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date: 23 July 2024

Women’s Political Movements and Civil Society in Africafree

Women’s Political Movements and Civil Society in Africafree

  • Aili Mari TrippAili Mari TrippDepartment of Political Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison


The roots of contemporary women’s mobilization in Africa were in nationalist movements and in the early single-party era, when women’s mobilization was often closely aligned with and controlled by the ruling party and state. This changed in the multiparty era after the 1990s and how new forms of mobilization came to be characterized by their autonomy from political parties and the state. This autonomy allowed for new issues to be taken up as well new forms of mobilization ranging from grass-roots activism to nationwide campaigns, broad coalitions and cyber activism. In the early 21st century, the demands range from opposition to all forms of violence against women, to financing of businesses, the right to abortion, the adoption of gender quotas in government and the legislature, and many other concerns. After the mid-2000s, restrictions on freedom of association and speech began to impinge once again on civil society in many countries, sometimes constraining women’s activism.


  • Governance/Political Change
  • Groups and Identities
  • World Politics


Contemporary women’s mobilization in Africa is characterized by its autonomy from political parties and the state, for the most part, by the wide range of issues movements have taken on, and by the many forms of mobilization that range from grass-roots activism to nationwide campaigns, and the formation of broad coalitions. The autonomy of the women’s movements and organizations in the early 21st century stands in sharp contrast to the early post-independence years when women’s mobilization was often closely aligned with and controlled by the ruling party and state and, consequently, the agendas of women’s organizations were much narrower than the ones seen in the early 21st century. They were less advocacy oriented and often fairly apolitical. In the early years after independence, the agendas focused on improving domestic and child-rearing skills, cultivation, handicrafts, and narrow developmental concerns. On occasion, demands for female education or improved maternity leave provisions for women workers would emerge, but the demands were considerably limited when compared with the types of issues that energize women’s activism in the early 21st century. In the past, they did not generally depart much from government and ruling party preferences.

The demands in the early 21st century range from opposition to all forms of violence against women, to financing of businesses, the right to abortion, the adoption of gender quotas in government and the legislature, constitutional reform around women’s rights, violence against women, LGBTQ issues, land rights, environmental, peace-building, and many other concerns. And finally, women mobilize through a variety of means, including local, national, regional, and international organizations and networks. They employ new technologies and social media to a greater extent than in the past. After the mid-2000s, restrictions on freedom of association and speech began to impinge once again on civil society in many countries, sometimes constraining women’s activism. The preponderance of hybrid regimes in Africa meant that the political space within which women and other civil society actors operated could contract or expand rather precariously.

This article looks at the historical influences on contemporary women’s mobilization, starting with the role of women during the nationalist movements up through to the post-independence period. The period after 1990 is taken as a watershed, after which women’s mobilization became more independent of the political interests of the ruling party and state, as more countries moved into an era of multiparty rule and greater freedom of speech and association. Women’s organizations diversified their sources of income and were able to take advantage of changing international norms regarding women’s rights, as well as new donor strategies that often favored women’s organizations. Women’s mobilization changed after the 1990s to become more political, more focused on advocacy, and more oriented toward social change. To be sure, the older collective developmental and care-work activities continued, but in general, the associational landscape reflected a much wider range of concerns than before, even in authoritarian countries. The article looks at a range of such activities, primarily at the national and grass-roots levels.

Women in Nationalist Movements

One of the main influences on contemporary women’s rights mobilization were the nationalist movements for independence. Many of the women who participated and galvanized these movements helped lead the early post-independence women’s organizations, which laid the basis for contemporary women’s mobilization. These included women like Bibi Titi and the coastal women who joined forces with her in Tanganyika to demand independence from the United Kingdom. She toured the country with Julius Nyerere, the founder of the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) and the country’s first president, to rally support for the party. She became general secretary of the women’s section of TANU in 1959 and later, after independence in 1961, she headed Umoja wa Wanawake (UWT), the Women’s Union, that was linked to TANU and its successor and ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi. She was with UWT until 1967, when she fell out of favor with the party and was arrested on dubious charges of treason. She was released a few years later on a presidential pardon and was rehabilitated by the party.

In Algeria, Zohra Drif was an icon of the independence movement. She had participated in the Front for National Liberation and its army in its resistance to French colonial rule in the 1950s and helped rally women to the cause. In 1957, she had placed a bomb in a café, killing three French people and injuring dozens. Subsequently she was arrested and was sentenced to 20 years of hard labor. However, she was pardoned by the French at the time of Algeria’s independence in 1962. She became a member of parliament and eventually vice president of the senate. She had always been a feminist and was engaged in demonstrations against the regressive Family Code in the 1980s.

In West Africa, in Ghana, Hannah Kudjoe was the most important female nationalist figure after World War II. She had been born to a prominent family and was one of the founders of the Convention Peoples Party (CPP) of Kwame Nkrumah. She played a central role in the CPP as its National Propaganda Secretary. After independence, she formed the All-Africa Women’s League in 1957, which was replaced by the Ghana Women’s League. Through the League she lobbied for crèches and nursery schools. She eventually faded into obscurity, much like Bibi Titi in Tanzania. These are only three women leaders out of many who illustrate the continuities between the pre- and post-independence periods in terms of women’s mobilization.

Women’s Mobilization After Independence

Prior to the 1990s, most women’s mobilization had been “developmental,” focused on income generation, microenterprise, handicrafts, agricultural production, and other activities that improved family livelihoods. The organizations focused on literacy programs, education around pregnancy and childcare, hygiene, and other health-related concerns, and they engaged in cultural programs. The most visible mobilization was under the auspices of the single-party women’s union or party-affiliated organization. To the extent that their activities were political, the organizations helped garner votes for the ruling party. They would entertain visiting dignitaries by cooking food, dancing, singing, and engaging in other hosting activities. Rather than offering women meaningful leadership positions within the party, the parties relegated women leaders to the women’s organization, which was to tow the party line and not challenge party or government policy.

The leaders of the women’s unions and leagues benefited from these positions, which afforded them cars, housing, salaries, travel abroad, and other perks that could be considered a form of patronage. The women generally were the wives, sisters, and daughters of male party leaders. Thus, Sofia Kawawa, the long-time head of the party-affiliated Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania, was the wife of the former prime minister of Tanzania in 1962 and from 1972 to 1977 and defense minister from 1977 to 1980.

The 31st December Women’s Movement (31DWM) was led by Nana Rawlings, the wife of former Ghanaian president Jerry Rawlings. The goal of the movement was to become a “broad based development oriented Non-Governmental Organisation that aspires to achieve these objectives through the effective mobilisation of women.” With 2 million members, the 31st December Women’s Movement had set up more than 870 preschools in Ghana and worked actively to generate interest in child development and family planning. It engaged in advocacy to change the Intestate Succession Law in 1985 and the marriage and divorce registration law. The organization still persists as of 2018, but lost standing with the alleged sale of 31DWM assets without authorization and the misappropriation of funds by the organization’s leader. In the past, such manipulation of one’s position might have been swept under the rug, which in itself is revealing of how sensibilities have changed from the time of the single party era.

Ethiopia’s Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam ousted the royal dynasty of Haile Selassie in 1974 and replaced it with the Provisional Military Government of Ethiopia (PMAC). The Revolutionary Ethiopia Women’s Association (REWA) was established in 1980 as a state-run organization and was made up of almost 5 million members. The organization focused on development projects such as handicrafts, operating retail shops and flour mills, and the expansion of kindergartens (Burgess, 2013). According to observers, REWA was organized to prevent dissent by women and serve government objectives. They had little, if any, impact on government policies.

Zambia’s Women’s League (originally the Women’s Brigade) was linked to the ruling party, United National Independence Party (UNIP), in the early post-independence era. Although other organizations continued to exist, the aim of the league was to crowd out other organizations and become the sole representative of women’s organizations. Although they helped pass maternity leave legislation, one of their main preoccupations was regulating female morality and behavior in the interest of promoting “traditional values.” They helped ban beauty contests; fought against abortion, premarital sex, and teenage pregnancies; attacked sex workers, and told them to go back to the rural areas to do something useful. They raged against miniskirts, hot pants, wigs, perms, and other fads that were regarded as Western. Betty Kaunda, wife of former president Kenneth Kaunda, spoke at a 1970 women’s rights conference where she made the pronouncement: “We talk about women power but we do not mean it as a threat to man power! I see a new role for women, a new task for woman power: we must be the custodians of happiness and security in the home, the watchdogs of morality in our society” (Geisler, 2004, p. 91).

The most significant change for women’s mobilization occurred after the 1990s, with the shift toward multi-partyism, the expansion of associational autonomy from the state and ruling party, and greater press freedom. For women’s rights activists, this shift resulted in intensified mobilization of women to expand women’s political leadership, along with increases in political demands and advocacy. Changing international norms regarding women’s rights contributed to these changes in orientation, as did a new influx of international donor funds and support from UN agencies. Many of these processes were further enhanced by the decline of conflict, especially evident in Africa, which had suffered from a large number of conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s. This opened up political space for women’s organizations to press for expanded rights in the context of peace agreements, new constitution-making exercises, the reconfiguration of electoral commissions, truth and reconciliation commissions, and other changes in the political order.

While contemporary women’s movements have embraced a wide range of causes and demands, and their tactics have been enhanced by new social media and new technologies, many of their tactics also harken back to precolonial times. They have used sex strikes or threats of sex strikes, naked protests, funereal weeping, wearing of mourning clothes, and a variety of shaming and cursing tactics to condemn actions of the authorities. In precolonial Cameroon, for example, women used naked protests, called anlu or fombuen, to shame menfolk who had abused or wronged a woman by wearing men’s trousers and vines and smearing their faces with charcoal. They would shout and sing insults, expose their private parts, or urinate and defecate in the surrounding area in order to shame men into repenting. Variations of this practice were adapted in anticolonial protests in the 1950s against taxes and later in the postcolonial era. Secret women’s cults like the Takembeng in Cameroon and the female Sande initiation societies in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast have played a key role in helping presidents get elected, restoring peace during conflict, and swaying popular opinion. Liberian women peace activists would take kola nuts as peace offerings to militia during the civil war in trying to persuade them to lay down their arms. Kola nuts hold particular religious and spiritual significance for people in many West African societies, where they are used to make offerings during ceremonies, prayers, and divination practices. These are just a few of the precolonial legacies one finds in contemporary women’s movements, although the repertoire of contemporary movements goes well beyond such tactics to include demonstrations, petitions, online activism, and many other activities.

Constitutional Reform

One of the areas where women’s movements engaged in political reform was to advance their concerns in constitutional reform processes. Roughly 49 African countries have rewritten constitutions since 1990. There is a sharp increase in the proportion of women’s rights provisions in these constitutions after the 1990s, even compared to other parts of the world. These reforms are particularly evident in clauses pertaining to gender equality, customary law, discrimination, violence against women, quotas, and citizenship rights. In some countries, gender-neutral language was also introduced. Women’s rights activists have participated in various ways: by sitting on commissions that rewrote the constitutions, through membership in constituent assemblies that debated and voted on the new constitutions, and through national and grass-roots women’s organizations that sought to influence the constitution-writing process.

The struggle over the 2014 Tunisian constitution following the Jasmine Revolution of 2011 was highly contentious, as Islamists and secularists clashed over meanings of gender equality. The Islamist Ennahda Party numerically dominated the constituent assembly at the time and tensions between the Islamists and secularists ran deep, with the Islamists being put on the defensive around questions of the principle of equality. Thousands of women in Tunis protested a complementarity clause in August, 2012 with slogans such as “Equality all the way—no complementarity in the constitution.” Ennahda felt that the idea of mukammil, or complementarity, valued women’s roles as wives and mothers, while the secularists and feminists felt that it threatened the achievements of women, reinforcing a patriarchal system that made women dependent on men and denied women their full citizenship and rights. In the end, the clause was removed, and this was regarded by the secularists as a major victory for women’s rights in Tunisia. They also won an important concession with the introduction of Article 46, which states: “The State engages in protecting achievements in the field of women’s rights and in reinforcing them.” The constitution includes gender-sensitive language and gives women political parity. It provides for a positive rights frame for women’s rights, making Tunisia’s constitution one of the most progressive for women’s rights in Africa and the Middle East.

Several constitution-making processes (e.g., South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Uganda) were highly participatory and women took advantage of this framework to provide input. In Uganda, women’s rights activists such as Mary Maitum and Maria Matembe were engaged as members of the constitutional commission that drafted the 1995 constitution. Women also participated in the Constituent Assembly, where they occupied 18% of the seats. Workshops were held throughout the country to discuss the constitution and women’s groups were well represented in all these activities. Women’s organizations even sent 26,000 memoranda of commentary on the new constitution for consideration by the constitutional commission, which was the largest number of memoranda from any one sector of civil society. The process was more participatory than most, although with heavy direction from the ruling National Resistance Movement. Uganda’s Ministry of Women in Development worked with women’s organizations in 1991 to get input on the constitution from women’s groups throughout the country. The Ministry memo focused on the elimination of discrimination on the basis of sex and the repeal of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and property laws that discriminate against women.

Most women delegates to the Assembly participated in a nonpartisan Women’s Caucus, which sought to build consensus among women delegates. The caucus lobbied constituent assembly members, held seminars and other functions to improve leadership skills of its members, collaborated with women’s NGOs, and ran a Constituent Assembly Gender Information Centre that provided support to women delegates in debating the constitution. The Centre published educational materials, monitored debates, offered various services to women delegates, and provided facilities for meetings.

As a result of such concerted efforts, the constitution provided for equality in the workplace and all areas of society, equal participation of men and women in political, economic, and social activities, and guaranteed reserved seats for women. It called for the creation of an Equal Opportunities Commission to enforce the constitution, and called for affirmative action policies for women in education, politics, economics, and other areas. It prohibited “laws, cultures, customs and traditions which are against the dignity, welfare or interest of women or which undermine their status ....” Among other things, the constitution set a minimum age of marriage of 18 and provided for equal rights in marriage, for equal rights to acquire and use property, and to share family property on the dissolution of the marriage.

In Zimbabwe, women were active in two constitution-making processes but toward different ends: The first one in 1999–2000 ended up with women voting “no” on the referendum because the process was not sufficiently transparent and participatory. By contrast, in the second process (2009–2013), Zimbabwean women’s rights activists sought to ensure that their demands were met. Backed by technical and financial support from the UN Women and UN Development Program, a coalition of 20 organizations (Group of 20) formed to strategize, draft constitutional provisions, lobby the constitutional drafters, and advocate for reform. They included representatives of civil society and women’s organizations, the Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, the Constitution Management Committee of Parliament, and academics from across the political spectrum. As a result of these activities, the constitution that was passed in Zimbabwe recognizes gender equality as one of its fundamental principles and bans gender discrimination. It includes provisions for political participation, equal property rights for women, including land rights, protections from all forms of violence, equal rights for women and men within marriage and divorce, more projects for girls, and many other provisions.

Kenya also had one of the most active women’s movements engaged in constitution making. Women were involved from the outset in the constitutional review process. The first head of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC), Yash Ghai, described Kenyan women as the most active civil society group within the constitution-making process. As Cottrell and Ghai wrote: “They made full and skillful use of the opportunities opened up by the review for women in particular ... The group which came out best from the process were women, who were able to present a united and coordinated position, transcending ethnic or religious distinctions” (Cottrell & Ghai, 2007).

In 2004, women’s rights activist and leader in the Muslim community, Abida Ali-Aroni, who had been a vice chairperson of the Commission, became its chairperson. The Kenyan constitution-making process had been fraught and women were heavily involved in trying to influence the process and bring contending parties together. Women activists and politicians such as Martha Karua, Maria Nzomo, Rose Waruhiu, Phoebe Asiyo, and Wanjiku Kabira, as well as key women’s organizations actively participated in efforts to engender the process. In spite of difficulties, the process ultimately resulted in the 2010 constitution that granted women extensive rights. However, following the passage of the constitution, women had to continue to fight to preserve their victories and ensure that the constitution was implemented, particularly the provisions for women’s political representation.

It is notable that countries coming out of major conflict in Africa after the 1990s have seen considerably more constitutional provisions around women’s rights than other countries in Africa. Constitutions in these countries also were more likely to contain a provision in which customary law could be overridden by the constitution or statutory law should it contradict the constitution. The post-conflict constitutions were more likely to have an anti-discrimination clause pertaining to women, provisions indicating that the citizenship of the children could follow that of the husband as well as the wife, and allow for provisions around gender-based violence, labor rights such as maternity leave, property rights, and equality in general. Post-conflict constitutions were more likely to mention that the state should take positive measures to improve the status of women.

Women’s engagement of the peace negotiations often set the stage for further reforms in the constitution-making process. Very few women were ever represented in peace talks, although often they had observer status or served as expert advisors. Nevertheless, women’s peace movements and initiatives often pressed for gender-related reforms. Burundi women activists, for example, gained permanent observer status at the 2000 peace talks. Women activists from across the political and ethnic spectrum convened an All-Party Burundi Women’s Conference in 2000 and drafted a road map for how women’s concerns should to be addressed in the peace-building process, insisting that all constitutional issues should be examined from a gender perspective. They demanded a 30% quota for women in the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive branches of government. They argued that the peace agreement should include women’s rights to property, land, and inheritance. The declaration focused on the need for equal access to education for girls and violence against women, the needs of women refugees, and, in particular, female- and child-headed families. Twenty-three of these recommendations were ultimately included in the final peace accord.

These provisions in the peace accord thus laid the basis for constitutional changes in 2005, including the adoption of the principle of equality between men and women, and a minimum of 30% women in the government and in local Communal Councils. The constitutional provisions in turn allowed for new legislation. For example, the adoption in April, 2009 of a new penal code strengthened the limits on sexual and domestic violence and sexual harassment, and it prohibited polygamy.

These are just some of the ways in which women’s movements have influenced political reform in Africa through constitutional reforms. The constitutional provisions paved the way for further legislative reforms in the key areas referenced. These reforms often necessitated revisions of laws in order to reconcile them with the constitution.

Parity and Gender Quotas

One key area of reform after the 1990s was efforts to increase women as political leaders. There has been a quadrupling of women’s legislative representation in Africa between 1990 and 2015, to 28.4% (including North Africa). International factors account, in part, for these developments, including the Platform of Action agreed upon at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, which required member states to take steps to increase female representation in government and legislatures. Nevertheless, domestic coalitions played a central role in the adoption of quotas. Coalitions included organizations of women in parties, parliamentary causes, women’s NGOs, civil society organizations, UN women, UNDP, and other such actors.

In Senegal, the adoption of quotas was spearheaded by a coalition umbrella group, Conseil sénégalais des femmes (the Senegalese Council of Women, COSEF), which started mobilizing in 1998. COSEF itself was part of an even broad alliance which included the Senegalese Association of Jurists, who helped them craft proposals for the electoral code in order to achieve gender parity. In 2006, women from the various political parties joined together in a Comité de Suivi that allowed them to coordinate their lobbying. They organized a demonstration of almost 1,000 women dressed in white who marched to the presidential palace and delivered their proposed legislation to President Wade. The proposed legislation was initially rejected by the opposition on the grounds that it was discriminatory and unconstitutional. They also faced considerable opposition from the influential Sufi marabout leaders. COSEF then returned to the drawing board and rewrote the bill. By 2010, a Law on Parity was passed, which requires all parties to alternate men and women on party lists. The Electoral Commission can reject the party lists should they not comply. Thus, there was a jump from 22.7% women in parliament in the 2012 elections to 42.7% in the 2014 elections. An even greater increase from 15% to 47% of women’s seats was evident in the local legislatures (Tøraasen, 2017).

Movements in Contexts of Conflict

Although the occurrence of conflict has decreased significantly from earlier decades, conflict still occurs and women have played important roles in peacemaking and peacebuilding throughout the continent, from eastern Congo to northern Nigeria and Somalia. Grass-roots women’s peace networks have been built across ethnic differences in all these locations and they have also formed in southern Sudan.

Women’s mobilization in South Sudan, for example, has emerged to resist violence between the government, led by President Salva Kiir, and opposition forces led by the vice president, Riek Machar. The civil war in this newly created nation that separated from Sudan in 2011 has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and millions have been displaced internally and in Uganda. Women have suffered greatly from violence targeting them and from the burden that displacement and care of the household has placed on them. Over 500 women from throughout South Sudan held a National Women’s Peace Conference in May 2016 in Juba. They adopted a seven-point agenda on implementing a gender-responsive peace agreement, which included provisions on implementing a 25% quota for women in all government bodies, consulting with women on security reform, including women in ceasefire monitoring teams, including women in at least one quarter of the seats in the constitutional reform process, taking steps to end sexual violence, including women in one third of the seats in all institutions in charge of resources, financial and economic management, and land policy review, and responding to freedom of expression for women in the media.1 This is but one example of the kinds of activities women are engaged in and the types of demands arising out of a conflict situation.

In virtually all cases of such mobilization, women are found drawing on their religious traditions as a basis for their activities. Often mobilizations brought women of different religious affiliations and ethnicities together, as was the case in Liberia in 2003 when women’s associations took to the streets to protest the fighting between government forces and those of LURD and MODEL militia groups. They held daily sit-ins at the airfield in Sinkor where they prayed, fasted, sang, danced, and cried, while demanding peace. Dressed in white T-shirts and headscarves, they called for a neutral peacekeeping force and for free and fair elections. At one point they went on a sex strike. As a WIPNET organizer explained: “We had a belief that the creator would take us through. We were fed up. Christians and Muslims met at the airfield, but when met we did not discuss religion. We had been in inter-faith workshops and we believed in religious tolerance. So Christian and Muslims worked together in peace and focused on a peace agenda. We were illiterate market women and educated women, we were together regardless of religion and tribe” (interview with author, September 2007).

Some of these national movements influenced international norms. Women’s organizations met in Windhoek, Namibia, in 2000 and drafted a document that became the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 requiring women to be included in all peacemaking activities. A similar provision was adopted in 2003 by the African Union in the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women, which recognized “the right of women to participate in the promotion and maintenance of peace.”

Countries coming out of violence in Africa were more likely to adopt provisions within their constitutions addressing gender-based violence (GBV) than countries that had not experienced major conflict. They were also more likely to pass legislation regarding GBV, including all forms of physical, sexual, or mental harm (e.g., domestic violence, sexual violence, female genital cutting, and trafficking). Much of the normative shift in thinking about GBV overall in both conflict and nonconflict situations came from experiences within civil wars. One pivotal ruling that helped change prevailing norms about GBV came in the judgment against former Rwandese mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu, which was delivered by the Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1998. For the first time in history, rape and sexual violence were explicitly recognized as an “act of genocide and a crime against humanity.” Of equal importance was the fact that it was the first ruling to regard a broad definition of rape involving a sexual physical invasion beyond merely a narrow notion of penile penetration of the vagina, and to treat rape as a form of torture (Copelon, 2000, p. 227).

Land Movements

Although much of the focus in the literature is on formal NGOs and movements that attempt to change national-level politics, women’s movements exist across the continent which tackle important issues at the grass-roots level, particularly movements to protect the environment, for peace, and for women’s land rights. One of the women’s movements that rarely gains national or international visibility concerns the protection of women’s land rights, which can be very precarious, particularly in patrilineal societies. Access to land is central to one’s livelihood in rural African societies and because so often the care and sustenance of the household falls on women, when they are deprived of their access to land, they have had little choice but to resist.

In northern Uganda in 2012, the Uganda Wildlife Authority guards evicted 6,000 people from their homes in Apaa in Amuru District, to assist the Madhvani Group, a Ugandan conglomerate that wanted to establish a sugar cane plantation and factory on the land. Residents protested these evictions and 82 demonstrators were injured in one protest in 2015. In response to these provocations, Acholi women from Apaa launched their own protest that same year, undressing in front of two male government ministers who had come to calm the population and assure them that no one would be evicted. The naked protests continued into 2017 when a female minister of lands, Betty Amongi, visited Amuru.

In the protests, women bared their breasts, wept, and threw themselves on the ground as a display of the most extreme contempt for the authorities. Other community members, including men, burst into a chorus of wailing, drawing on funereal tropes. These protests drew on culturally resonant symbols of motherhood, which were displayed as the ultimate curse to the face of the authorities.

In Africa, these types of protests harken back to precolonial times. They were also employed in the struggle against colonialism in countries as diverse as Zambia, Guinea, Nigeria, and Cameroon. Some of these types of tactics were evident in newer contexts, from the democracy and human rights movement in Kenya in the 1990s, to protests around land rights among the Maasai in Tanzania, to protests against environmental degradation caused by oil companies in the delta region of Nigeria in the early 2000s, to protests against housing evictions in South Africa in the 1990s, and Liberia’s peace movement in the early 2000s.

Land protests can be found throughout the continent. In Morocco since 2000, women have formed what is known as the Soulaliyate movement, fighting for land in a country where women inherit less than men. About 35% of the land in Morocco (approximately 30 million acres) is marked as Soulaliyate land, which belongs to tribal authorities. Roughly 4,631 tribes amount to about 10 million people in a country of 35.5 million. The tribal lands had been controlled by the Interior Ministry since 1919, when Morocco was a French protectorate and people were allowed to work the communal land even though they did not have the right to own it. The communal lands were nevertheless passed down from fathers to sons. When communal lands were sold, men were given a home or financial compensation, whereas women received nothing. Because tribal law prohibited widows, single women, divorcees, and those without sons from inheriting land, the state could take it from them without compensation. Thousands of women were forced off their land until a woman in Kenitra, working with Association Démocratique des Femmes du Maroc (ADFM), started what became a nationwide movement in 2007 to demand women’s rights to land. In 2009, about 500 women protested in front of the parliament in Rabat to demand equal rights to ownership and thousands more joined the movement.

In response, the Interior Ministry issued several directives indicating that women should benefit from selling the communal lands; however, the directives were nonbinding. Women are now demanding that a law be implemented that guarantees these rights and that women be fully included in the management of collective lands. In 2015, the king called for reforms in the legal status of communal lands that would address women’s ownership. There has yet to be any steps taken to institutionalize women’s access to collective lands.

Environmental Movements

Environmental movements have proven to become yet another important arena of female mobilization. One of the earliest such movements was the Greenbelt Movement, led by Wangari Maathai, a biologist and women’s rights leader who won the Nobel Prize for peace in 2004. Maathai pioneered the links between development, democracy, the environment, and human rights, and she was already making these connections in the 1970s. Formed in 1977, the Greenbelt Movement fostered new synergies between development and environmental and human rights organizations, resulting in broad coalitions that linked economic and social rights with more individually oriented civil and political rights. Spread out over 27 of Kenya’s 42 administrative districts and involving tens of thousands of women, the Greenbelt Movement focused on tree planting as a means of combating environmental degradation. It mounted campaigns to protest the damming of rivers, the eviction of forest dwellers, and the clearing of forests. Members also fearlessly confronted Kenya’s Moi regime over its human rights record, its politicization of ethnicity, and its environmental policies. The women were physically attacked on several occasions by the government but this did not deter them.

Another such grass-roots movement of women can be found in the delta region of Nigeria where residents have been seeking redress for environmental degradation as a result of oil drilling in the Niger Delta by multinational oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil. With the onset of commercial oil production in the Niger Delta in 1956, the economy shifted from subsistence farming to oil production (Turner & Oshare, 1994), and women, who had been primarily engaged in subsistence farming and fishing, lost out due to land damages from pollution and oil spillages in the area. They could not command the same compensation as men from land acquisition by oil companies and from contamination of farmland and fishing waters (Ukeje, 2011). The oil companies only employed men; thus, women were cut out of jobs in the oil industry as well. Although women had protested oil companies since 1984, it was not until 2002 that their protests received any media attention. Up until that time, only men’s mobilization had any visibility. Women’s mobilization was notable in that they were able to transcend ethnic differences, particularly across the Warri and Ogoni divide, in pressing their concerns. The Niger Delta Women for Justice is a pan-Delta women’s organization that was a critical leader in this mobilization and helped give it international visibility.

In July of 2002, 600 Itsekiri women took control of Chevron’s export terminal and tank yard in the Ugborodo region of the Delta after the company had ignored an earlier correspondence from the women. Women employed the tactic of exposing their naked bodies while protesting. They called for women’s inclusion in decision-making and resource control. The women maintained control of the station for 10 days and halted the production of more than 450,000 barrels of oil per day. They were able to negotiate 26 deals with corporate management in the area, which resulted in a memorandum of understanding being passed and enacted. The memorandum mandated that Chevron/Texaco employ more members of the community, give contract workers permanent positions, and establish income-generating opportunities for the community. The company was slow to implement their commitments, and in August, 2002, 4,000 Warri women demonstrated, only to be attacked by soldiers and policemen. Women’s takeover of the Chevron terminal motivated twelve additional occupations in the region, with 1,000 women taking over six additional Chevron flow stations. One hundred women paddled canoes five miles out to sea and took over one of Chevron’s stations in the Ewan oilfield (Turner & Brownhill, 2004).

Women used their nakedness as a tactic to humiliate men and denounce men’s interference in their economic and social jurisdiction (Agbese, 2003). As with the protests in northern Uganda, this tactic drew upon motherhood symbolism, inflicting what many consider the curse of “social death” on their targets.

LGBTQ Mobilization

One of the indications of the expansion and heterogeneity of women’s rights demands has been the rise of LGBTQ movements, which are supported by many women’s movements. Although homophobia has become more visible in many African countries with the rise of religious fundamentalism, there has also been a rise in new LGBTQ associations, including organizations of lesbian and transgender people. There are new nationwide and regional networks and coalitions as well as organizations specializing in family mediation, media work, documentation of human rights violations, education of law enforcement, provision of emergency shelters, training people in safety and security, and engaging in human rights literacy and legal aid (Armisen 2016). In Tunisia, a queer film festival was launched in 2018 in a country where gays can face up to 3 years in prison. Organizations like the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women have been advocating to repeal the penal code provision (Article 230) for the imprisonment of gays. Shams Association was formed as Tunisia’s first LGBT rights organization and was given official recognition by the government in 2015. The organization owns an LGBT radio station, which remains open in spite of continued threats.

Although levels of homophobia have escalated and have been evident in government policy, LGBT advocacy has slowly been having an impact. There is still a wide variance in laws and practices in Africa when it comes to LGBTQ rights. Three countries—Mauritania, Sudan, and northern Nigeria—have the death penalty for homosexuality on their books (although it is not enforced), and two countries have life imprisonment, which they also do not enforce. At least 36 countries have criminalized homosexuality with prison terms, and at least 12 countries have no laws regarding sexual minorities, neither to protect them nor to penalize them. At the other end of the spectrum, South Africa and Cape Verde have full legal equality for sexual minorities along with constitutional protections, and five countries ban anti-gay discrimination (Angola, Botswana, Mozambique, Seychelles, and Mauritius). Kenya is on the verge of passing some surprisingly progressive legislation in this area. Lesbianism is treated differently from male gay sexuality and is generally not seen as so threatening.

There are other signs of change. In Uganda in 2010, the High Court upheld the right of LGBT people to privacy; in Kenya, an openly gay man (David Kuria) ran for election to the Senate; in 2016, the Gaborone City Council unanimously approved a motion calling for the repeal of Botswana’s criminalization of same-sex sexual acts. Prominent African leaders and intellectuals have voiced opposition to homophobia across the continent. Many countries have tacitly allowed for health policies to be directed at LGBT communities without openly acknowledging that this is what they are doing. While these may seem like small steps, they are in fact major advances given the overall context.


Women’s movements have made considerable gains, yet there is a recognition that there is still a very long way to go. Nevertheless, it is useful to take stock of what has changed as a result of the efforts of these movements and the political will of leaders. There is still tremendous variance on the continent in terms of gender equality measures, so averaging out the figures disguises both the levels of progress and the lack thereof.

According to the World Economic Forum, which annually tracks the gender gap in its Global Gender Gap Report (2017), sub-Saharan Africa has a 32% gender gap, which puts it ahead of South Asia and the Middle East, but on par with East Asia and the Pacific and with the global weighted average. It ranks last when it comes to the gender gap in educational attainment, even though 15 countries (out of 30 African countries analyzed) have fully closed the gender gap for primary education, 14 for secondary education, and seven for tertiary education. But Africa also has 10 of the lowest ranked countries when it comes to the gender gap in literacy. In the area of health, Africa has improved more than any other region over the past decade.

In the area of political empowerment, today African women (including North Africa) have on average the same level of legislative representation (28.4%) as the Americas (28%), which is higher than the global average of 23.4%. Rwanda has the highest level of representation for women in the world (61.3%). Even Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country, has 41.8% of its parliamentary seats held by women.

The region has high labor force participation, with nine countries in the global top 20 for this indicator, according to the World Economic Forum. In Africa, women are also global leaders when it comes to representation in the boardroom. An African Development Bank (2015) study that looked at data for 307 companies in 12 African countries and compared it with other parts of the world found that even though the number of women is still limited in boardrooms, women in Africa are only slightly behind European (18%) and U.S. (17%) women at a rate of 14.4%. They are significantly further ahead of the Asia-Pacific region (9.8%), Latin America (5.6%), and the Middle East (1%). They are best represented in the boardrooms of financial services, basic materials and construction, and automotive industries. The countries with the highest rates of female boardroom representation of the countries surveyed included Kenya (19.8%), South Africa (17.4%), Botswana (16.9%), Zambia (16.9%), and Ghana (17.7%).

As a result of pressure from women’s organizations, supported by UN agencies like UN Women, peace agreements in Africa have incorporated women’s rights language to a greater extent than we see in other parts of the world, as references to women between 2000 and 2012 tripled in all peace agreements (12% to 34%) and more than doubled in all comprehensive peace agreements (CPA) (33% to 78%) from the previous decade (Tripp, 2015). Similar patterns are evident when analyzing constitutional provisions regarding women’s rights. African countries tend to have more provisions addressing women’s concerns per constitution than other regions of the world per country. African countries on average have 6.4 provisions per country, compared to 5.4 for Latin America, 4.2 for Asia, 2.8 for Europe, and 0.7 for Oceania. While this does not measure actual enforcement of laws or practices, it does reflect a normative commitment to women’s rights and a basis for advocacy.2

Much of scholarship in this area has focused on how global norms regarding women’s rights are received and absorbed by local populations, often through women’s rights organizations. The UN Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 is often cited as a key transformative moment in global feminism for decades to come. To be sure, it had important repercussions for women’s leadership and representation in government and beyond. However, it would be equally useful to consider how African women’s movements themselves are shaping global norms and have contributed to global discourses, particularly around gender budgeting (evaluation of how the national budget affects women), peacebuilding, political representation, cultural change (around customary law and traditional practices that harm women), and many other areas.


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