Robtel Neajai Pailey
Though deeply contested, citizenship has come to be defined in gender-inclusive terms both as a status anchored in law, with attendant rights and resources, and as agency manifested in active political participation and representation. Scholars have argued that gender often determines how citizenship rights are distributed at household, community, national, and institutional levels, thereby leaving women with many responsibilities but few resources and little representation. Citizenship laws in different parts of Africa explicitly discriminate based on ethnicity, race, gender and religion, with women bearing the brunt of these inequities. In particular, African women have faced structural, institutional, and cultural barriers to ensuring full citizenship in policy and praxis, with contestations in the post-independence era centering around the fulfillment of citizenship rights embedded in law, practice, and lived experience.
While African women’s concerns about their subjective roles as equal citizens were often sidelined during nationalist liberation movements, the post-independence era has presented more meaningful opportunities for women in the continent to demand equality of access to citizenship rights, resources, and representation. In contemporary times, a number of local, national, continental, and transnational developments have shaped the contours of the battle for women’s citizenship equality, including the prominence of domestic women’s movements; national constitutional reviews and revisions processes; electoral quotas; female labor force participation; and feminism as a unifying principle of gender justice.
African women have had to overcome constraints imposed on them not only by patriarchy, but also by histories of slavery, colonialism, structural adjustment, land dispossession, militarism, and neoliberalism. They have often been subordinated in the domestic or private sphere, with gendered values and norms then undermining their agency in the public sphere. Although African women have managed to secure some political, socio-economic, and cultural rights, resources, and representation, this has certainly not been the panacea for achieving full equality of citizenship or gender justice.