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Women in Uganda  

Alicia C. Decker

Women in Uganda have had a complex relationship with the state. During the precolonial period, there were two main types of political organization: kingdom states and “nonstate” segmentary societies. Most women in kingdom states were left out of the patron–client relationship system and accessed resources through their husbands, brothers, and sons. A small number of royal women, particularly within Buganda, had significant political power. Less is known about women in precolonial segmentary societies because of the relative lack of sources. In the mid-19th century, long-distance traders arrived in Buganda, bringing Islam and a heightened demand for slaves. The state treated enslaved women as commodities that could be sold or traded at any time. When European explorers and missionaries arrived shortly thereafter, they brought Christianity, as well as their own ideas about gender, many of which limited women’s power. After the British declared a protectorate over Uganda in 1894, missionaries worked closely with the new colonial government to educate women for domesticity. Daughters of the elite learned to become helpmates to their future husbands, who, in turn, were the functionaries of indirect rule. The colonial period also saw the advent of the club movement, which trained women to be good wives and mothers. After World War II, women’s clubs became increasingly political. Through the Uganda Council of Women, members learned to influence public opinion and government policies. However, very few women participated in formal politics at this time. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, women’s issues became increasingly central to the state. Nonetheless, activists struggled for autonomy in a political landscape that was chaotic and increasingly authoritarian. The militarization of the state, coupled with frequent and unpredictable regime changes, made women’s lives more difficult. Although more women have been elected to office and appointed to cabinet-level positions in the early 21st century, civil war and political instability have presented numerous challenges to women and their livelihoods.

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Women in Ugandan Politics and History: Collective Biography  

Aili Mari Tripp

In the precolonial era, certain women played key governance roles, for example, the queen’s sister and the king’s mother in Buganda, the largest of Uganda’s four kingdoms. At one time they had as much power as the king in Buganda. However, women’s authority declined in Buganda in the 1700s and 1800s with the rise of the hereditary chiefs (batongole) and the demise of the influence of the clans. The coming of the British further undermined their roles. While on the one hand, British colonial engagement with local authorities privileged men, colonial education gave rise to Ugandan women’s leadership in local and national organizations, which provided women with a venue for political mobilization. The first women were appointed to the legislature at the end of British rule in 1954; all of them were British. As a result of pressure from women’s organizations, African women were soon thereafter appointed to the legislature starting in 1956. The number of women in political office remained low until the takeover of President Yoweri Museveni in 1986, when Uganda became a leader in Africa in advancing women in positions in the legislature and executive. The Museveni government’s adoption of reserved seats for women at all levels from local councils to the parliament in 1989 ensured that at least one-third of seats were held by women. The increase in numbers of women in parliament had some impact on the adoption of women’s rights legislation; however, ultimately women remained constrained by patronage and the undemocratic nature of the political system in Uganda.

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Women in West African History  

Barbara Cooper

Across West Africa up to the 19th century, titled positions for women ensured that women’s interests could be voiced and their disputes regulated. Women often had major roles as brokers and intermediaries in trade centers along the Saharan and Atlantic littorals, contributing to the emergence of powerful Euro-African families. Nevertheless, women were particularly vulnerable to the depredations of the trans-Saharan and Atlantic slave trades. Because female labor was so highly valued, female slaves were more expensive than male slaves. The history of women in West Africa has been characterized by marked differences by ecological zone. Those differences have been deepened by Islamic influences in the North and by different experiences under French, British, and Portuguese rule. With the decline in the Atlantic trade and the growing emphasis upon commodity production, the demand for female labor in agriculture and in processing rose. Under colonial rule, the loss of slave labor was partially offset by increasing demands upon the labor of wives. Women mediated demands upon their labor through colonial courts, with some success in the early decades of the 20th century. Later courts and administrators supported patriarchal controls upon women in the interests of order and a smoothly running economy. Women’s control over their traditional means of accumulating wealth through farming, cloth production, and specialized crafts was typically undermined as economies shifted to emphasize cash crop production and tree crops in particular. Women nevertheless could flourish in market trade and could sometimes gain control over new niches in the economy. The growth of colonial infrastructure had contradictory implications. Women’s traditionally important roles as queens, priestesses, and ritual specialists declined in importance. At the same time, schooling gave some women access to new means of gaining income and prestige as teachers and medical practitioners.

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Women in Zambia  

Iva Peša

The history of women in Zambia is dynamic, complex, and varied. In the precolonial period, women held a range of influential positions in society. Through agricultural production, pottery, ritual, and healing, they performed valued tasks complementary to those of men. Descent was most commonly traced matrilineally, affording a woman’s lineage much power over labor, offspring, land, and wealth. The colonial period changed the position of women profoundly. Christianity and colonial policies advocated for an ideal of a nuclear family with a male breadwinner. Concomitantly, commercialization and labor migration made women’s positions more precarious. In rural areas, women struggled to prepare fields because of the absence of men’s labor, whereas in urban areas women were officially only allowed residence as “wives” of male workers. Yet a story of increasing female marginalization and subordination would be far from complete. Moreover, such a narrative obscures everyday gendered contestations. Some women in the colonial and postcolonial periods made a profitable livelihood by selling crops; others moved to town and engaged in trade or brewed beer. Such activities became particularly significant in the wake of economic decline during the 1980s and 1990s. The HIV/AIDS pandemic all too often made women the heads of their households. The history of women in Zambia is, thus, far from singular. Studying its variety reveals Zambian women’s agency and power, even in conditions not of their own choosing.

Article

Women, Race, and Ethnicity  

Hilary Jones

The idea of race shaped the encounter between Africa and Europe from the “age of discovery,” through the height of colonial rule in the 20th century, and on into the age of independence, decolonization and the birth of the postcolonial nation. Race, understood today as a social construct rather than a biological fact, emerged as an ideological framework in Western thought to rationalize difference. In the 16th and 17th centuries, religion and color stood as markers of difference. The Atlantic slave trade furthered the notion of African inferiority by defining African people as “heathen” and therefore suitable for enslavement. By the 19th century, scientific racism advanced the idea of blackness as biologically and culturally inferior to whiteness, which in turn served to justify colonial conquest under the guise of “civilizing dark Africa.” Colonial rule, moreover, relied on ethnicity as a means of categorizing African peoples. Using the idea of “tribe” to characterize and govern African peoples furthered the objectives of European imperialism by taking a complex landscape of social, cultural, political, and linguistic identity and establishing a rigid and fixed system of classification. African women stood at the intersection of racialist thinking about Africa and the construction of a colonial social order that used race and ethnicity as means of defining and controlling African populations. Women like Sara Baartman became the symbolic projection of racial and ethnic difference for Europe; at the same time, customary marriages between African women and European men in Atlantic Africa defined cross-cultural trade and gave rise to multiracial communities. As European imperialism gave way to colonial bureaucracy, the fluidity of interracial unions gave way to policies that sought to police the boundaries between black and white in the colony; children of mixed racial ancestry did not fit neatly into the ethnic or racial categories erected by colonial regimes. Far from being passive receptacles of racial and ethnic thinking, African men and women used these categories of European knowledge as tools for their own purposes. African women, in particular, developed their own strategies for engaging with European merchants and officials in the age of encounter, and for navigating the evolving landscape of colonial rule, whether defying colonial boundaries by entering into intimate partnerships with European men, or rejecting European suitors.

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Women’s Emancipation from Slavery in Africa in the 19th and 20th Centuries  

Patricia van der Spuy

Women were the majority of enslaved people in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Slavery was transformed and expanded in the context of so-called “legitimate commerce” that followed the abolition of oceanic slave trading. Abolition proclamations followed, in British colonies in the 1830s, and elsewhere from the 1870s through much of the 20th century, but abolition did not equate to freedom. Gender was at the heart of emancipation everywhere. Colonial merchants and officials colluded with local male elites to ensure the least disruption possible to the status quo. For these male allies, emancipation was a contradiction in terms for women, because masculine authority and control over women was assumed. In many regions, it was difficult for Europeans to distinguish between marriage, pawnship, and slavery. Women engaged strategically with colonial institutions like the courts over such distinctions to assert some form of control over their own lives, labor, and bodies. Where slavery and marriage were categorically distinct, again women might engage with Western gender stereotypes of marriage to extricate themselves from the authority of former slaveholders, or they might withdraw their labor by fleeing from the farms. Whereas for Europeans women were ideally defined as subservient wives within nuclear families, for many women themselves motherhood and access to their children were key to struggles toward emancipation. Women’s decisions about their emancipation were influenced by many factors, including whether or not they were mothers, if they were born into slavery or enslaved as children or adults, their experiences of coercion and cruelty including sexual violence, their status within the slaveholding, and their relationships of dependency and support. Topography and location mattered; urban contexts offered different kinds of post-slavery opportunity for many, and access to land and other economic opportunities and limitations were critical. The abolition of slavery by European colonial officials did not emancipate women, but it did provide the context in which some women might negotiate or claim their own rights to freedom as they defined it—which in some cases meant walking away from systems of involuntary servitude. Some women engaged colonial officers and institutions directly to demand a change in status, whereas others decided to stay in relationships that, in many cases, were subtly redefined.

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Women's Legal Rights  

Johanna Bond

In the colonial and postcolonial period, African women have advocated for legal reforms that would improve the status of women across the continent. During the colonial period, European common and civil law systems greatly influenced African indigenous legal systems and further entrenched patriarchal aspects of the law. In the years since independence, women’s rights advocates have fought, with varying degrees of success, for women’s equality within the constitution, the family, the political arena, property rights, rights to inheritance, rights to be free from gender-based violence, rights to control their reproductive lives and health, rights to education, and many other aspects of life. Legal developments at the international, national, and local levels reflect the efforts of countless African women’s rights activists to improve the status of women within the region.

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Women’s Literature in African History  

Anthonia C. Kalu

African literature refers to (a) African oral literature (also called Orature) and (b) written African literature from West, North, Central, East, and Southern Africa. African oral literature encompasses works from Africa’s ancient and classical narrative traditions and spans oral narratives, proverbs, drama, poetry, chants and songs, riddles, and so on. With the earliest known works located in ancient Egypt, written African literature includes inscriptions on pyramid walls, the short story, the novel, poetry, drama, autobiography, and so forth. Women’s literature in Africa refers to African literatures by and about women. While storytelling styles vary by region and experiences shaped by history and society, the themes are linked by complex worldviews rooted in a common evocation of human experiences that seem unique to the continent. The languages of African literature include Africa’s indigenous languages as well as the languages acquired by different African societies as a result of the continent’s encounters with the East and experiences of Western colonization.

Article

The Women’s War of 1929  

Adam Paddock

The Women’s War of 1929, known among Igbo women as Ogu Umunwanyi, occurred from November 23 to January 10, 1930. It was a resistance movement whereby women in the Eastern Provinces of the British colony of Nigeria intended to reverse colonial policies that intruded on their political, economic, and social participation in local communities. Women participants included predominantly Igbo and Ibibio women; however, Ogoni and Andoni women, among others, participated. Whereas the British system of indirect rule on paper intended to institute political control with minimal intrusion on African societies, colonial rule in Eastern Nigeria significantly contributed to redefining women’s position in society, which meant colonialism’s political changes led to a range of consequences for women’s work and daily lives that extended well beyond politics. In addition, the British colonial government imposed an almost completely alien political system of autocratic warrant chiefs on societies that in the past practiced a political system with diffused political authority shared across several positions, organizations, and gender. Shortly after World War I, the British colonial army in eastern Nigeria defeated the last major resistance to colonial rule, the Ekumeku rebellion. In the ensuing decade, resistance to colonial rule continued, but Africans altered their tactics and women featured prominently in anticolonial resistance when cultural changes tended to disadvantage women. The Women’s War of 1929 marked an apex in women’s resistance in Eastern Nigeria to colonial rule. The War began in the rural town of Oloko when Igbo women suspected the colonial government intended to use warrant chiefs and the native court system to implement a new tax on women, which they believed the colonial government planned to add to an existing tax on African men. From the initial outbreak of resistance in Oloko, the women’s resistance extended across eastern Nigeria as women joined the movement and demanded either significant changes in or the removal of the colonial government. Thousands of women participated in the resistance and they employed a variety of tactics, which included removing the cap of office from warrant chiefs, looting factories, burning down native court buildings, blocking train tracks, cutting telegraph wires, releasing prisoners from colonial jails, and destroying or confiscating colonial property. The British colonial government resorted to lethal force and in the process colonial soldiers shot women at Abak, Utu Etim Ekpo, and Opobo. The most significant loss of life occurred at Opobo and it marked the end of the Women’s War except for a few minor instances of resistance. The tactics and scope of the Women’s War confounded colonial authorities because, even though they extensively assured women they would not be taxed, participation in the resistance increased and spread across the region. Eventually, the Women’s War caused the British to abandon the warrant chief system and establish village councils; however, generally women were excluded from political participation. More importantly, the Women’s War of 1929 marks the beginning of a transition in eastern Nigeria from predominantly localized ethnic-based opposition to British imperialism to resistance movements that transcended ethnicity and class.

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The Young Women’s Christian Association in Anglophone Africa  

Eleanor Tiplady Higgs

The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), founded in England in 1855, went on to become a worldwide movement by the end of the Victoria era, under the umbrella organization of the World YWCA. As it spread through the British Empire, it responded to a combination of concerns for young white women’s spiritual and physical well-being and provided a venue for middle-class women to act on Christian charity and piety. Owing to the YWCA’s formal and informal links with empire and mission, its histories on different parts of the African continent bear many similarities to one another. For this reason, it would be easy to overlook the diversity of African YWCA forms, activities, and experiences. However, this variety attests to a key feature of YWCA work from its outset: a willingness and ability to adapt to and meet the local context in which it operates. The first YWCA in English-speaking Africa was established in Cape Town in 1886, followed by Lagos (est. 1906), Nairobi (est. 1911), Freetown (est. 1915), and Monrovia (est. 1941). After 1948, the World YWCA officially prioritized building the YWCA movement on the continent. New or renewed associations were established in Ghana (est. 1952), South Africa, Uganda (est. 1955), Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia, est. 1962), Botswana, Tanzania, and Zambia (est. 1963). Until the 1950s, the World YWCA had been almost exclusively a domain in which white women led, and women of color were expected to follow. As states gained flag independence, YWCAs also transferred power into the hands of local women. In 1960, African YWCA work was well established enough to draw representatives together for the first “World YWCA All-Africa Conference” in Harare (then Salisbury). The English-speaking African YWCA movement then comprised independent organizations in eleven former British colonies, which began new programs of “development” work with support from international partners and donors during the United Nations Decade for Women (1975–1985). The World YWCA was an active supporter of the South African YWCA during apartheid, and African YWCA staff and leaders helped shaped the race politics of the movement throughout the latter 20th century. The YWCA’s legacy in Africa is thus more complex and positive than that of many other organizations with colonial origins.