Voices of African Women: Setting the Scene

This paper by Marie-Claire Faray-Kele was provided in the booklet given out at the Voices of African Women seminars in November 2008. It aims to raise the voices of grassroots African women. References are included for further reading and research.

Introduction: The position of women in Africa

In several African countries, women represent the majority of the population.1 Responsible for the daily survival of their communities, they have played a significant role in the movements for independence from the colonial and apartheid minority governments 2 and they have a crucial role yet to play in Africa’s future.

Women, of course, are not all the same. They are individuals, with distinctive educational, class, religious and linguistic backgrounds. And yet, people often define themselves and are defined by the communities to which they belong. While it is impossible to speak of ‘African women’ as if they were a ready made collective, one story which consistently emerges about these women and makes their voice a collective voice, is that they have been central to building peaceful communities and to rebuilding those societies ravaged by conflict and war.3,4,5,6 Further, they also share in common gender discrimination, gender based violence and exclusion.7,8,9,10

African women continue to be absent from decision-making tables for the governance of Africa even though on the political front, more women are members of parliaments across Africa today than ever before.1,11,12,13 This invisibility of women is in spite of numerous commitments made by several African countries towards international instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, (CEDAW)14, Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) 15, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (UNSCR 1325)16 and regional instruments including the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women17 and the African Union Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality.18

Many African women representing grassroots movements, activists, parliamentarians, councillors, scholars and mothers, from north, east, west and southern Africa are disappointed with their governments which have mortgaged their futures as well as that of their children without their having a say in the matter.3,4 Women want to have more say in the governance and development of Africa.3,4,5

Recognising their common plight, many African women have put aside their religious, political and tribal differences and are making efforts to work together. They are taking responsibility by rising above clan politics to build strong movements which not only inform the peace process, but also provide much needed social services.4,6,13,20 These include: health care, revenue generating activities, environmentally friendly activities, support to other women and elderly people and education for children.4,6 This is particularly the case in failed states or war ravaged countries.11

General retrospective about the African continent

The African continent is a diverse cultural, ethnic, tribal, religious and linguistic region21, rich in human and natural resources. Africa has contributed to humanity, with great civilisations and a rich legacy to the world in many fields of language, music, arts, medicine and mathematics.21,22,23

It must be remembered that the African continent is vast. Individual countries are very different in size and population. Some countries are rich in minerals, others are not. Some have one or two predominant ethnic or religious groups; others have myriad groups, and hence potentially conflicting social and political interests.21 The level of poverty and underdevelopment varies from one country to the next. And conflict does not affect all of Africa’s countries nor indeed can all conflict zones be similar. The continent is not just a huge war zone where development has failed to take place and which is now being mined by new economic interests. In order to understand Africa’s nature, complexity and challenges, it is important to understand both its regional dimensions as well as the individual realities of each country.

Indeed the recent history of Africa includes slavery, colonialism, the Cold War, dictatorship, economic debts, unfair trade, natural resources exploitation and the illicit arms trade, all causing many conflicts, violence and human rights abuses.21 These factors, in conjunction with the collapse of the infrastructure of many states, and the failure of these states to form equitable and answerable governments have significantly contributed to population displacement, disease and famines as well as to the mass migration of populations and to the underdevelopment of many African countries. 24,25,26

The African Union (AU), 27 as a collective body of states was granted the powers and the right to intervene in any of its member states for humanitarian purposes, and has established an African Standing Force. It has gradually been developing its capabilities to engage fully in the problems that are plaguing the Continent, ensuring new mechanisms for conflict resolution. However, in the 21st century, although governance is improving in some African countries, Africa is the only continent that lags behind.28

Women mobilising for human rights and social justice while addressing debt, poverty, underdevelopment and damage to the environment

Despite many recovery programs set up in the past for Africa by UN agencies, the AU organisations, and other international community donors, and NGOS, there has been little economic progress.29,30,31 Several countries in Africa are not only reeling with external debt but also burdened with internal debt. Most European Union (EU), International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank (WB) loans negotiated in Africa, were agreed with undemocratic regimes without consulting the people, who are now asked to service a monumental debt. 32,33

Many African women have questioned, and continue to question, the prudence of economic formulas and prescriptions that hurt local communities and have failed to bring any meaningful change in their lives.3,4,34a/b National governments and international institutions are profiting unjustly from the unpaid and unrecognized labour and sacrifices of African women.4 Women have to assume multiple roles to provide a buffer against the social and economic effects of IMF and World Bank policies, the World Trade Organisation’s unfair trade rules; as well as poor national and global governance.4,34

Several foreign governments and agencies have demonstrated imbalance and double standards in their policies and deliberations toward many African countries, particularly their old colonies. Many of these external agencies have sacrificed human rights and ignored corruption and bad governance for the greater (apparent) good of maintaining a smooth relationship for the interest of these external actors’ economies.34,35 One cannot encourage democracy and the rule of law while simultaneously encouraging and backing regimes according to non-African economic interests.

Key to effective and sustainable programmes for raising peoples’ standard of living is the issue of good governance: the capacity and quality of governments to create jobs and an economic independence that will sustain growth and peace. Furthermore democracy is not only a process that involves politicians, institutions and government but most importantly involves civil society members understanding their duties and rights and being able to practice their duties and enjoy their rights.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG)36 which stressed the importance of empowering women for progress and development, especially in Africa, by the year 2015, were adopted in 2000. The MDG’s complement the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)37 an agreement advanced by Africans themselves. Both the MDGs and NEPAD promote a much needed partnership between governments and civil society, ensuring that the policies and practices of participating states conform to agreed political, economic, and governance values, thus holding leaders and states accountable for their actions.

However, as we stand in 2008, it seems that as soon as one conflict is resolved, another one lies ahead on the horizon. Since 2000, there has been an increase in conflicts and widespread human insecurity, injustice, human rights abuses, illicit trade of small arms and light weapons and illegal trade in natural resources. The arms trade and conflicts are affecting development both directly and indirectly and have contributed to the overall human suffering and environmental degradation.38,39

In addition there is the material and human cost of conflicts that are serving the purpose of the many multinational companies that are reported to breach the standards of Corporate Social Responsibility, including labour rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) Guidelines and the Voluntary Principles on Business and Human Rights.34,35

Two-thirds of the people in Africa live in rural areas, and many depend upon the forest or savannah to provide food, medicines and building materials. Additionally, Africa’s forests provide one of the biggest stores of carbon in the world, critical for combating climate change. Large scale deforestation and mining are rapidly despoiling the region.40

Research shows that many multinational companies have dual operating systems; unregulated quality standard and non-environmentally sustainable policies while working in the developing world – policies which are in fact, the exact opposite of the policies they champion in their home countries.34,35,40 With such a large proportion of its population living rural rather than urban lives, the degradation of Africa’s environment has a strongly visible affect on peoples’ immediate habitat, their health and the short and long term development of the region and the world.40

The majority of people in Africa are still facing extreme poverty and famine, leading many countries to a slow pace in general development; particularly that of Information Technology. In many African countries much remains to be done to ensure accountability and rule of law and the reduction and ultimately, elimination of corruption. All these factors are necessary to make progress in the development of education, health care infrastructures as well as for the building of strong local and regional markets, and in order to encourage the kind of national and international investment that will be beneficial to the region in both the short and longer term.

Thus it is clear that today in Sub-Saharan Africa none of the Millennium Development Goals will be achieved by 2015. The missing link in the issue of conflict resolution, peace building and development, is the presence and involvement of civil society, particularly that of women.3,4 It is vital therefore, that regulations be set in place and that governments have both the will and the ability to ensure that good practice is maintained by international and national business groups.

Continued negative impact of “old” attitudes and the role of external agencies

Most African countries are falling back into old patterns of gender discrimination when allotting the benefits of peace and prosperity.4 Many African women have suffered and are continuing to suffer from the brunt of proxy wars and institutional patriarchy.3,4.,11 Widows, women with disabilities, victims of rape and those living with HIV/AIDS are doubly disadvantaged on account of their stigmatisation, yet their positions are barely accounted for in mainstream development programmes.3,4

Many women and young girls continue to suffer from harmful traditions and customs that violate their human rights as well as deprive them of inheritance, property rights and land.4 In several countries, widespread impunity condemns many women to domestic and sexual violence, particularly those from conflict zones who share gruesome stories of torture, mutilation, rape, unwanted pregnancy, abortion and displacement from the senseless conflict engulfing their countries and communities.41 This is a system that is supported by multinationals (with local elite complicity) seizing land and forcibly denying local grassroots African communities not only their livelihoods but also any sense of human dignity.4,34

African women are survivors amidst insurmountable odds where regressive traditions and structures, poor governance, and bad political and economic choices compound and complicate their situation.3,4,20 The burdens of daily survival, wars, poverty, reproductive health, discrimination, as well as limited access to education and healthcare are borne by women.1,2,3,4,20

Although African people themselves have a role to play in creating lasting peace and sustainable development in the continent,42 governments and the private sector have their own responsibilities. The International Community and especially the British Government, working together in cooperation with local women actors, can all exert an important influence.

Numerous studies now exist which point to the unwillingness or incapacity of development workers to engage African women in dialogue.4 This is a fundamental obstacle to the success of many foreign aid programs.43 Too often the reality is that aid and development workers assume that the existence of “tradition” makes African women incapable of acting as authors of their own lives. The prevailing view is that African women lack the power to act. The idea conveyed when “tradition” is blamed for African women’s economic predicament is that African beliefs and practices constitute part of an ancient, unchanging way of life, not easily amenable to change.4 African women refute this.2,3,4,20

These assumptions fail to take into consideration that many women across the continent have shaped the history of Africa for centuries, especially since World War II, mobilising and sustaining nationalist movements in Africa.2,4 Almost without exception, the struggle for women’s rights in Africa has risen and co-existed alongside nationalist movements which have proved domineering.2,4 Whenever women strongly advocate women’s rights they are accused of being under imperial or Western influence and therefore are anti-nationalist and anti-male.2 They are said to have lost their culture and tradition, and if women have lost their culture and tradition, who will teach the children? The construction of women’s movements as Western, feminist, imperial, or foreign, has automatically meant nationalists’ constant suspicion and de-legitimisation of African women’s movements. 2

Ensuring women’s participation in decision-making processes

The participation of women is fundamentally important to reducing poverty in Africa.4,43,44,45 Without such promotion, it is almost impossible to break into a male dominated sphere. While CEDAW,14 UNSCR 132516 and UNSCR 182019 on sexual violence in conflict, and the AU Women’s Rights Protocol17 as well as the Solemn Declaration18 are steps in the right direction, African women now face the greatest challenge, that of “implementation” . The words of such conventions, resolutions and declarations stand empty of meaning without being transformed into action. Therefore it is important to continually review and evaluate the goals of implementation. Evaluation should take account of both successes and failures.

More needs to be done for women to have their say in governance, and decision-making in Africa. Women are struggling to have their voice heard at peace negotiation tables,6,11 even though they play key roles in civil society and are working hard in that sphere,4,6,11 Further, despite their tireless work, many women’s groups lack both the financial resources and the support needed to carry out their activities.4,11,46

Clearly, African women are tired of rhetoric and want action.4,46 They want human security, which means in Africa, (as elsewhere): food, housing, health care, education, employment and a dignified existence.4,11,46 Security should not be about arms or weapons or military power; security should have a human face. Without the protection of the basic resources needed for survival and “human” needs, an environment of insecurity is perpetuated.47

Undoubtedly, African women want to benefit from bilateral and multi lateral agreements.43,46 Further, they want a better regulations to prevent armed domestic violence and the control of arms traffic through an International Arm Trade Treaty, 41b,c and they want corrupt and despotic leaders who have failed them out of government. They want the culture of impunity and hypocrisy informing global economic and political agendas to end. 3,4,34,43,46

The link between gender equality and economic growth is well established, in various studies in the world.44,45,48 There is now overwhelming evidence that empowerment of women is one key variable in fighting poverty, HIV and AIDS, infant and maternal mortality, violence against women, and gender discrimination.1 Women have a key role to play in closing the existing gender gaps and providing equal opportunities and representation.1,3,4,44,45,48

There can be no peace, security and sustainable economic development if societies continue to deny human rights, including the human rights of women. Until men and women work together to secure the rights and full potential of women, lasting solutions to the world’s most serious social, economic and political problems are unlikely to be found. Overcoming gender inequality through justice systems and education, therefore, becomes the main solution for overcoming poverty in Africa.

While it is clear that Africa will not meet any of the Millennium Development Goals by the 2015 deadline, it is important that the international community acknowledges that development cannot take place in a vacuum. An absolute priority to ending poverty in Africa is to listen to the experiences and wisdom of African women at all levels of society.4

Who should speak for African women?

Too often it is either African men or Western women who speak for African women.4 We need to hear from the African women themselves whose lives we all claim we wish to improve. Also, we must incorporate the important critiques by African women scholars of the flawed categories that continue to be used to describe African women’s lives and African societies. Many scholars who have written or have described African women’s lives are from very different realities in parts of the world remote from Africa. Such studies end up doing more harm to the African women whose lives the activists or scholars claim to be seeking to ameliorate.4

African Women at the grassroots level must be heard because only they have intimate knowledge of their lives and needs. UK WILPF has organised this series of events and invited African women to tell their stories of struggle, injustice and above all, of survival.

UK WILPF invites participants to examine the effects of national politics, international politics and NGO-driven policies, on Africa’s present and future, particularly to consider how women may play an instrumental role in Africa’s future. UK WILPF invites participants to listen to the perspective of African women presented here, and to consider what alliances exist and what alliances need to be put in place to safeguard Africa’s independence, its growth and its population’s desire for abiding peace.



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