Gender Equality and Women Empowerment for Africa’s Renewal: Existing Influences and Future Considerations.

By Ntombovuyo Linda

International agents of socio-economic change have been accurate in observing that women are offensively underrepresented in the formal public domain in Africa. However, they miss the mark by a wide margin when they characterize this obvious injustice against women as a function of indigenous African tradition and culture.

In fact, excluding women from the public domain is contrary to the dictates of African custom. Pre-colonial Africa has a richer history and more profound legacy of having women in very high and visible public offices or positions. There is considerable evidence demonstrating that women in the ancient Ashanti Empire for instance, could also succeed to the headship of a family and hold membership in the Council of Elders. Many pre-colonial African societies were governed by parallel systems of Chieftaincies the one, female and the other, male. In many cases where there was only one system of Chieftaincy, it was possible for men and women alike to ascend to the throne.

Whereas in Western societies, as late as the 19th century, woman did not exist as independent individuals under the common law doctrine of coverture. Women were connected to civil society only through a relationship of dependence and subordination which provided the model of indirect citizenship, and this informed the composition of women’s social citizenship rights. Gender-specific oppression was transported into African colonies and often exuberated in post-colonial states as civil wars protracted, becoming common and standard practices. These practices include: forced marriage; female genital mutilation; ‘corrective’ rape; punishing women for being raped; differential access for men and women to health care and education; unequal rights of ownership, assembly and political participation; and unequal vulnerability to violence.

Studies both in Africa and other conflict areas indicate that domestic abuse increases both during and after conflict. This can be for a number of reasons: acceptance of violence as a means to assert power and resolve conflicts; the changing role of women in society; lawlessness and a climate of impunity; weak or absent security provision such as effective policing, and hidden male trauma. Consequently, women face new challenges and inherit additional responsibilities in the post-conflict period that need to be highlighted and addressed. On the other hand, the social transformation occurring in the post-conflict context opens up opportunities which should not be missed by women to empower themselves and to strengthen and enhance their contributions to democratic governance. It is clear that in Africa, we still suffer from some very strong and outdated attitudes towards differences in genders and the rights of men or women. For instance, the tabling of the Traditional Courts Bill in South Africa in 2012 caused considerable debate.

Therefore, it is wrong to assume that women are merely passive recipients of an oppressive culture or assume that they lack agency to examine their ability to acknowledge their options. Agency must not be defined in terms of actions against the established norms but rather as the capacity to realize one’s own interests against the weight of custom, tradition, transcendental will or other obstacles.


The rise of state feminism is sourced from this common history of women being denied the right to express themselves politically and being systematically excluded in activities in the public domain. It has been one of the major offerings of feminist scholarship to show the way in which the civic origin of the citizen has been ‘aggressively male.’

Globally, the state reflects a patriarchal world in that men influence political and economic affairs through their physical capacities and masculinist performivities at institutional levels, consequently constructing masculinity as a national cultural invariable. Conventional International Relations theories; security sector structures; and the gendered nature of both the state and citizenship produce and sustain masculine identities, marking a relationship between masculinity and power. Patriarchy attempts to mold all men in a uniform guise of masculinity symbolically, institutionally, and through the shaping of men’s bodies. Ideal assets of soldiery such as physical ability, endurance, self-control, professionalism, sociability, heterosexuality – encourage masculine performance by contrasting it with images of ‘otherness’ such as femininity, homosexuality, etc. (equated with weakness, vulnerability and feebleness). Patriarchy trains men to conform to hyper-masculine heterosexuality where women are viewed as either sex objects that need to be abused or loved ones that need to be protected.

Since the 1990’s, and definitely since the 1994 UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, much of global feminist activism has been constructed in the discourse of rights, under the slogan of “women’s rights are human rights.” This discourse of rights has enabled many local, as well as transnational women’s groups, to challenge existing cultural customs as well as legislation which discriminates against women all around the world. It also helped to transform much of feminist activism from “identity politics” feminism into “transversal politics”, which attempts to conceptualize a democratic practice of conversing across difference and reinforcing feminist solidarity beyond borders and simplistic cosmopolitan approaches by recognizing that the world is seen differently from each social location. And therefore, that any knowledge which is based on one position alone is by definition, incomplete. Gender equality therefore, must take into account the whole of women’s lives, including the cultural contexts that give them meaning.

These indications are immensely important in discussions of an African leadership framework. As many feminists critique, the objective is not employ an ‘add and stir’ approach. To support women’s leadership, there is a need to build an enabling environment for the articulation of women’s visions of development; challenge power structures and resource control in the political, economic and social arenas to support the emergence and sustenance of women leaders at all levels for a transformative social change agenda. Moreover, gender equality needs to be placed on the policy and program agenda of the entire spectrum of peace and conflict-related initiatives and activities in order to achieve conflict transformation. This includes conflict prevention, early warning mechanisms; disarmament, demobilization and reintegration; truth and reconciliation commissions; post-conflict reconstruction; peace building and peace education.

Although feminism has been successful in promoting the active participation of women in governance, commerce and community welfare, this engagement is often not fully cultivated because women are relentlessly marginalized in decision-making processes. Feminism also faces co-option, where feminist ideas are hijacked by removing parts of the literature that are deemed to be unfitting in conventional state politics, and disciplining feminists into line with conventional theories. Feminist theories should not be celebrated in politically correct footnotes but must be incorporated into the main text or practice.

Women also face challenges in insufficient access to financial resources, decent work opportunities, security and public services which adequately respond to their various needs. In review of women’s rights; security through a gendered lens; transnational migration; the impact of gender in armed conflicts; and the role of gender in international development, it becomes clear the reach within which gender machinery operates and can further be activated in post-colonial states.


In the world-system, individual core states collectively constitute a class of states that have a common political and economic relation to the rest of the world, establishing the basis for a discussion of world class relations. These relations define a world mode of production which frames and structures (sets limits and determines) core-periphery economic exchanges. Exploitation within the process of production under the conditions of global interdependence fosters the protraction of modes of production as contemporary relations move main focus from political decolonization to economic colonization through the systematic division of developing countries inside the world system of reproduction. The global relations of production are evident in neoliberal policies. The extent to which they affect women in the global South is multi-layered. Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) pooled together with its corresponding policies aimed at attracting inward investment such as the establishment of Export Production Zones (EPZs) and Free Trade Zones (FTZs) initially generated new jobs or new forms of employment, enabling the massive creation of jobs in export-led manufacturing in Africa’s developing countries. However, this proved to be short-lived.

Feminist inquiry of political economy links national and global developments in explanations of contemporary neoliberal globalization; highlights the connection between social reproduction and economic production; and constructs its analysis on critical feminist scholarship which aims to incorporate gender as an analytical category along with cultural, historical, ideological and structural factors in the examination of institutional, political and economic processes. This investigation emphasizes the importance of gender to the politics of neoliberal development because its study concerns the analysis of norms and standards in global political economy and the gendered critiques of these norms reveal them to be power laden, regulatory and highly restrictive. This feminist approach unmasks the gender bias in policies and concepts that are central to the neoliberal project in Africa, such as efficiency, market initiatives, and state failure.

The neoliberal development strategy is gendered in two ways: first in terms of input which comes from the foundational economic rationality from which neoliberal strategy is informed, i.e. structurally integrated world of global finance and postmodern individuality associated with Western capitalist masculinity and secondly, in terms of outcome in the practical experiences of the poor people that these strategies target with regard to the future continuance of neoliberal policies – e.g. the explicitly sexualized, racialized, low-waged and low-skilled jobs often done by female migrants for the high-salaried cosmopolitans of the first world.

Although today, the majority of women work outside the home, the association of women with female gendered roles, such as housewife, caregiver and mother, has become institutionalized and even naturalized, affecting women’s economic security and autonomy. African societies’ stereotypes about ‘who women are’ affect which jobs they take and how they are compensated for their labor. And women who do perform domesticated forms of work (cooking, cleaning and care) are also not afforded reasonable value in mainstream global political economy, because it falls outside a ‘states and markets’ analytical framework. Thus contrary to the dominant perspectives, markets in any sector have to be understood as socially constructed institutions whose evolution leads to a reconfiguration of societal structures, including gender power relations. Even though there has been a growth in women’s paid employment across the world (which in principle empowers women) women are also often pushed into secondary, peripheral or informal jobs, where they earn a fraction of men’s wages.

  • In Africa, the provision of services involves many women as nurses, teachers, secretaries, even traders’ servants or prostitutes especially among uneducated women from rural or developing areas – indicating a distinct regional pattern in dominant types of employment.
  • Domestic service also occupies many women as it is seen as an entry point into urban employment for female migrants from rural areas and unburdens professional working and in middle-class women from housework and childcare.
  • The provision of sexual services employs many women, especially in areas with large military bases. Some countries have developed a tourist industry which exploits the trade in female sexuality, particularly African women.
  • Women are especially important in retail trade in Africa and the Caribbean, making up 93% of market traders in Accra of Ghana, 87% in Lagos of Nigeria, 60% IN Dakar of Senegal and 77% in Haiti.

Feminism reflects on the influences that implicit social definitions such as traditional gender roles for males which have included associations with positions of leadership and dominance while those for females have involved positions of support and subordination. This view applies not only to the private family life at the micro-level but also transcends to the public activities or the large-scale institutional structures of economics, politics, military systems and religion. The construction of politics and economics continues to be based upon male perceptions and experiences as well as a masculine conceptualization.

**Linda is a reading for a Masters in Political Science at Wits University and works as a Research Associate at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute. She is also a member of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation Youth Hub.

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