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.
Women in Associations and Organizations
Deolinda Rodrigues is a prominent figure in the Angolan history of the Liberation Struggle. Her thought and life history are relatively unknown in and outside Angola. Reflection on her life and thought is also hampered by the fact that there are few analytical works of literature produced about her life and literary work. Rodrigues is also marginalized in the nationalist historiography on Angola. Rodrigues’s story is an important one. She was a political activist and nationalist thinker and a woman who struggled in Angola while in exile against the gendered stereotypes of the day and of her compatriots. Studying her life and work opens up late colonial life in Angola for those from the educated classes who fought for their country’s independence from the political, social, economic, and intellectual oppression of Portuguese imperialism. While Rodrigues is considered a heroine in Angola, few Angolans know much about her writing or thinking. Outside Angola she is virtually unknown, yet her life points to the intersection of radical black politics, liberation movements, gendered forms of nationalism, and international beneficence networks that can enrich our understanding of each of these elements. Rodrigues’s autobiographical work, posthumously published by her brother, Roberto de Almeida, “Diário de um Exílio sem Regresso” (Diary of an exile with no return), 2003 edition, and “Cartas de Langidila e outros Documentos” (Langidila’s letters and other documents), 2004 edition, have made this study possible.
Women in Modern Egypt
Women in Egypt have always played key roles in society in different historical eras. In the modern period, women were at the forefront of the modernization project that gained momentum at the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century. “The woman question” occupied center stage in debates about the new modern nation in the making and against the background of colonial domination as Egypt became a British protectorate in 1882. The period from the 1920s to the early 1950s is noted as a period that was particularly vibrant in the history of the women’s movement and witnessed rapid developments in women’s participation in the public sphere. Women founded magazines, established civil society organizations in all fields, joined the national movement for independence, and contributed to key ongoing debates on the modernization project. In 1952, the Free Officers Revolution resulted in a radical shift in the political sphere: the end of British colonialism, the transformation of Egypt from a monarchy to a socialist republic, and the start of a new era. The new order promoted women’s education and access to the labor market but restricted political rights and freedoms in general, a new reality that inevitably impacted the development of an independent women’s movement. In the 1970s, women’s rights assumed center stage in international politics, a development that had an impact on women in general and Egyptian women in particular. Egyptian women entered the diplomatic corps and participated in drafting international conventions, in representing their country in international forums, and in joining international civil society campaigns for women’s rights. They also established a new generation of civil society organizations that advocated for women’s rights both locally and on the international stage. The year 2011 marks an important moment in the history of Egypt. The wave of revolutions that swept the Arab world resulted in the opening of the political sphere in an unprecedented manner. Women’s rights activists rose to the challenge, and more and more women were active participants in the movement for change. Women joined new political parties that were established in the aftermath of revolutions; they were active participants in numerous political and social initiatives and movements; and they played a prominent role in marches for political and social freedoms. In sum, women in modern Egypt have played key roles in the making of modern Egypt. The story of their contributions and achievements is the story of a movement for change toward a better future.
Women in Ethiopia
Meron Zeleke Eresso
There are number of Ethiopian women from different historical epochs known for their military prowess or diplomatic skills, renowned as religious figures, and more. Some played a significant role in fighting against the predominant patriarchal value system, including Ye Kake Yewerdewt in the early 19th century. Born in Gurage Zone, she advocated for women’s rights and condemned many of the common cultural values and practices in her community, such as polygamy, exclusive property inheritance rights for male children and male family members, and the practice of arranged and forced marriage. Among the Arsi Oromo, women have been actively engaged in sociojudicial decision-making processes, as the case of the Sinqee institution, a women-led customary institution for dispute resolution, shows. This reflects the leading role and status women enjoyed in traditional Arsi Oromo society, both within the family and in the wider community. In Harar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in eastern Ethiopia, female Muslim scholars have played a significant role in teaching and handing down Islamic learning. One such religious figure was the Harari scholar Ay Amatullāh (1851–1893). Another prominent female religious figure from Arsi area, Sittī Momina (d. 1929), was known for her spiritual practices and healing powers. A shrine in eastern Ethiopia dedicated to Sittī Momina is visited by Muslim and Christian pilgrims from across the country. Despite the significant and multifaceted role played by women in the Ethiopian community, however, there is a paucity of data illustrating the place women had and have in Ethiopia’s cultural and historical milieu.
Wangari Muta Maathai
The life of Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011) was strongly shaped by her rural environment, missionary education, and exposure to university education in the United States and Germany. Her interactions with other women—her mother, teachers, and grassroots women—also had a great impact on her work and commitment. In the midst of enormous challenges and obstacles, she created a formidable Green Belt Movement (GBM) to empower grassroots women. By mobilizing women to plant and care for trees, Maathai changed the thinking and practices of conserving the environment at a time when dominant global thinking on the environment and women’s role in society was grappling for transformation. Hence the dynamics of local and international forces coalesced in the work of the GBM. Local experiences also infused global thinking and appreciation of struggles for democratic governance, peace, and sustainable development. Consequently, Professor Maathai’s ingenuity and persistence were widely recognized and honored, and earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
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.
Women in Niger
Ousseina D. Alidou and Halimatou Hima
Nigerien women played important cultural, economic, and political leadership roles throughout history. Women across ethnicities contributed to the economic life in precolonial Nigerien societies and their public presence in indigenous markets have been recorded by both Arab chroniclers as well as European colonial explorers, authorities, and historians. Women also occupied important positions in the political sphere and played important roles within their indigenous religious traditions and pantheons. The advent of Islam in the region in the 11th century changed the nature of preexisting spaces. However, a syncretism between Islam and indigenous religions developed, and this created yet another space for women across Nigerien ethnic groups to continue the preservation of some practices tied to their indigenous culture. As predominantly Muslims, most Nigerien women and men have been exposed to Arabic and Qur’anic literacy, and women of clerical lineage and those married to Qur’anic teachers have played a major role in the propagation of Islamic literacy in Nigerien precolonial societies, and continue to do so in the postcolonial dispensation. Ethnic and regional diversity accounts for the degree of authority that women may enjoy within the family structure, and women from rural and urban areas experience patriarchal structures in distinct ways. In relation to contemporary participation in political leadership, the year 1991, with the historic women’s march, marked a turning point in the history of women’s political leadership. The democratization process opened the way for multiparty democracy and greater women’s participation; it also fostered a religious pluralism that has engendered manifestations with women playing distinctive roles in the religious moral economy, including in minority religions. However, democratic pluralism has inadvertently created the conditions for the growth of violent religious fundamentalist movements undermining the rights of girls and women. Unequal gendered and power relations continue to hinder Nigerien women’s emergence at high levels of public leadership, with consequences for economic development and women’s rights. While there has been a steady increase in women’s participation in parliament and high-level appointed positions in government owing to a quota law, which was revisited in 2019, Nigerien women still have some way to go to achieve representative parity not only in politics but also in other public and private sectors of employment and elective positions in society. In terms of human development, Niger continues to register poor development indicators, especially those relating to women’s and girls’ welfare and well-being in rural areas including high rates of child marriage as well as high infant mortality and maternal mortality rates. The status of women in Nigerien societies continues to experience major mutations as women consolidate their roles as a visible and vocal political force as well as one of the main drivers of economic development.
Women in Mauritius
The Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius has a population made up of the descendants of migrants from France, India, Africa, and China. Mauritius has a multicultural and multi-ethnic population and these divisions impact upon Mauritian women’s rights and political mobilization in the country. Women were expected to support the men of their community and, in the mid 1940s, female suffrage was proposed by men from the elite and wealthy groups to win votes for their communities. There is no evidence of a women’s lobby for the franchise. Despite the controversy surrounding female suffrage, Mauritius had two women members of parliament following the election after proclamation of female suffrage. Under 19th-century Mauritian law the state treated women as the inalienable property of their husbands. The “Code Napoleon” or “Napoleon’s Civil Code of 1804,” adopted in 1808 in Mauritius, imposed the status of “minor” on a married woman and was characterized by severe patriarchalism, restricting women to the private domestic sphere. Despite these restrictions, women were not passive and they were drawn into the economic and political struggles of the early 20th century. One of the most vivid memories is that of Anjalay Coopen, a female agricultural laborer who was among the people killed during an uprising on the sugar estates in 1943. Mauritius became independent in 1968 and the role that women played in the negotiations leading to independence remains unclear to this day due to a paucity of research in this area, male domination of the political and historical writings of the country, and the fact that the Mauritian population was highly divided over independence. Women’s-movement activism peaked in the mid-1970s. This was when women’s organizations grouped together on common platforms to lobby for changes in the civil code and laws governing marriage and the Immigration and Deportation Act, which allowed for the deportation of foreign husbands of Mauritian women but not for foreign wives of Mauritian men. Women from different communities rallied together for equal rights for women, generating a strong national women’s movement.
Asma’u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodio (1793–1865) was an Islamic scholar, poet, and educational leader in what is now Northern Nigeria. She is best known as Nana Asma’u. A daughter of Shehu Usman dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate and sister to one of the Shehu’s successors, Muhammad Bello, Nana Asma’u used her writings to help the Shehu in his quest to break the syncretistic practice of Islam in Hausaland, convert more people to Islam, and help the newly reformed community of faithful Muslims maintain their orthodox religious practice. As one of the longest surviving members of Shehu’s family and of the Degel community, her prolific literary output and enduring presence helped shape the reputation of the Shehu, Muhammad Bello, and early 21st-century scholarship of the Sokoto Caliphate. As a member of a Fulani scholarly family of long standing, Nana Asma’u benefitted from an early childhood education taught by the scholarly Fulani women of her family. She also transformed that tradition of women as the first teachers of Islamic religious knowledge. Nana Asma’u educated not only children but men and women and established the yan-taru (the associates or disciples), a school of women teachers who traveled to rural areas to improve Hausa women’s education. She was a prolific writer of poems in three languages. Her writings continue to be read, memorized, and recited: the yan-taru concept of making education accessible, especially to women, continues into the 21st century and has expanded into the United States.
Women in Malawi
Anika Wilson and Sitinga Kachipande
The status, rights, and roles of women in Malawi have been in constant flux since at the least the mid-19th century. In the pre-colonial period, principles of matriliny organized social structures within many communities in Malawi, affording women rights to land, property, products of labor, and children, and influence in group decision-making. The mid-19th century ushered in a period of disturbances and social transformations that led to changes in economic, political, religious, and familial practices. Changes in key institutions impacted women’s access to land and their influence in governance. Women in Malawi were excluded from new commercial and political opportunities as long-distance commerce increased in the region. Increasing commodification of people endangered women within intensified trade and military conflict. Patterns of increasing exclusion and endangerment of women continued beyond the mid-19th century after the slave trade was challenged. In the period immediately preceding colonial rule and also during the colonial period, women actively sought to maintain rights and influence through their involvement in Christian institutions, their appeal to courts, public protests, and through their subversive expression in songs, stories, and possession cults. In post-colonial Malawi, women did not gain the freedom that they had struggled for during the anti-colonial movements. Kamuzu Banda marginalized women from access to power and decision-making. He maintained a paternalistic approach to women’s issues which included controlling every aspect of their lives. The constitution adopted in 1994 with democratic reforms laid a strong foundation for women achieving rights and improving their socio-economic status. However, women still faced obstacles in fully realizing their rights and continued to be marginalized by Banda’s successors. Women’s participation in leadership was limited to showing support for the president. The election of Joyce Banda as the first female president did little to improve the status of women. Backlash against her ascendance to the position eroded women’s access to decision-making posts in the government. In the first two decades of the 21st century, the government of Malawi responded to pressures from women’s rights advocates to legislate against gender-based violence and child marriage. However, there has been little evidence of sustained and coordinated women’s movements and activism aimed at improving women’s socio-economic status. Much of the work women do to improve their position and that of their families and communities takes place on a small scale or involves cooperation with precariously funded nongovernmental organizations and community-based organizations.
Women's Legal Rights
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.
Women in Ghana
Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Deborah Atobrah
The academic study of women in Ghana has received considerable attention, particularly from a feminist perspective or gender framework since the 1980s, albeit with some important studies preceding this period. Earlier studies from the 1960s–1970s mainly approached the “woman question” from an anthropological, historical, and later sociological perspective, paying attention to descriptions of women’s lives prior to colonialism and the effects of colonial rule. These studies underscored the importance of the complementary roles women and men played, submitting that colonialism was responsible for introducing forms of gender inequality and domesticity that had not existed hitherto. Prior to colonial rule, women generally enjoyed significant status from their roles not only as wives and mothers, but also as sisters, rulers, priestesses, and performers in their own right. At the same time, some accounts of women’s lives point to the hardships they suffered because they were exploited for their social and economic value, for example as slaves or pawns. Both before and during colonial rule, especially during the years of struggle for independence, women were important organizers, and not just around gender issues. Several studies discuss the important place of women in the Nkrumah-led government just prior to and immediately after independence in 1957; however, women’s relationship with the postcolonial state was not given much attention until the 1980s. After the first UN International Women’s Conference held in Mexico City in 1975, and the establishment of a women’s bureau, the National Council on Women and Development in 1986, more instrumental and also quantitative-survey approaches were employed that described women’s so-called objective status, especially in the areas of education, work, and health. In conformity with the times, a women-in-development approach to examining women’s status was favored by practitioners but also some scholars. By 1994, when the Development and Women’s Studies Programme was established at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana, feminist approaches were more common and also brought with them an interrogation of the postcolonial state’s relationship with women. Women’s organizing and activism around such issues as livelihoods, access to land and other resources, and gender-based violence, took center stage as groups like the Network for Women’s Rights (NETRIGHT), the Domestic-Violence Coalition, and the Women’s Manifesto Coalition emerged. The problematics of gender roles and social relations, especially within the context of marriage, received much attention. Contestations among scholar-activists and femocrats are also discussed, as well as the institutional challenges of feminist work. Intergenerational collaborations as well as tensions occupy a significant place in contemporary theorizing and practice since 2000, especially the role of social media feminism.
Women and Politics in Africa
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.
Women and Post-Independence African Politics
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.
African Women in Film, the Moving Image, and Screen Culture
While African women in film have distinct histories and trajectories, at the same time they have common goals and objectives. Hence, “African women in film” is a concept, an idea, with a shared story and path. While there has always been the hope of creating national cinemas, even the very notion of African cinema(s) in the plural has been pan-African since its early history. And women have taken part in the formation of an African cinema infrastructure from the beginning. The emergence of an “African women in cinema movement” developed from this larger picture. The boundaries of women’s work extend to the global African diaspora. Language, geography, and colonial legacies add to the complexity of African cinema history. Women have drawn from the richness that this multiplicity offers, contributing on local, national, continental, and global levels as practitioners, activists, cultural producers, and stakeholders.
Women in Nigeria
Writing on women in Nigeria is an ambitious venture, considering the multiplicity of ethnic groups that make up Nigeria, and the historical antecedents and cultural particularities of the various ethnic groupings. Women in Nigeria can, therefore, be studied more appropriately within the historical trajectory of the continent of Africa, by examining the different nationalities that constituted “Nigeria” in the early 20th century, and finally through the dissection of identities, power, and the experiences of diverse categories of women in postcolonial Nigeria. There is a need to avoid undue generalizations about women in Nigeria. In postcolonial Nigeria, women’s experiences are differentiated based on the extent to which the superimposition or assimilation of external cultural traits—which manifest along class lines, the rural-urban divide, ethnicity, and religion—have altered indigenous lifeways. Africa’s contact with the Arabian world in the 7th century impacted on women’s experiences in areas where the Islamic religion was introduced. Prior to the contact of Africa with the European world in the 15th century and the subsequent imposition of British rule, what became “Nigeria” in the early 20th century were disparate groups with different cultural, political, and historical configurations. The amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914 gave birth to “Nigeria.” These historical events redefined and reshaped the place and participation of women in society. In precolonial Nigeria, women enjoyed certain privileges, prestige, and recognition, which colonialism and emerging Western economic rationality later undermined. Women-led protests against the colonial administration were prevalent and led to policy changes intended to take women into account in government policies. In postcolonial Nigeria, women confront the forces of tradition, modernity, and the neo-patriarchy, forces that contend with their drive for self-definition, while they struggle, against all odds, to remain afloat.
Women in Mali
Over centuries, a variety of decentralized societies and centralized states have formed in territories across the western Sahel and southwest Sahara, and along the Niger and Senegal river valleys. Women have played central yet often unacknowledged roles in building these communities. By the late 11th century, some were rulers, as tombstones from the Gao region seem to suggest. A travelogue describing the Mali empire, and a chronicle from Songhay, tell stories of women who plotted political dissent or staged rebellions in the 14th–16th centuries. By and large, everyday women’s reproductive and productive labor sustained their families, and structured life in agricultural, pastoral, fishing, or trading communities. In the 1700s in Segu, women brewed mead, cultivated crops, dyed textiles, and participated in the building of fortifications. In Masina in the 1800s, girls attended qurʾanic school, and a woman was the custodian of the caliph’s library. Women also suffered great violence stemming from conflicts, forced displacement, and slavery. By the end of the 19th century, they made up a considerable portion (at times the majority) of enslaved individuals in the region. After the European conquest and creation of the French Soudan colony, the French administration imposed an export-oriented wage economy, in which women worked to supply crops and sustain infrastructure projects. From the regions of Kayes, Kita, and Nioro, many migrated to groundnut- or gold-producing regions of Senegambia. While women’s labor and migrations were seldom accounted for in administrative records, their attempts to leave unhappy marriages or escape enslavement do appear in court records. However, colonial domination was gendered: the administration ultimately shunned women’s emancipation efforts, seeking to channel its rule by reinforcing patriarchal authority in communities. In 1960, the Republic of Mali achieved independence. Under the democratic and military governments that followed, women built pan-African and transnational alliances. In 1991 and beyond, they fought to achieve more rights, and greater political power and representation. Their labor and migrations have continued to sustain a large portion of the economy. Post-2011, they have been both active participants in, and victims of, the conflicts that have engulfed the country, suffering displacement, loss of livelihood, and sexual violence, for which many have yet to receive justice.
Women In Liberia
Mary H. Moran
Liberia is a small country on the west coast of Africa, lying within the monsoon tropical forest belt and recording some of the highest annual precipitation rates of any place on earth. Early agriculturalists adapted rain-fed rice to the forest clearings and the alternating wet and dry seasons, with women providing the majority of the labor in food production. Regional trade routes have historically linked this area with savannah polities to the north and west, exchanging products such as gold, salt, hides, and dye woods across multiple environmental and climatic zones. Europeans who arrived by ship beginning in the 1460s redirected some of this trade toward the coast, making access to the sea strategically important and creating a new source of employment for male laborers as longshoremen and mariners. In the early 19th century, the coast became a site of settlement for free people of color from the United States, and Liberia declared its independence as a republic in 1847. As in other West African countries, documentary sources on women’s lives are minimal, yet Liberia stands out for the impressive number of women who have achieved international distinction in the 20th and 21st centuries. This small country of fewer than five million people has produced the first woman president of an African national university, the first African woman to chair the United Nations General Assembly, and the first woman elected president of an African country. Liberian women in the past and the present have used their position as breadwinners, as mothers, as community leaders, and as ritual specialists to shape events and assert authority over others. In the early 21st century, they have become known especially for their success in peacemaking, resulting in two Nobel Peace Prize winners in 2011. Comparing the careers of some prominent Liberian women over the decades shows that willingness to reach across lines of ethnicity and language and the ability to coordinate resources from both rural and urban areas have been key factors in explaining this success.
Women and Militarization
Sarah J. Zimmerman
African women are profoundly affected by warfare and its consequences in their societies. Militarization describes the violent processes that transform communities’ social, political, economic, and cultural spheres beyond the battlefield. These effects are gendered. Militarization transforms the social institutions that gender and define women’s personhood—marriage, motherhood, daughter, wife, widow, concubine, slave, domestic laborer, etc. Since these institutions are references for social continuity and discontinuity, conflict turns women into symbols of nationalistic significance and centers their procreative power and roles within regimes of morality. Militarization facilitates transformations in gendered roles and sexualities—women became soldiers and auxiliary wartime laborers, as well as the strategic targets of armed violence. Economic, social, and political status were key in determining women’s experiences of conflict and militarization. Elite women are often better-positioned to maintain their personal safety and access leadership roles in their communities during and after conflict. Low-status women were more vulnerable to enslavement, sexual/domestic violence, food insecurity, disease, displacement, and death. Women’s myriad experiences of militarization challenge false assumptions about the incontrovertible linkages between masculinity and belligerence or femininity and pacifism. Militarization alters how women realize optimal futures due to changes in gendered-access to authority, legal accountability, as well as perceptions of moral order and the division between public and domestic life. A handful of ancient and medieval noble women provide legendary exploits of warrior queens, who mobilized armies toward political unification or the defense of their societies. In several centralized African societies, noble women—as queen mothers or reign mates—constrained and bolstered the authority of male leaders. Dahomey fielded female regiments in battle. The warfare affiliated with long-distance slave trades and 19th-century state building created dichotomous experiences for elite and slave women. Elite African women depended on the resources generated from slave export, as well as benefited from the domestic and agricultural labor of captured and enslaved women. European colonization and the spread of monotheistic Abrahamic religions altered African women’s experiences of militarization. The gendered biases of written sources obscure the degree to which women participated in the militarization of their societies within political and/or religious conquest. Colonization normalized gender-restricted access to power and militancy, as well as entrenched patriarchy and gender dichotomies that equated masculinity with martiality and femininity with nonviolence. Anticolonial, revolutionary rhetoric championed African women’s participation in wars of decolonization—as freedom fighters and mothers within new nations. Women experienced great personal and communal violence in the postcolonial military dictatorships that prioritized patriarchal and violent power. During the 1990s, Western industries of humanitarianism and global media propagated stereotypical portrayals of African women as victims of male-perpetrated violence and as innate peacemakers. To the contrary, African women have played myriad roles in societies experiencing secessionist wars, military dictatorships, genocide, warlords, and Salafist militarization.
Women and Violence in Africa
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.