The nature of motherhood and maternalism in Africa challenges perceptions and assumptions about women, families, and societies in unexpected ways. Across Africa, motherhood has operated as an institution and ideology that shaped social, economic, and political organization, especially before European colonialism expanded across the continent during the late 19th century. The sociocultural significance of biological motherhood and childrearing remains an important theme in the study of the past and the present as African women form families, sometimes outside of the bonds of marriage. Ideas about biological motherhood have also shifted to address health, disease, and sexuality. African women and men are reimagining motherhood in the face of diverse issues such as infertility, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and an emergent, self-identified LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) community. Similarly, maternalism in Africa extends beyond the common focus on issues such as women’s rights, reproductive health, or children’s education. Maternalist politics in Africa in the 20th and 21st centuries have addressed broader political questions such as state policies, housing, and infrastructure, often with an internationalist vision. Taken together, motherhood and maternalism in Africa not only encompass personal and emotional realms often associated with both terms but also bridge historical and political questions, including ones about belonging and citizenship in an interconnected world.
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.