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.
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.
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.
In the history of religion in Africa, women have contributed richly to the diversity of indigenous, Christian, and Islamic spiritual practices prevalent within their communities. As mediums, healer-diviners, ministers, mystics, prophets, poets, priestesses, theologians, and spiritual advisors, they are integral to the creation and maintenance of possession cults and other indigenous religious societies, Islamic Sufi orders, mainline and African-initiated churches, as well as new and emerging Christian and Islamic movements. Often inhabiting pluralistic worlds, women weave together creative and dynamic spiritual tapestries that give their lives coherence. An investigation into the experiences of women reveals spaces of agency and constraint, portraits of women’s intimate encounters with the divine, accounts of women’s indigenization of Christianity and reform of Islam, stories of discrimination and of healing, struggles to create more liberating theologies, and stories of extraordinary women shaping religious life and practice on the African continent in irrepressible ways.