women was the ability to abuse their bodies. The sexual dimension of the use of women’s bodies explains the higher value for female captives in internal African markets, as well as the silence surrounding the enslavement of women. It is important to recognize that in Africa, as elsewhere, the institution of slavery was not monolithic. Detailed regional studies indicate variations across time and space. Women experienced capture, enslavement, and bondage in different ways. One cannot make general assumptions when analyzing exceptional lives.
Peace A. Medie
Violence, in all of its forms, touches girls and women’s lives in Africa. While there is evidence that girls and women do participate in violence, research has shown that a significant proportion of them have also been victims. Violence against women describes violence inflicted on girls and women because of their gender and includes femicide, rape, intimate partner violence, and human trafficking. It also includes harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage. While it is a global problem, the levels of some forms of violence against women are particularly high in Africa. The problem is caused by a complex interaction of factors operating at multiple levels, including at the global level. Historical records show that acts of violence against women, including intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, were perpetrated during the colonial era. During this period, perpetrators of non-partner sexual violence included colonial officers and troops under their command. Cases brought before colonial courts sometimes resulted in the conviction of the offender, but sentences were generally light. However, incidents of violence against women were mostly resolved within the family or community, with relatives and traditional leaders playing a central role.
The post-independence period has seen increased attention to violence against women. Activism by women’s movements contributed to placing the issue on the agenda of states and of international organizations such as the United Nations. Sexual violence perpetrated by armed actors during wars in the 1990s also served to draw attention to violence against women. Consequently, most African countries have amended colonial-era rape laws and have adopted new legislation to address acts such as intimate partner violence, early marriage, and female genital mutilation. Many of them have also created specialized criminal-justice-sector institutions to address various forms of violence against women. These actions on the part of states have been influenced by women’s movements and by pressure from international organizations such as the United Nations. While this demonstrates progress on the part of African states, there is a large implementation gap in most countries. Thus, girls and women rarely benefit from the progressive laws on the books. This demonstrates that there is much work that needs to be done to address violence against women in Africa.
The sty of women in East Africa did not begin until the 1970s and 1980s. Knowledge of times past comes from colonial records, filtered through the lenses of late Victorian-era men and from casting back the structures of early colonial years to create imaginaries of preexisting realities. Living in age-grade social systems that featured gendered lines of authority, men occupied societal institutions of power while women were informal political actors. Women were highly subordinated to their menfolk in some societies but held positions as chiefs in others. A gendered division of labor confined females to the domestic sphere, including subsistence production. We know little about intergender relationships, less about sexuality—studied in those eras almost exclusively in terms of the physical desires and behaviors that were morally right, appropriate, and “natural” and how those ideas were used to create unequal access to status, power, privileges, and resources.
The extractive focus of the colonial era transformed women’s lives and relationships as taxation and wage labor incrementally located and oriented males outside family and community spheres. Colonists dealt mainly with men, rendering women mostly silent. Missionaries taught a new morality and way of life that framed the concepts of marriage, family, and sexuality, and provided openings into unknown spaces as well as new possibilities. The trajectory of women’s lives, gender, and sexuality in East Africa is shaped by the continuation of policies and forces set in motion during the colonial period. Some, particularly the educated, have been able to pursue careers and become producers and consumers. Immersed increasingly in the social values of individuality and personal satisfaction, women are expanding their horizons to control their own lives. Their sexuality is increasingly considered as a dimension of personhood, rather than as a domain of externally imposed social control.
Mariana P. Candido
European colonial powers established the contemporary boundaries of Angola during the Conference of Berlin (1884–1885). However, colonialism dates to the 15th century, when Portuguese merchants first contacted the Kingdom of Kongo along the Congo River and established early settlements in Luanda (1575) and Benguela (1617). Parts of the territories that became known as Angola in the early 20th century have a long history of interaction with the outside world, and as a result European primary sources provide much of the information available to historians. The reports, official correspondence, and diaries were produced by European men and are therefore problematic. However, by reading against the grain scholars can begin to understand how women lived in Angola before the 20th century.
Some, such as Queen Njinga, had access to political power, and others, such as Dona Ana Joaquina dos Santos e Silva, enjoyed great wealth. Kimpa Vita was a prophet who led a movement of political and religious renewal and was killed as a result. Most women never appeared in historical documents but were fundamental to the economic and social existence of their communities as farmers, traders, artisans, mediums, and enslaved individuals. The end of the slave trade in the 1850s led to the expansion of the so-called legitimate trade and plantation economies, which privileged male labor while relying on women’s domestic contributions. The arrival of a larger number of missionaries, colonial troops, and Portuguese settlers by the end of the 19th century resulted in new policies that stimulated migration and family separation. It also introduced new ideas about morality, sexuality, and motherhood. Women resisted and joined anticolonial movements. After independence, decades of civil war increased forced displacement, gender imbalance, and sexual violence. The greater stability at the end of the armed conflict may favor the expansion of women’s organizations and internal pressures to address gender inequalities.
Associations and organizations are groups of individuals who form a body to achieve an aim. Women’s leadership and membership in associations constitute a vital part of Africa’s economic, social, and political history. Women-only associations and women in dual-sex organizations protested against colonial rule; fought for independence; and mobilized for democracy, peace, and equality. Still, women in associations also supported colonial projects, fought in war, and held up postcolonial authoritarian rule. Taken together, economic, social, and political accounts of Africa are inherently incomplete if they fail to interrogate women’s participation in collective action on the continent.
Women have created and joined many kinds of associations and organizations in Africa. These include secular and religious associations. Some groups represent the interests of a profession (e.g., academics, journalists, lawyers, midwives, traders) or a political party or ideology (e.g., African National Congress Women’s League in South Africa). Others explicitly try to bring together women and men from multiple status and political groups (e.g., Women’s National Coalition in South Africa). Women have formed groups of friends and family members in their immediate vicinity, at times through small-scale rotating savings and credit associations. Other associations have a national membership base. Associations further vary in their relationship to the state. Some are formally recognized, and others are informal. Whereas some groups receive state financing, others depend solely on the contributions of its members, and many fall in the middle of the spectrum. Women have also forged intra-regional, pan-African, and global networks of individuals and organizations. It is not uncommon for a woman to belong to multiple kinds of associations simultaneously and for her memberships to vary over her lifetime.
The associations and organizations that women have spearheaded rise and fall, consolidate and fragment, and succeed and fail in achieving their aims, reflecting local, national, and international contradictions and dynamics. The power of women-led organizations has changed over time. Women-led organizations registered economic revolutions, political upheavals, and religious conversion on the continent before the advent of European colonization, under European rule, and in postcolonial Africa.
Jessica Catherine Reuther
The modern-day Republic of Benin in West Africa was historically a patchwork of precolonial kingdoms and acephalous zones. In the 17th century, the kingdom of Dahomey formed in the south central interior plateau region of modern-day Benin. In the 18th century, Dahomey grew to become the dominant regional power. Dahomey’s women were famed globally for their roles as government ministers, queen mothers, and warriors. Women had multiple means through which to achieve various forms of power. Women’s power was multi-faceted during the precolonial era; however, these women’s power required proximity to the king and incorporation into the royal palace.
During the colonial era from 1894–1960, women had much fewer opportunities to achieve positions of formal power. After the conquest of the Slave Coast region in the 1890s, France established a colony named after the kingdom of Dahomey. Women’s roles in politics declined rapidly as part of the shift from the precolonial to colonial systems of governance. This shift continued a trend though, already unfolding in the 19th century, that reduced women’s power in the royal palace. Few women rose to formal positions of authority in collaboration with the French colonial administration. Colonialism irrevocably transformed gendered systems of power and authority in ways that removed Dahomean women from officially sanctioned positions of power. Despite these restrictions, Dahomean women always found ways to express their agendas and exert influence over the colonial government. During the colonial era, market women, in particular, found ways to protest colonial policies and developed gendered strategies of activism.
In 1960, Dahomey gained independence from France and was renamed Benin in 1972. Beninese women have struggled to regain their active roles in political life. Since the end of the Cold War and the transition from socialism to democracy in the 1990s, individual Beninese women who had access to education and the opportunity to study and work for extended periods of time have managed to once again participate in national politics. However, they remain a disadvantaged minority in electoral politics.
The history of women is characterized by nonlinear and gendered social, political and economic processes. In particular, the history of Burundian women’s collective actions has been embedded in the contested and violent trajectory of the Burundian state. Burundian women’s collective actions refer to a broad range of interactions: from protest, and social mobilizations to institutionalized actions. These interactions have been shaped by both global and local social structures, and by complex conflictive and cooperative relations between the Burundian state, political parties, women’s organizations and movements, and external actors (colonial powers, international organizations, non-governmental organizations).
Women’s experiences in Burundi’s pre-colonial patriarchal society are little known, with the exception of the glorified Queen-mothers. German and Belgian colonial policies (1886–1962) reinforced and rigidified pre-colonial social constructions of ethnic and gendered social identities and roles, assigning ordinary women to the domestic sphere and sanctioning their social inferior status along with ethnic lines (Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa). After Burundi’s independence, the one-party military regime organized and supervised the first forms of women’s political participation through the Union des femmes burundaises (1962–1980s). The democratic transition of the early 1990s led to the creation of autonomous women’s organizations and networks, which were extended during the civil war (1993–2005). Burundian women actively contributed to national and grassroots peace processes. In particular, a delegation of seven Burundian women participated in the negotiations held in Arusha (1998–2000), with observer status. Post-conflict struggles for women’s rights posed the central issue of women’s political representation, with the adoption of gender quotas from 2005, but left aside other issues after 2010, such as women’s right to inherit land. In Spring 2015, Burundian women were present in protests against the president’s third mandate; with the women’s march being the first to reach the city center in March 2015. Women’s organizations kept mobilizing towards women’s rights after the electoral crisis, in exile or within Burundi, though facing important financial constraints and political repression.
Cape Verde is a transnational nation, situated off the coast of Senegal, formed out of the slave trade, and has such a long history of migration that it is widely believed that double the size of its local population resides abroad. Men were traditionally the first to emigrate, influencing family and gender relations, with high rates of informal male polygamy producing diverse family forms in predominantly female-headed households that challenge the dominant Cape Verdean model of a patriarchal society that places the man as the breadwinner at the head of the family.
Historical records have largely failed to address the significant roles played by women during the colonial period and struggle for independence, which have become the focus of current research. Following Cape Verde’s independence from Portugal in 1975, women did not occupy any governmental positions until after the country’s first multi-party elections in 1991, when issues related to women’s emancipation, gender equality, and equity began to gain political leverage. In 1994 the government created the Institute for the Condition of Women (ICF) to implement its policies to combat discrimination against women in all public and private spheres, which was renamed the Institute for Gender Equality and Equity in 2006. Civil society and non-governmental organizations that specialize in gender and promote women’s empowerment through projects and campaigns have also become increasingly active. Informal commerce has constituted an important resource for many women to provide for their families, some of which takes place through transnational business networks that allow them to buy goods abroad and sell them in Cape Verde. Women have also migrated to support their families—thus initiating transnational maternity practices—and to pursue academic capital in higher education. They have also contributed toward the dissemination of Cape Verdean culture through female voices such as Cesária Évora and Lura.
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.
The inhabitants of the Comoros archipelago, situated between the East African coast and the island of Madagascar, are Muslim and at the same time follow a matrilocal residence rule and, in two of the four islands, a matrilineal descent rule. This has consequences for women’s place in society, though their status and power varies according to their age and place in the social hierarchy, and with the political context. This article draws on three examples taken from specific island contexts to illustrate forms of agency accessible to the Comorian women. It shows how, having previously been invisible in political life, women played a leading role in Maore Island to escape the domination of the other islands’ elite by choosing to remain a French territory. It analyzes the way ceremonial exchanges in Ngazidja Island give elder and younger sisters different opportunities and place different constraints upon them in terms of how they behave and lead their lives. Finally, it shows the unexpected impact of an international program addressing Ndzuwani women on their empowerment in a patriarchal social context.
Susana Castillo-Rodriguez and Alba Valenciano Mañé
Women who live in the territories that today comprise the Republic of Equatorial Guinea experienced important material and social changes during pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial times. They faced crucial imbalances in terms of their social and political position: while Guinean women had a vital role in household management and child rearing, in most cases they did not control their income nor the circulation of goods and people within their society. While they have historic commonalities with women in other parts of Central Africa, their particular experiences during the slave trade and Spanish colonialism, including the deployment of the national Catholic colonial state during Franco’s dictatorship in the territory, contributed to their unique history and situation today. Francoist colonialism, which lasted from 1936 until Equatorial Guinea’s independence from Spain in 1968, strengthened the existing patriarchal structure of the societies living within the country. Independence did not substantially change the social and political roles of women in Equatorial Guinea but nevertheless opened up new horizons for them. Since 1968, three generations of empowered women—teachers, traders, farmers, writers, and politicians—have contributed to the creation of alternative narratives for women and increased the scope of their role in the public domain. Despite these new avenues for women, Equatorial Guinea’s current regime and economy not only relies on extracting rents from an oil-based economy but also extracting the organizing and political capacity of ordinary Guinean women. As before, they still face the challenge of managing their households without controlling their larger economic circumstances while lacking political power in the country.
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.
African law and justice systems in the early 21st century are the result of over a thousand years of religious and cultural influences and political change on the continent. As customary and Islamic laws became reinterpreted and formalized by colonial states, women experienced the effects of successive periods of religious and political conquest as an entrenching of patriarchal control in the family and personal law sphere. The 20th century saw African women’s resistance rise from the grass roots as an important force for national liberation. African women’s legal activism grew after political independence and African women lawyers were part of global feminist movements. In the wake of dramatic political changes across Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, the global sphere of rights post-1989 became an enabling frame for women’s legal activism. Political transitions to multiparty democracy, the liberalization of African economies, and a wave of constitutional reforms strengthened women’s rights and gender equality guarantees. The 1980s and 1990s saw the founding of regional and pan-African women’s legal activist organizations, including the Action Committee of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Women in Law and Development in Africa as well as the adoption of the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa in 2003. In the 21st century, while social, economic, and legal inequalities persist in spite of many gains for women’s rights, some African women lawyers have risen to occupy the highest echelons of the judiciary in several countries and in international courts.
During the pre-colonial period, women were valued for their productive and reproductive abilities. When women married, their parents received bohali (bridewealth) from the man’s family. During the colonial period women became increasingly responsible for running the household while men were away. Although this gave women more power on a daily basis it also led to increasing domestic violence. In order to support themselves and their families, women have sought out domestic economic opportunities as well as participating in migrant labor. Historically, beer brewing and sex trafficking were two of the economic opportunities available to women in Lesotho and South Africa. Today, women make up the overwhelming majority of labor in the textile factories. Although Lesotho is a patriarchal society, women have made gains in terms of being elected to parliament and serving as regents, yet they are still not allowed to serve as a chief in their own right. The HIV/AIDS pandemic has hit women in Lesotho especially hard.