African Women in the Past Five Decades

By Gloria Chuku
Professor of Africana Studies and Affiliate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies, and Language, Literacy and Culture Ph.D. Program
University of Maryland, Baltimore County


The past five decades have witnessed a dramatic expansion of studies and literature on African women’s history. There have equally been ongoing critical debates on the connections between African women’s history and their current status in society; as well as on the issues of economic development, aid and women’s agency; and on women’s political participation in different African countries. Efforts are being made to correct and present more balanced and nuanced accounts of African women’s history against the typical portrayal that they totally lack in autonomy and are objects and victims of customary subjectivity and patriarchal control. This essay explores some of these debates on African women’s roles and status since independence by focusing on three key areas: formal education, political participation and economic development. What role have African women played in these three spheres and how have they been impacted by Western-style education and by political and economic policies pursued in their respective countries? What were the gains made, the challenges and lingering problems facing African women as they navigate the rough and complex terrains of modern Africa and global world?

Due to the far-reaching and differential consequences of European colonialism on Africans, it is important to trace the history of African women’s status to the colonial period (1880-1960) when, in spite of multiple barriers, women were able to exploit the spaces and opportunities created by colonial rule to assert greater autonomy and agency. Individually and collectively, African women manipulated and negotiated economic, political, legal and social structures, institutions and practices as well as spatial, ideological, class, and gender boundaries that shaped their lives in colonial Africa as they struggled to migrate from old ways of life to new ones, defend their womanhood, and achieve socioeconomic mobility. They were among the most formidable groups that resisted colonial conquest and rule and regularly challenged colonial authorities and their agents in the continent. African women were a formidable force in the decolonization politics and campaigns that ended colonialism and ushered in modern African countries. Whether they were adequately rewarded for their decolonization efforts by independent African governments and their leadership depended on the particularities of individual countries of Africa. Suffice it to say that African women have continued to exercise their agency in efforts toward building and strengthening democratic institutions and political stability as well as sustainable economic development in their respective countries.

Before discussing the three areas that shaped women’s lives and were shaped by women’s agency in the past fifty years, it is important to note that Africa’s diversity is fundamental to understanding the continent and its peoples. Africa is a continent of 54 countries of stable democracies and those embroiled in civil wars, with relatively high educated populations and some with barely literate populations; thousands of ethnic nationalities and languages; diverse cultural institutions and practices; religious beliefs and worldviews; climatic conditions, vegetation zones and economic resources; and historical experiences. Equally significant is the heterogeneity of African women and the diverse socio-cultural, economic and political contexts they lived and operated, a key to minimizing sweeping generalizations about them. Rather than the voiceless passive observers who lacked any agency, this essay argues that there are layered and complex realities of African women’s existential experiences and resilience, shaped by age, class, religious, ethnic, racial, ideological and geographical boundaries. Thus, in order to understand the status of African women, their challenges and barriers, and enormous contributions to the continent, it is important to analyze their historical experiences according to their relational identities and the cultural contexts and logic of their individual societies. However, due to space constraint, only a representative rather than an inclusive analysis of African women’s history since the past fifty years is presented here.


Contrary to colonial and early post-independence educational systems in which the education of women and girls was geared towards their roles as wives and mothers in the emergent elite circles, and in spite of the historical disadvantages they have suffered since colonialism, the past fifty years have witnessed a steady increase in terms of access to formal education and the utilization of its credentials by African women and their daughters. African women and girls now compete favorably with men and boys in admissions to post-primary and higher education and in different fields of specialization. Some countries, such as Botswana, Mauritius, Cameroon, South Africa, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Namibia and Swaziland, have done better than others. The entrance of international organizations, such as UNESCO, the World Bank, the United Nations and global women’s movement in the past decades has added impetus to the debate on the need for critical assessment of the particularities of barriers to African women’s access to education and the utilization of its credentials. Formal education has had the most transformative impact on African women. It has at all levels, especially secondary and tertiary, offered women opportunities for socioeconomic mobility, professional growth, leadership and social mobilization as well as promoted economic growth with a greater positive impact on their families, children and societies. It has been proven that a well trained and well informed African female population has a multiplier effect on the family, community, country, the continent and the larger world.

igbo women

Igbo women at their Ph.D. graduation

Yet, despite the substantial gains made, women sill trail behind men in gender representation at all levels of African educational systems and in gendered disciplinary specialization. The appreciable progress in enrollment across the continent has not been matched with retention rates of girls at various levels of education due to a number of reasons, including early marriage and early pregnancy, lack of parental support and religious opposition. For instance, in 2004, only 46% of girls enrolled in school in sub-Saharan Africa completed primary school. Secondary school completion rates for girls were worse and could be as low as 4% in Niger, and 9% in Burundi. Early marriage and early pregnancy as major causes of high rates of female dropouts were widespread in many parts of Africa where, for instance, 60% of girls married by the age of 18 in Niger, 47% in Chad and 32% in Nigeria. In spite of the heterogeneity of African Muslim countries and communities, deficiency in women’s education is worse there because female formal education is largely viewed as antithetical to Islamic doctrine and values. For instance, female attainment at the secondary and post-secondary education is higher by 15.5% among Christians and 5% for Muslims. Early marriage and bridewealth are important factors lowering the educational enrollment of Muslim girls. For example, a more educated Muslim girl in Sudan attracts lower bridewealth while in other non-Muslim countries, a girl with more education commands a higher bridewealth than one with less education.

Enrollment rates in secondary school in conflict-affected countries of Africa—Sudan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of the Congo—were nearly one-third lower and girls accounted for 30% of refugees’ secondary school enrollment in 2009. Conflict-ridden countries, such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have experienced decline in enrollment rates of female education with 50% of out-of-school children due to physical insecurity, ruined or poorly maintained social and physical infrastructure. Epidemic diseases such as the HIV/AIDS have negatively affected female education in different parts of Africa. This is because girls are at greater risk of contracting the disease than boys, and much likely to miss or drop out of school in order to attend to sick family members. Other factors that determine the levels of female education in Africa include, family and national socioeconomic conditions, poverty, differential social values and expectations placed on sons and daughters, societal norms regarding women’s education, gendered socialization and divisions of household labor, belief that investing in women’s education has lower economic returns due to limited employment opportunities for them and loss of their contribution to the natal household upon marriage, personal aspirations, governmental policies and attitudes of employers to women’s occupational mobility. It is imperative to close the gender gap in education and its corollary, economic security, because an educated female population is a necessary human capital that must be tapped for positive transformation of society and advancement of new frontiers for Africa’s development and competitiveness in the global community. In addition to assessing conditions under which women and girls receive education in their respective African countries and the utility of the credentials received, the educational levels for girls and women must meet international standards to enable them to fully participate in all arenas.

Political Arena

In African communities and states prior to European colonial rule, women occupied high political offices and had specific avenues to express their political will and wield political influence. But women’s power diminished as colonial officials ignored them and indigenous institutions that guaranteed their authority and influence prior to colonial domination, and appointed African men as chiefs and local administrative agents. Since independence, African women have enjoyed a variety of avenues through which they accessed and wielded authority and influence in their respective societies and countries. Different models of women’s leadership roles in Africa demonstrate their ability to negotiate for power and authority in both lineage-based parallel sex systems and the complex state-based political structures. The wave of democratization processes; the dramatic changes in women’s mobilization through active and autonomous women’s movements across the continent since the late 1980s; the impact of gender-sensitive international campaigns and norms championed by global women’s movements and the United Nations, especially the UN Decade for Women (1975-85), the 1985 and 1995 conferences on women; postconflict constitutional reforms among other factors have added some momentum to women’s political engagements in different African countries. African women since the 1990s have made significant strides in occupying high positions in ministerial and other governmental structures as well as in legislative representations. For instance, women’s legislative representation increased from 0.94% in 1960 to 7.78% in 1990 and 17.4% in 2007.

A number of individual African countries have done better than others in the election of women to local, provincial, state or national offices. These are largely countries which have adopted different forms of electoral and institutional gender-based policies such as quota systems in favor of women. Adoption of constitutional electoral quotas in Rwanda and Uganda and political party quotas in South Africa and Mozambique have resulted in increased number of women parliamentarians in these countries. Rwanda led the world with 48.8%; Mozambique, South Africa, Angola, Uganda, Burundi, Senegal, Seychelles, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe had a range of 47% to 31% between 2003 and 2012. Senegal, for example, has passed a law requiring political parties to ensure that half of their candidates for local and national elections were women. The result is that in 2013, women made up nearly half of the legislative body in Senegal with a woman as the prime minister. African women have also occupied national political positions as speakers of national assemblies as in the cases of Baleka Mbete of South Africa, Rebecca Kadaga of Uganda, and Ntlhoi Motsamai of Lesotho; vice and interim presidents as in the cases of Carmen Pereira of Guinea-Bissau; Sylvie Kinigi of Burundi, Specioza W. Kazibwe of Uganda, Rose F. Rogombe of Gabon, Monique Ohsan-Bellepeau of Mauritius; and prime ministers such as Agathe Uwilingiyimana of Rwanda, Maria das Neves and Maria do Carmo Silveira of Sao Tome and Principe, Luisa Diogo of Mozambique, Cecile Manorohanta of Madagascar, Cisse Mariam K. Sidibe of Mali, and Aminata Toure of Senegal. Joyce Hilda Banda of Malawi and Catherine Samba-Panza of Central African Republic have served as presidents of their respective countries. In 2005, African women and others celebrated the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the first executive female president of Liberia and the first woman to be elected president in the continent. African women have demonstrated enviable resilience in the face of civil and inter-state wars and genocides, especially in Nigeria, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burundi, Central African Republic and recently, South Sudan. They have served in peace negotiations and prevention of violence.

At the continental and international levels, a number of African women have occupied important leadership positions such as South African Nkosazana D. Zuma, head of the African Union Commission; Navanethen Pillay of South Africa as the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights; Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of World Bank; and South African Mamphela Ramphele, managing director of the World Bank and Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Others have been recognized internationally for their outstanding leadership roles in helping to improve lives and advance humanity. Among them were South African Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014), who received the Nobel Peace in Literature in 1991 for her literary prowess and political activism; Kenyan Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her promotion of environmental conservation and economic empowerment of women through her Green Belt Movement; and two Liberians in 2011: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for her leadership in peace-building and national unity; and Leymah Gbowee, who was recognized for her peace movement and rehabilitation of child soldiers in her country.

Despite the samples of progress shown above, records from many African countries show a history of unequal participation and representation of women in politics and decision-making. Women from many African countries still struggle to navigate socioeconomic, political and cultural barriers that prevent their inclusion in both customary and democratic governance. The entrenched patriarchal sensibilities that have been reinforced by religious ideologies, in which family control and participation in governance and decision-making processes are entrusted to men and women’s primary roles seen as wives and mothers, constitute fundamental reasons why African women have been politically marginalized. Women’s domestic and familial responsibilities, including childbearing, are detrimental to their participation in politics especially where sustained effort and time for party engagement is required to achieve leadership positions in highly competitive party politics. Married women are often required to secure the consent and support of their husbands before they could venture into party politics. Women are also discouraged from participating in aggressive political commitment, which is often seen as unfeminine and unhealthy. They are also intimidated by harassment and electoral violence. All over the world, party elections are expensive endeavors. Due to financial constraints, African female politicians always trail behind their male counterparts in political party formation, party membership mobilization, effective campaign strategies, administrative expenses, and in participation in governance and decision-making. In all democracies of the world, access to political power, leadership and decision-making typically starts at the political party level. Unfortunately, the structure of the political parties in Africa has privileged men who founded them more than women. Often, women belonged to “Women’s Wings” of such parties and were rewarded with token appointments.

In view of the above barriers, it is important that gender-responsive initiatives are rigorously pursued by African countries in order to increase the participation of women in democratic institutions and mechanisms and their representation in governance and decision-making. Increasing women’s number in leadership positions is vital to democratic development and sustainability in Africa. Some have suggested the “virtuous circle of representation” in which women’s political participation and mobilization will increase the number of women in decision-making office, and consequently, enable them to influence decision-making regarding national budgets, policy priorities and ideological underpinnings of government policies and programs. Although African women are not homogenous and having a critical mass of women in governance and decision-making may not necessarily translate to representing women and advancing their interests, it has been demonstrated that countries with a significant number of women legislators have seen some positive changes in family laws, land rights, gender-based violence, and public perceptions of women’s roles in society. It is believed that having more women in government is likely to increase government effectiveness and also improve governance. While it is important for women to work in partnership with men to build trust and achieve consensus, the political will and commitment of government leaders are of essence.

*Part 2 of this article will appear in the next edition of The Faculty Voice.

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