Women in Africa

Research indicates that African women lead difficult lives in sub-Saharan Africa. As the demographic and global situation changes, it appears the merging of ancient and modern is becoming reality.

Many factors play a role in determining the experience of the African woman. She may be engaged in a life role such as peasant or city-dweller, she might be part of the intellectual or working class or she might be an overburdened or overworked mother or an independent person. The categorizations are not clear-cut. Her circumstances and life experiences, however, may be different from those of a European or Western women.

There is a notion that African women work hard and do not have copious leisure time. While they might work differently today from the past, their work is still considered hard. However, a stereotype of African women has existed that verged on caricature, that of the "fertile and nurturing Earth Mother" or at the other extreme, a "lazy, debauched young beauty."

Many questions are raised to understand fully the multifaceted possibilities for describing African women. These may vary according to regions, lifestyles and additional factors. Whether African women are established in a nomadic or sedentary society or in a pastoral or agricultural one is significant. Likewise, whether they are working in the rural areas or in the city plays a part. How and where they are able to play a nurturing role, where they live, their status in terms of marriage and the birth of children and location are relevant.

The voice of African women has come to the fore in recent years. Identity and concept of self-image is being viewed, though not always directly or by all. Prior to the United Nations Women's Decade of 1975 to 1985, almost nothing had been written about African women. The society was considered a male-dominated one, and concomitant writings were focused primarily on men. Written material dealt with issues pertinent to men. Women were portrayed according to stereotypes; these included princesses and chiefs' mothers, slaves and concubines. Missionaries depicted the women according to what they described as pagan beliefs, focusing on a view of sexual freedom and polygamy. Images of bare-breasted African women were common.

With the advent of the Women's Decade and the writing that emerged, themes related to work, education, labor migration, economic activity, marriage, divorce, sexuality, political action and artistic awakening were raised. Certain issues had come to the fore at the time of World War II, following a change in focus on women and children's health issues arising after the 1930s. However, there was still a perception that it was not possible to detect disease (such as measles) on a black skin. Before this time, especially during colonialism, medical facilities were focused on male workers and not on the women.

The oral tradition in Africa was a far more expressive means of recognizing women. Heroines were revered, with stories told of queens and priestesses. Matrilineality was widespread and valued by many. Some queen mothers and older women held significant roles. The Yoruba of Nigeria delivered their oral transmission of Oriki in literary and historical texts. In Dahomey, the true historians were seen to be the women, as they transmitted the most secret traditions. Predominantly, however, women appear to have been kept from history, and professional storytellers were more likely to be men.

The turning point of the 1980s and the extended influence of Western media have changed the concept of women's status. There has been a shift socially from country to city life. To what extent this has created change with respect to tradition, lies with the person, the experience and the influences felt. The migratory movements that have been in play paint a picture of an emerging independent African woman. The notion of personal liberty and a heightened consciousness of this has come to the fore.

Themes including the response to oppression and the move toward liberation are relevant to the African woman. Economic independence, the battle against AIDS and the role of women as breadwinners supporting a rural-based family are factors in creating a fuller picture. The enterprising nature of their work through trade, markets, domestic service and the creative endeavors of functioning by means of interregional wholesaling or buying and selling are further aspects. Changes in matrimonial and property laws, as well as women's roles in resistance movements, attest to the social and political influence African women have had. Whereas previously the knowledge base came primarily through anthropological studies, the voice of African women is now being heard through their own creative literature and expressive forums.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Women and the Remaking of Politics in Southern Africa: Negotiating Autonomy, Incorporation and Representation
Gisela Geisler.
Nordic African Institute, 2004
Re-Thinking Sexualities in Africa
Signe Arnfred.
Nordic African Institute, 2004
African Women: A Modern History
Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch; Beth Gillian Raps.
Westview Press, 1997
Politics of the Womb: Women, Reproduction, and the State in Kenya
Lynn M. Thomas.
University of California Press, 2003
Violence against Women in Africa
Okereke, Godpower O.
African Journal of Criminology and Justice Studies : AJCJS, Vol. 2, No. 1, June 2006
The Emperor Is Still Naked: Why the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa Leaves Women Exposed to More Discrimination
Davis, Kristin.
Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, Vol. 42, No. 3, May 2009
Poverty among Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Review of Selected Issues
McFerson, Hazel M.
Journal of International Women's Studies, Vol. 11, No. 4, May 2010
Present but Absent: Women in Business Leadership in South Africa
Ndinda, Catherine; Ukeke-Uzodike, Ufo.
Journal of International Women's Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1, March 1, 2012
Power and Womanhood in Africa: An Introductory Evaluation
Afisi, Oseni Taiwo.
Journal of Pan African Studies, Vol. 3, No. 6, March 15, 2010
Maintaining Power in the Face of Political, Economic and Social Discrimination: The Tale of Nigerian Women
Agbese, Aje-Ori.
Women and Language, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring 2003
Women and Education in Sub-Saharan Africa: Power, Opportunities, and Constraints
Marianne Bloch; Josephine A. Beoku-Betts; B. Robert Tabachnick.
Lynne Rienner, 1998
Courtyards, Markets, City Streets: Urban Women in Africa
Kathleen E. Sheldon.
Westview Press, 1996
The Feminization of Development Processes in Africa: Current and Future Perspectives
Valentine Udoh James; James S. Etim.
Praeger Publishers, 1999
The Challenge of Local Feminisms: Women's Movements in Global Perspective
Amrita Basu; C. Elizabeth McGrory.
Westview Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Part Two "Africa and the Middle East"
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