Entrenched family values and practices appear to play an important role in perpetuating gender inequalities in sub-Saharan Africa
Being a woman in Africa means being exposed to a range of prejudices and biases that are encoded in institutions, discourses and ways of relating, and experiencing the effects of these in material conditions that are divided along gender lines. The struggle has always been not only to minimise material biases, but also to eliminate the non-material, institutional and discursive prejudices from which these arise.
One way to conceive of this is to understand the material conditions of women’s lives as indicators of progress: more equality in material things means more progress has being made. The non-material institutional and discursive prejudices that affect women’s lives can be seen as challenges or obstacles to more progress being made. These non-material discriminatory social institutions pervade the lifespan of African women, limiting their access to justice, rights and empowerment, and compromising their agency and decision-making ability over important life choices.
Such a model does, of course, make a range of assumptions about the drivers of social change, in particular that non-material changes will result in material changes. From this view, these discriminatory social institutions can be understood as underlying drivers of gender inequalities that perpetuate gender inequalities in diverse areas such as education, employment and health, as well as stifling transformation that reduces inequalities.
This article adopts this model and seeks to describe areas in which material progress has been made, as well as areas in which non-material challenges and obstacles persist. It focuses specifically on countries in sub-Saharan Africa and presents an analysis of material and non-material conditions at country level. It will also provide an indication of the size of the problem by simply indicating the size of the female, and especially young female, population in each country.
It is not easy to locate data that spans sub-Saharan Africa. There are typically large gaps in data series, and some countries are notoriously data poor (Somalia and Eritrea are examples of this). This means that analyses and models have to be adapted according to the data that can be gathered. For this article, I have prioritised gathering as full a sample of sub Saharan countries as possible. If an indicator did not cover the vast majority of countries in the region, it was dropped and replaced with another. Somalia, Eritrea, and South Sudan had to be eliminated from the analysis because of a lack of data.
The lack of reliable and consistent gender disaggregated data for sub-Saharan Africa was especially evident with regards to income, GDP, expenditure, or similar. While income statistics such as GDP per capita are relatively easily obtained, these were unavailable by gender. Because of this, as well as the notoriously low validity of income measures even when they do exist, a measure of income has not been included in the model.
Education was proxied by youth literacy, adult literacy and upper secondary school completion rates. In four cases – Botswana, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Uganda – the data was unavailable and upper secondary school enrolment was used instead. For these countries, this aspect is therefore slightly exaggerated. Life expectancy/health was proxied by life expectancy at birth, HIV prevalence, and mortality rate. All of these variables were disaggregated by gender and obtained from the World Bank Indicators site.
Figure 1: Gender diﬀerences across various domains across sub-Saharan Africa
Non-material conditions were modelled using data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Gender, Institutions and Development dataset. This dataset covers five aspects of female-discriminatory social institutions. The first of these is “discriminatory family code”, and covers issues related to marriage age, parental rights after dissolution of marriage, daughter inheritance, and divorce and unpaid care work. The second is “restricted physical integrity”, and relates to social institutions that restrict women’s control over their bodies. Included in this are laws and norms that fail to protect women’s physical integrity and reproductive autonomy, and those that promote gender-based violence, such as FGM.
“Son bias” describes ways in which sons are promoted or offered preferential treatment over daughters; indicators include missing women, preference of sons in educational opportunities, and fertility preference. “Restricted resources and assets” refers to gender-based biases regarding access and ownership of land and financial services. Finally, “restricted civil liberty” relates to issues of access to public space, workplace rights, and having political voice and representation.
All variables were obtained either as percentages or as a score on a range from 0 to 1. Aggregate scores were therefore obtained by ensuring that all variables were scored in the same direction, and then taking mean scores for each domain. Finally, a grand mean was calculated for material and non-material variables for each country. The model also made use of population-related variables, which were collected from the World Bank Indicators site. These indicated country female population size and young female population size (ages five to 30 years).
There were four stages to the analysis. Firstly, major gender gaps in the sub-Saharan region (limited, of course, by the available data) were identified by simply comparing males and females across each of the progress variables. A Mann-Whitney U test was used to identify which of these gaps were significant. All analysis was conducted using R and RStudio statistical software. The results of the analysis are presented in Figure 1.
From Figure 1 it is clear that four of the six variables showed a significant difference between genders. Adult literacy and HIV prevalence were found to be higher for females than males, while life expectancy at birth was found to be higher for women. Unsurprisingly, adult mortality rate was found to be higher for females as well.
When these biases were considered across sub-Saharan countries it was found that the adult literacy rate ranged from much higher for males (in Liberia, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, Togo and Senegal) to higher for females (in Lesotho, Namibia and Botswana).
HIV prevalence was found to display much variation when compared across gender. The greatest differences were found to be concentrated towards the south of the continent. Eswatini (Swaziland), South Africa and Namibia were joined by Malawi and Zambia in the highest ranges.
Like HIV prevalence, adult mortality was found to exhibit the greatest gap between the genders in southern African countries. This is likely due in part to the high HIV prevalence, and to an extent these variables may be measuring the same thing. South Africa was at the top of the list, followed by Eswatini, Botswana, Angola and Namibia.
Figure 2: Non-material gender biases; 0 = low bias , 1 = high bias
Life expectancy at birth was the only variable that showed a bias in favour of females; this is, in fact, a global trend. The variable was retained in the analysis, however, because the variation in the gap across the region is still indicative of environmental influences.
These four variables, which all show a marked gender gap, were used to calculate a material bias score. After appropriate adjustments, they were averaged to yield a grand mean, which was then treated as a material bias score for each country.
All variables relating to non-material biases were included in the analysis. Figure 2 presents these on a radar plot. It is evident that the highest biases relate to workplace rights and the legal provision of quotas for women’s participation in politics.
Material biases were then plotted on an x axis and non-material biases on a y axis by country (see Figure 3). This placed each country as a point in a scatterplot. In addition, each country’s female population size was used to adjust the size of the country’s corresponding point. Finally, the proportion of female youth in each country was represented by the colour of the point, with more yellow = more female youth.
Figure 3: Material v non-material biases
By creating different size points, with differing shades of yellow, it becomes possible to isolate higher priority countries. Those countries that have greater female population sizes, and higher proportions of female youth (for example, circles that are bigger and yellower) have the most urgent call to address issues affecting gender.
Finally, a regression line was fitted to the plot; the curve is shown as a blue-dotted line. This line was split by region. The one on the right-hand side of the graph reflects southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Eswatini, Zambia and Zimbabwe). The one on the left-hand side is the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. These lines provide a summary of the relationship between the x and y axes. It is evident from these that there is a different relationship between non-material and material factors in the two regions.
Overall, however, one could expect that if the reduction of non-material discrimination leads to a move towards material equality, then there should be a negative slope to the data. This is not, however, the case. In fact, in southern African countries the data suggests that increasing non-material challenges are related to higher material equality. Why this is the case is not evident. It may be that the data has not adequately captured the complexity of this relationship. Or it may be that the nature of the relationship changes in the various parts of Africa. Or it may be that the two are simply unrelated.
Putting these issues of interpretation aside, and aiming merely to describe how countries are doing, we highlighted two important regions within the plot. These are presented in Figure 4. The red area represents high challenges and low progress toward alleviating material inequality – where it is not good to be, if you’re a country. The green area refers to low challenge and high progress towards alleviating material inequality –where it is good to be if you’re a country. From this we can see that there are relatively few countries that have substantially reduced their material inequalities, on the right-hand side. Still fewer fall into the green area, in which they have both made high progress towards alleviating material inequality and removed most non-material challenges.
Figure 4: Material v non-material biases with challenge and progress areas
Countries on this green area (especially towards the bottom right) tend to have done what they can to eliminate discrimination and also have low material inequality. Countries on the lower left-hand side have done what they can to eliminate challenges but have not reduced material inequality. Those on the top right of the plot are doing well but could do better if they address some of the challenges; while those on the top left have high material inequality and many challenges still to overcome. Larger and yellower circles are more important than smaller, blacker ones.
From this, we can see that the majority of countries fall in the middle range of the challenge variable. They have work to do, but are not extreme. There are a group of countries at the lower edge of the y axis that have done much to eliminate challenges but for some reason still experience material inequality, or are perhaps in the process of making progress. South Africa, Botswana, Uganda, Namibia and Lesotho are in a good position, according to this model.
Figure 5: Material v non-material biases with high priority details
Of more concern are those countries in the top left, red, area of the plot. Sudan, Chad, Niger and Mali are in the worst position. Their having a high proportion of female youth in their population compounds this; the fact that there are young women who are empowered introduces issues of youth and youth bulge problems, in addition to those purely related to women.
Another group of concerning countries consists of Tanzania, Togo and Rwanda, falling high up on the challenges axis and also showing a high proportion of female youth. Nigeria is also concerning. Although it does not display a high proportion of young females, the size of its population means that one cannot ignore its precarious position, edging towards the upper half of the non-material challenges axis.
A closer look at these “problem countries” gives some indication of where they are falling short regarding non-material challenges. These are presented in Figure 5. The Mali, Niger, Sudan and Chad group all lose points on variables related to discriminatory family codes. More specifically, they fall short on the legal age of marriage and whether women are as entitled as men for parental authority during and after marriage. In short, these countries exhibit cultural patterns that discriminate against women through the family. The Tanzania, Rwanda, Togo group exhibits similar sets of issues; discriminatory family codes are once again an issue, albeit to a lesser extent. In addition to this, however, this group falls back with regards to restrictions on women’s access to financial services.
The only other country that falls towards the high end of the challenges scale is Zimbabwe. The challenges here are very different to the previous countries; in Zimbabwe, non-material challenges relate to women being deprived of a political voice and not having adequate political representation. In Zimbabwe, the number of missing women and the low legal age of marriage are also issues.
This brief little analysis of material inequalities and non-material discriminatory factors in the sub-Saharan region has provided some preliminary insights and raised some interesting questions. Preliminary insights are that Sudan, Chad, Mali and Niger have much to achieve regarding the reduction of non-material discrimination. These challenges appear to be embedded in family practices and values and relate to women’s agency around the institution of marriage. Whether these issues are religiously derived is unclear.
Tanzania, Rwanda, Togo is another group faced with high levels of non-material discrimination; once again family practices and values are the issue, although less severely so than is the case with the previous group. Access to financial services is also an issue with this group. With the exception of Zimbabwe, which has its own unique set of challenges, it appears that family is the main point of discrimination in sub-Saharan Africa. It must be said that a more thorough analysis would be required to state this point with certainty.
An interesting question has also been raised; there appears to be no relationship – or the opposite relationship than was expected – between non-material and material phenomena. Yet it seems intuitively obvious that the two should be related. This provides a modification of the age-old social theory question: do material conditions influence non-material conditions? Or do non-material conditions influence material conditions? Or, indeed, are they unrelated?
Botswanan Sakhile Reiling (left) became Air Botswana’s first female pilot
African women are world leaders when it comes to taking top jobs in the aviation industry
In December 2017, a Boeing 777 made African history when it flew five hours from Addis Ababa to Lagos, Nigeria with an all-female crew. Captain Amsale Gualu piloted the plane, with the help of women cabin crew, check-in attendants, flight dispatchers and ground staff. Captain Gualu told the world media on landing: “This flight shows us that if women get equal opportunities and work hard, I’m sure they can achieve whatever they want in all fields, including the aviation industry.”
Two years earlier, Air Zimbabwe flew an all-female domestic flight, making pilots Chipo Matimba and Elizabeth Petros the first female pilots to fly internally on Air Zimbabwe. The women took to social media: “History has been made! First all female flight deck crew on the Air Zimbabwe Boeing 737!”and “Two CAPTAINS!! #FLYBABES. #PaintingTheSkyPink!”.
These women-only flights were no accident; both airlines were making a point, pushing an agenda to encourage African women to think about the career possibilities available to them within the heavily male-dominated aviation industry. Women in aviation around the world make up at least 50% of personnel – mostly as cabin and ground crew. This figure dips dramatically as positions become more senior.
Figures recorded by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) show that less than 5% of airline CEOs are women. The figure for female pilots falls to between 3-5% worldwide. Women are less represented in aviation than in any other industry. But, not in Africa. An IATA meeting in Sydney in June this year announced that African airlines, and the aviation industry on the African continent, are bucking this trend.
Air Namibia’s acting managing director, Mandi Samson, told the conference that her airline had four top management positions filled by women. “For once, Africa is leading in something,” she said.
Samson is correct. In South Africa, for example, women hold significant positions. Poppy Khoza leads the critically important SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) as its CEO, while Zuks Ramasia is general manager of operations at South African Airways (SAA). And it is now 20 years since Asnath Mahapa made history in 1988 by becoming South Africa’s first female African pilot.
But success has not come easily for the women at the top. For Mahapa, flight school came with challenges, and she remembers being “the only woman in my class and I had to work ten times harder than the men”. Since then, while the global average of women captaining aircraft stands at around 5%, the actual number of female pilots in South Africa is in the double digits. And the number of black female pilots is steadily growing across Africa, much more quickly than in the rest of the world.
The number of women in senior positions in the aviation industry in Africa has impressed the airline industry sufficiently to ensure that they are constantly called on to give motivational speeches or talk to aviation conferences.
Siza Mzimela is the recently appointed interim CEO of South African airline SA Express. She also has the distinction of being the first black woman in South Africa to start and own an airline, Fly Blue Crane. (The airline is no longer operating. It was suspended by IATA in September 2017 and bankruptcy proceedings are under way).
However, Mzimela’s list of accolades includes being the first black executive vice president of SAA as well as the first woman to make it onto the IATA board. Mzimela is not surprised that Africa ranks as having the largest number of women within the global aviation industry. But she points out that the numbers are coming off a ridiculously low base.
“There might be more women engaged in aviation on the African continent, including here in South Africa,” she told Africa in Fact, “but make no mistake; it’s the toughest environment for women and we have to work twice as hard as our male counterparts to prove ourselves. It is still challenging for women, and there is vast room for improvement. We need more women pilots and technicians and women in key organisational positions.”
Mzimela believes that the reason South African women in aviation have had more success than their global sisters is due to race rather than gender bias.
“When men have to promote someone, they choose one of their own,” she said. “Fortunately, and unfortunately, black men did not automatically come through as pilots. It was the preserve of white men for a long time and black men and black women were equally disadvantaged. We, therefore, are on a fairly equal footing regarding entry into the aviation field, and therefore we have a better chance of getting into the industry.”
Mzimela points out, however, that while 50% of South Africans are women, the number of CEOs and captains of industry does not reflect that split. “We need an aviation policy to correct the imbalances of the past. In this industry, there is a low turnover of pilots – nobody leaves until they retire. That has meant that transformation will take longer because it will take longer for pilots to work their way up the chain of seniority.”
Khoza notes that an “overdue dialogue” to improve the numbers of women in the African aviation industry has begun. “This assertion was corroborated by women from various corners of the world during discussions at the first-ever Global Aviation Gender Summit hosted by SACAA,” she told Africa in Fact.
“Close to 500 top-ranking represen- tatives of the aviation industry – including airlines, aircraft manufacturers and airports, as well as governments from across the world – gathered in Cape Town in August  to chart a new path that will bring about meaningful gender transformation and equality in aviation.”
“From our discussions,” Khoza said, “we heard that the challenges of a female aviator in Chile are the same as those faced by a female aviator in China. It was encouraging to note that everyone at the summit agreed that the status quo cannot continue unchallenged. In South Africa, in particular, we are witnessing some improvement, even though women still constitute less than 10% of aviation technical personnel.’’
More young women, Khoza insists, have to join the ranks of other pioneers who “trounced gender and racial stereotypes to make it in the aviation industry. We do have success stories and each one of them deserves recognition and acknowledgement.”
Refilwe Ledwaba is one of those success stories. She is a pilot, a flight instructor, and the first black woman in South Africa to fly helicopters. In 2009, she also started a non-profit organisation for young women in the SADC countries, Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace Industry (SAWIA). “I wanted to ensure that the aviation industry provided a platform for women to grow, to find mentorship and guidance and to fund the opportunities for young women who wish to join the sector in the future.”
Ledwaba introduced the Girl Fly Programme in Africa, aimed specifically at high school girls. The non-profit organisation, endorsed by the SACAA, has an informal database of about 1,000 members from all over the Southern African Development Community (SADC). “I’m passionate about the development of women, which is why I saw the need for such an organisation,” Ledwaba told Africa in Fact.
It all started when, on a flight to Cape Town, she heard the woman piloting the plane, Captain Margaret Viljoen, say: “This is your captain speaking”. “Until then, I had not even considered that a woman could fly a plane!” she said.
Botswanan Sakhile Reiling, who became Air Botswana’s first female pilot back in 1988, now describes herself as “an aviation consultant (with Saxon Wings Aviation Consultants) as well as an aviation safety auditor currently involved with a number of significant clients around the world. I travel to where the work is.” Reiling’s career includes two years spent as CEO at Botswana Air and five years in senior management positions at Comair. She also spent time as the GM of Air Safety Operations at SACAA and spent five years in senior managerial posts at SA Express Airways.
“Africa has made significant progress in ensuring that women are not overlooked for aviation-related jobs,” she told Africa in Fact. “However, more still needs to be done to dismantle legacy practices that continue to hamper growth. For example, support is required at policy level to mandate current industry players to play greater roles in accepting women within their various organisations.”
Reiling agrees with other female aviation executives that young women must be exposed from an earlier age to the possibilities of an aviation career. “Many do not realise that they too could enter the aviation industry and contribute in an important way,” she said.
Zuks Ramasia, GM of operations at SAA, believes it is up to women to help women in aviation.
“In aviation, most opportunities for women in meaningful management echelons are still determined mainly by men since there are few women in senior roles to influence and motivate women in junior positions across the value chain,” she told Africa in Fact. She blames the high attrition rate on the promotion limitations placed on women with potential.
“We, the women in influential positions, need to mentor and coach women, challenge the status quo and not be deterred by the men in office who often pretend we do not exist.”
“As women in the industry we need to stand together to promote awareness, to develop, to nurture, to celebrate and to empower women in our industry, starting by shaping young minds at school.”
Khoza points out her success rate at helping achieve parity. “In the organisation that I lead, when I took over, the executive management committee was male dominated. Five years later, 50% of the executive is female and black. It starts at grassroots level.”
SACAA funds the training of young South Africans, especially female students from economically deprived households, who want to become aviators.
“Transformation is not a responsibility of government and regulators such as the SACAA only,” Khoza said, “but a collective responsibility of all, including the business sector. Transformation is a moral obligation and a human rights issue that should not be limited to race only but extended to gender and business opportunities.”
Stereotyping, she said, is the hardest challenge that women face in aviation, “coupled with unconscious bias”.
“The picture that people imagine of a pilot is not likely to be that of a Captain Boitumelo or Fatima in the cockpit. Our young girls cannot picture themselves following in the footsteps of women pioneers in the aviation sector primarily because aviation is still seen as a preserve for men.
“What then becomes important is the socialisation of young girls, to instill a belief that they can be anything they want to be. We need to move away from creating a mindset of categorising industries based based on gender.
Young girls can be aeronautical engineers, they can be air-traffic controllers, they can successfully pilot any aircraft of their choice. However, the limiting mindset, which we instill in them at a young age, only perpetuates the stereotypes, which we must demystify.”
In 2017, 26-year-old Second Lieutenant Thokozile Muwamba broke another glass ceiling when she became Zambia’s first female fighter pilot. She told the BBC her ambition was to become the first female Zambian air force commander. “Wow, to be in the air… it feels… it’s wonderful,” she told the broadcaster then. “You feel like you don’t want to come back onto the ground.”
Muwamba joined the military in 2012 and was chosen to be part of a Zambian airforce programme specifically designed to shift the gender bias towards men.
She told the Times of Zambia: “Women should begin to participate and realise their abilities. Because I understand this, I am ready to undertake this task ahead of me.”
And she is not the only woman who’s taken to the skies as part of her country’s airforce. Lieutenant Ouma Laouali, 31, became Niger’s first female pilot in 2015. As a member of the Nigerien airforce, she was trained by the United States to help in the fight against the terrorist organisation Boko Haram.
The women who are important in Africa’s aviation industry are clearly united in what they see as the way forward: expose young women to the world of flying and work tirelessly to reverse the stereotyping that has discouraged young women from taking flight, accompanied by policies to facilitate transformation.
The African story abounds with great women whose achievements are often reduced to prurient anecdotes
Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter. So, says the Igbo proverb, which became a rallying cry for a generation of post-colonial African historians. But what of the lionesses? Are their tales being told? But enough with animal adages. Neither lions nor lionesses write history, while people do. The key question is: do the current written histories of Africa adequately include the experiences of the continent’s women?
Depends where you look. And who you ask. Since the 1960s, the university-based study of African women’s history has become a dynamic, global field. Where once the economic, social and political contribution of African women was regarded as an historical terra nullius – with women either entirely absent or relegated to minor roles in textbooks and tomes – there is now an ever-increasing body of research that includes analysis on a wide variety of societies, over 50 countries and hundreds of thousands of years.
Academia is acknowledging that African women enter the historical narrative from a variety of geographies and climates and that they carry diverse status, education, culture, age and other attributes. Moreover, all of the above can change or stay the same or circle through a combination of both within the endless ebb and flow that is human life and lives over time.
Academic historians recognise that what they study is not the past per se but rather an interpretation of the past, which is subject to revision and reinterpretation whereby distinct interest groups apply different standards, priorities and values and reach different conclusions. There is general consensus that interest groups with more social, political and economic clout have the power to dominate the narrative.
There is now widespread acknowledgement that the gendered nature of modern power is such that male stories are disproportionately present and that women’s stories are often assigned less value. The growth of African women’s history as a discipline demonstrates that spaces can and have been created to examine and challenge such power dynamics.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that almost all such scholarship sits behind paywalls on university websites. Non-professional historians are largely excluded from this information and the debates that such study stimulates. Outside of ivory tower academe, what passes for historical “knowledge” in the general chitchat of daily life more often than not either ignores them entirely or depicts women in terms of their perceived impact on men.
Historical evidence of African women is as old as humanity. Sometimes older. Humans evolved in Africa and so it is Africa that provides the backdrop for the first minimising of prehistoric women in the paleoanthropological corpus. Until the early 1980s archaeologists overlaid modern Western gender norms and sexual divisions of labour onto pre-historic, sometimes pre-human hominid peoples. Man the Hunter was widely considered to be the key evolutionary driver of human brain development and subsequent tool-making innovation.
Frances Dahlberg’s 1983 monograph, Woman the Gatherer, set forth a strong case for an alternative evolutionary trajectory in which Woman the Tool Inventor played an equal part in the human story. Which is all well and good – but for the fact that, over three decades later, that message doesn’t appear to have gotten through to the masses. Museums are the point at which the public and professional historians ought to intersect, but Africa’s pre-historic women are all but invisible at such sites. Androcentric stereotypes abound. Almost invariably, graphic material explaining the hominisation process depicts individuals of the masculine sex making their way from australopithecine to homo – thereby rendering the earliest African women invisible.
As Myra and David Sadker argued in Failing at Fairness (1995), “each time a girl opens a book and reads a womanless history, she learns she is worth less.” How much more so if she isn’t even in the diagram exploring the essence of our species?
Yet it is debatable as to whether exclusion is preferable to defamation. African women who achieved scientific, political or economic success have often been pulled into warped morality tales masquerading as history, which reduce a plethora of complex characters to wicked women who drew men into their beds and on into their death. The deeds of women in times past are subjected to such treatment worldwide but the practice seems particularly prevalent when it comes to telling tall tales about successful African women, who are almost invariably subjected to what amounts to a form of “ye olde” slut shaming. The accompanying character assassination is seldom supported by the sort of historical evidence-based scholarship found on the other side of the paywall.
Consider Cleopatra. Mary Hamer’s Signs of Cleopatra: Reading an Icon Historically (2001) offers us vast quantities of contemporaneous written records demonstrating the diplomatic, naval, linguistic, cultural and philosophical skills of Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-10 BC), the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. Her tenure alone speaks to such skills. She ruled for 21 years and at the height of her power controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the region. And yet she survives in the popular imagination through a distorted depiction of her romantic relationships. She built fleets, suppressed several insurrections, controlled a currency and guided a nation through plagues and famines but she is remembered as a bare-breasted seductress bathing in milk.
Linda Heywood and Louis Madureira’s 2015 article, Queen Njinga Mbandi Ana de Sousa of Ndongo/Matamba: African Leadership, Diplomacy, and Ideology, 1620-1650 offers chapter and verse on their study subject’s skills as a military leader, strategist, diplomat and exponent of realpolitik par excellence. Research reveals the woman who defined and dominated what is now Angola in the 17th century to be a complex and contradictory character. At times, she profited from the trans-Atlantic slave trade, while at other times she protected escaped slaves. For over 40 years, she successfully limited the Portuguese colony at Luanda to a few square kilometres. How is it that her achievements are less well known than gratuitous and unsubstantiated gossip about her immolating a harem of male lovers?
Publicising the achievements of African women from previous generations has the potential to impact on the development of self-respect for African girls and women going forward. There is inspiration in knowing about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of Asante-born Nanny of the Windward Maroons (c.1686 – c.1755) who escaped from slavery in Jamaica, led a successful armed rebellion, freed more than 1,000 previously enslaved people and achieved a 1740 peace settlement with colonists, under the terms of which she negotiated a land grant of 500 acres at what became known as Nanny Town.
In the face of Boko Haram’s terror and intimidation tactics, which threaten girls’ access to education across West Africa, there is strength to be drawn from knowing that in 859CE an African woman, Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya, founded the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, Morocco. UNESCO describes it as the oldest existing, continually operating and first degree-awarding educational institution in the world. Female alumni include Fatima al Kabbaj, member of the Moroccan Supreme Council of Religious Knowledge.
At its most pernicious, observations of a past that never was are used to support patriarchal practices that exclude women from power in the present. During Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2016 visit to German Chancellor Angela Merkel he responded to a question about his wife’s political opinions with the comment that, “I don’t know which party my wife belongs to, but she belongs to my kitchen and my living room and the other room” because he could “claim superior knowledge over her”.
Indeed, 2016 was a banner year for Nigerian patriarchal put-downs. In the same year, that country’s senate rejected a Gender and Equality Bill that included equal rights for women in marriages, divorce, property ownership and inheritance. Several senators stated that they opposed the law on the grounds that it was “un-African” and “anti-religious” to accord women equal rights with men.
Such statements invoke tradition, but the historical record shows otherwise. Kamene Okonjo’s studies of women’s political participation in Nigeria show that pre-colonial West African women were often much more economically, socially and politically independent and powerful than modern “traditionalists” would have us believe.
Their disempowerment came about by way of colonial Eurocentric, not indigenous African values. Chima J Korieh’s Gender and Peasant Resistance: Recasting the Myth of the Invisible Women in Colonial Eastern Nigeria, 1925-1945 (2003) offers evidence that while Nigerian women had historically participated in the government, the British colonial authorities saw these practices as “a manifestation of chaos and moral disorder” and would only engage with the political institutions headed by men.
Struggles over alternative views on the desirability of female political and economic power sparked significant anti-colonial revolts, including what modern historians tend to call the Women’s War of 1929 (Ogu Umunwanyi in Igbo), which was described by colonial authorities as the Aba Women’s Riot.
A watered-down version of the Nigerian Gender Equity Bill was subsequently passed in 2017 but the claiming of tradition to support female subjugation illustrates how a patchwork of patriarchies can cross the hunter/lion duality. There are times when hunters and lions form alliances around their common predator paradigm and call on faux history in support of shared interests. As we recognise and rectify the exclusion and misrepresentation of female African lives from the study of history, let us take cognisance of life’s complexity.
Even if certain sorts of lions and lionesses now have/are historians, accounts of their times past are likely to be incomplete unless the experiences of the earthworms and the elephants and the E.coli are included. Not to mention the valuable perspectives provided by the trees and the reeds. And the wind and the rain. Ultimately, ours is an interdependent ecosystem.
Female activists and politicians in Kenya say misogyny and violence against women are an all-too familiar aspect of political campaign periods
“They threw raw eggs at me as they abused me, saying I am a woman and therefore not fit to be their leader. At a shopping centre, where I was holding my final campaigns before the voting in the 2017 elections, an elderly man stood up and angrily shouted at me: ‘So you want to be a member of parliament? Who will take care of your family? Your place is to bear children and cook for the family.’ Then he sat down amid cheering from the crowd.”
Janepher Wanyonyi, who ran for a parliamentary seat in western Kenya in 2017, is describing just one of the interactions she faced every day during her eight-month campaign; none of them attracted the condemnation of the authorities. In Wanyonyi’s view, the old man’s statement is typical of a view of women that is common in Kenyan society. Women should be seen and not heard, she says; they are not expected to lead. Their place is on the periphery – mainly in the kitchen and on the farm.
“Women are not only discriminated against, they are beaten by their husbands, while some are denied education,” says Wanyonyi, who has since started the process of registering a non-governmental organisation, Sauti Ya Mama (The Voice of Women) to help tackle violence against women.
The organisation aims to champion the rights of Kenyan women, particularly in remote areas where violence against them is prevalent. The plan is to train women to know their rights, and the organisation will also act as an SOS centre that offers women help, including counselling in cases of sexual violence, while also seeking to empower them economically. Sauti Ya Mama plans to have regional offices in all 47 of Kenya’s counties, making it easy for women to access its services.
Entrepreneur and politician Esther Passaris, who won the women’s representative seat for Nairobi county in 2017, says political campaign periods appear to offer men the opportunity to display overt misogyny. The 2013 general election in Kenya, in which she unsuccessfully contested for the same seat, provided her with first-hand knowledge of this. She was faced with physical attacks and attempts at sexual assault, as well as attacks against her on social media, which, Passaris says, women in politics constantly have to endure.
“There were thousands of fake Twitter and Facebook accounts assigned to attack me,” she told Africa in Fact. “The accounts would carry feminine names so as to give the public the impression that it was a women-women affair. Despite the attacks, I did not give up. Neither did I respond to their abuse. You fight your enemy with love. That is how I won the seat last year.”
A December 2017 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report observed that widespread sexual violence against women and girls was a feature of the 2017 elections and the post-election violence that followed. According to the report, the violence involved rape (including vaginal and anal rape), gang rape involving two or more perpetrators, mass rape, attempted rape, rape with an object, putting dirt into a woman’s private parts, unwanted sexual touching, forced nudity and beatings on genitals.
Many of the affected women, HRW said, reported that their rapists were policemen or members of Kenya’s security forces and militia groups. About half of the assaults, HRW said, involved gang rapes, with the majority of the victims contracting sexually transmitted diseases as well. “Many women and girls said they suffered incapacitating physical injury or experienced other health consequences that left some unable to work or care for their families,” according to the HRW report. “Most had not received post-rape medical or psychological care, including medication to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 35% of women globally have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence. Violence against women is a major public health problem and a violation of women’s human rights, it argues. In Kenya, meanwhile, cases of physical violence such as wife battering have declined, but intimate partner violence and sexual violence are on the rise.
The causes of violence against women are many and complex, according to WHO. But its research shows that men are more likely to perpetrate violence if they have low literacy levels, a history of maltreatment and neglect as children, were exposed to domestic violence against their mothers, are subject to alcoholism and exposed to gender norms that tolerate violence and a sense of entitlement over women.
“Dress nicely and just walk around the streets of Nairobi or any other major town – men will give you funny looks,” says Dr Joyce Laboso, the governor of Bomet county. “They will attack your modesty. Sometimes they will ask, not politely, for sex. To them, there should never be a ‘no’ from a woman.” Whereas domestic violence against women mainly involved physical beatings, more recently it had increasingly involved intimate and sexual violence, she says.
This is something that Suzie Kimeu, a mother of five in Nanyuki, central Kenya, experienced for herself in 2013. “(That day), I had just come from a farm, where I worked as a casual labourer, when my husband asked for food,” Kimeu told Africa in Fact. “I said I had not prepared anything because there had been no food at home. He slapped and kicked me while my children wailed, and then he ordered me to go the kitchen and prepare the food that I had brought from the farm.”
Later that evening, Kimeu says, her husband, who was drunk by then, asked for sex. “I told him I was tired, having been in the fields for more than eight hours, but he did not listen. He forced me to have sex. I remember bleeding a lot. He threatened to chase me from our matrimonial home and said that he would marry another woman if I did not sleep with him.” After a series of similar attacks, Kimeu says she divorced her husband three years ago and is now “happily single”.
Women governors, MPs and senators are now partnering with non-governmental organisations to deal with the increase in cases of intimate partner sexual violence, says Laboso. “From past experience, we know that sexual assault in a relationship does not occur in a vacuum,” she says. “It often occurs alongside other abusive behaviours. For instance, the majority of women who are physically assaulted by an intimate partner have also been sexually assaulted by that partner.”
One of the non-governmental organisations addressing sexual assault and other abuses against women in Kenya is the Coalition on Violence Against Women (COVAW), which was founded in 1995 to respond to “the silence of Kenyan society” regarding violence against women and girls. COVAW chair Carolyne Odula-Obonyo says the organisation supports research on gender-progressive policies and legal and institutional frameworks, as well as their implementation, besides providing input on critical social themes relating to gender.
“We generate and share new knowledge relating to the development and well-being of girls and women, as well as solutions to the problems they face,” says Odula-Obonyo, a gynaecologist and obstetrician by profession, who works at the University of Nairobi’s College of Health Sciences. She notes that the biggest challenge in the fight against men’s violence are deeply ingrained cultural practices, which forbid women from revealing what they go through (such as being beaten by their husbands) in public.
Kenya’s global scores on gender-related violence paint a gloomy picture. Some 43% of married women have experienced sexual violence, while 32% of young women aged between 18 and 24 have experienced sexual violence and an estimated 23% of girls are married before their 18th birthday. Violence against women and girls, UN Women says, can be arrested by expanding women’s access to services that deal with their sexual and reproductive health needs – including post-rape care and counselling if needed – and facilitating their access to the justice system and safe-house networks.
The UN Women’s Safe Cities Initiative is an example of how this can be achieved. The project, which the global body conducts in partnership with other UN agencies, local and national governments and community groups, works to create safe public spaces for women and girls. It has been established in 21 cities across the globe so far, including Cairo, Cape Town, Kigali, Maputo, Marrakech and Rabat, and that number is growing. These include environments that are sexual harassment-free and safe public spaces.
But Odula-Obonyo says there is still much more to be done. As the late UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan observed in a speech to the Inter-Agency Video conference for a World Free of Violence against Women in New York on 8 March, 1999: “Violence against women … knows no boundaries of geography, culture, or wealth. As long as it continues, we cannot claim to be making real progress towards equality, development and peace.”
Women are the backbone of agricultural and rural economies in Africa, yet are often deprived of the means to become self-sufficient
If Africa is to feed itself, and if land rights are to be applied universally, the advancement of African women farmers is a fundamental necessity, and the ability of women to access microfinance is key.
Over the past few years, international banks, financing institutions and micro-funders have increased their focus on the most stubborn obstacle facing female farmers in Africa – the inability to expand beyond subsistence farming due to patriarchal systems that prevent them from owning land and enjoying a degree of control over the means of production, which in turn stifles their ability to leverage finance.
Disrupters of traditional banking practices, and micro-finance funders, are essential in transforming this scenario. Among these one stands out: Echo Network Africa (ENA), formerly Kenya Women Holding (KWH), the brainchild of micro-finance banker and entrepreneur Dr Jennifer Riria.
Over more than three decades, KWH’s subsidiary, Kenya Women Finance Trust (KWFT), has distinguished itself as the largest micro-finance bank in Africa, having disbursed $1.3bn in loans to more than five million women, some 80% of them living in Kenya’s rural areas. Each loan averages less than $600 – a small amount but it can enable a woman to generate enough profit to feed and educate her children, and often, to scale up to a profitable farming business.
“Our landmark achievement at KWFT and ENA has been to open the banking sector to women,” Riria told Fanaka TV, Kenya’s premier business channel, in August 2018. “If women in Africa are to be empowered, they need to be financially independent. And that means access to resources – to land, to houses, and to businesses.”
The case for women joining agricultural value chains is clear. Women contribute an average of 40% of crop production labour across six sub-Saharan African countries, according to the World Bank’s LSMS-Integrated Surveys on Agriculture, and more than 50% in Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda. Yet they produce significantly less than men per hectare, ranging from 23% less in Tanzania to 66% less in Niger, according to the Cost of the Gender Gap report by the World Bank and UN Women, published in 2015.
Male-female differences in farm labour, non-labour inputs (for example, volume and quality of fertiliser and pesticides), childcare responsibilities and crop choice are identified by the World Bank as the chief drivers of Africa’s gender productivity gap. In addition, gender differences in the access, control and use of land also play a role, since having land available is a precondition for entry into agriculture, and determines access to finance. “Credit may be linked to many of these factors, as it can be a pivotal source of liquidity to help women farmers access inputs, including labour, and even to switch into higher-value crops,” says Flore de Préneuf, Communications Lead, Food and Agriculture Global Practice for the World Bank.
According to the World Bank’s statistics, the annual costs of these gaps range from $67 million in Uganda to $105 million in Tanzania. “In other words,” says de Préneuf, “these are the annual gains that could be achieved through parity in agricultural yields. These costly gaps can also drag down welfare: our estimates show that closing farm gaps could lift many individuals out of poverty in Malawi (238,000), Tanzania (80,000), and Uganda (119,000).”
In Kenya, it was the enduring poverty of the female smallholder farmers she grew up with that seeded Riria’s desire to extend them lines of credit. “I left my job at the UN and joined KWH. We began with small loans of two or three dollars, and the women would pay this back and graduate to larger loans. One of our women farmers began with $200 and is now running a manufacturing business, and borrowing over $10,000. Banks, once closed to women, are now finding that women are bankable and creditworthy,” she says.
Microfinance in Africa, a village savings and loans association in Malawi.
One of these farmers is fish farmer Betty Nyongesa, who with loans from KWFT has paid for her children to go to school, built a house, acquired a herd of cattle, and bought a plot of land where she has built a small shop, from where she runs her business. “My community used to believe that a woman was meant to stay at home and take care of the kids. They never thought that we could be the backbone of our community,” Nyongesa told her interviewer in an ENA documentary. “Kenya Women has empowered us, and our men now respect us.”
KWFT today has a network of 245 offices spread out across 45 of Kenya’s 47 counties, and as at December 2017, it had a loan book of $192 million, assets valued at $286 million and deposits of $162 million. ENA, meanwhile, is the development arm that bolsters KWFT’s micro-financing activities, collaborating with broad community-based organisations (CBOs) and alliances to innovate viable initiatives and provide mentorship to women in the agricultural and entrepreneurship sectors.
“The KWFT clients (801,317) are all members of ENA, because women need more than finance, they need knowledge of business and accounting practices, and access to the markets and digital support systems,” says Riria. Digital technology is proving revolutionary for women farmers across the continent, giving them access to both finance and knowledge. “Our banking services can now be taken to the women in their villages, where they can do their own banking online,” Riria says.
There is a proliferation of other initiatives in this space. In May 2018, the World Bank approved a $70m e-agriculture project in Côte d’Ivoire, which will help women farmers and other beneficiaries harness new technologies to learn about farm practices, find linkages to buyers, and access digital financial services. “This project will ensure that farmers have timely information on key aspects of the agriculture value chain such as the seed market,” says Pierre Laporte, World Bank country director for Côte d’Ivoire.
A feasibility study is also being done on integrating information communication technology (ICTs) into two large World Bank investment programmes: the Irrigation Development and Support Project (IDSP) in Zambia and the Kenya Agricultural Productivity and Agribusiness Project (KAPAP), with the specific aim of strengthening women’s participation in commodity value chains.
Meanwhile, one of the recommendations of a 2017 World Bank report, Mobile Technologies and Digitized Data to Promote Access to Finance for Women in Agriculture, is to leverage, through digitisation, the strong role that collective savings groups play in rural women’s lives. The aim is to increase their efficiency and transparency and enable women to ultimately build their own digital financial profiles.
Third-party credit scoring companies that use smartphone data for analysis, such as Lenddo, which provides credit scoring to banks and MFIs, as well as direct lenders such as Tala, are also being encouraged to expand their services to women in the agricultural sector. According to the report, investment is called for to design gender-responsive bundled and customised service offerings that meet the financial priorities and life-cycle needs of women farmers. Currently, products are designed around cycles most relevant to men.
Finally, the report recommends: “Drive the collection and use of digitised data to expand bank offerings and financing to women in agriculture. The trend in alternative credit scoring holds promise for women, who, research corroborates, frequently lack fixed collateral and financial histories they can present to a lender.”
As these interventions transform the agricultural sector in Africa, its female farmers will begin to make far more significant contributions to their agricultural economies. In Kenya, Riria and her organisations, KWFT and ENA, have set Kenya’s 2022 general election as their deadline to make a marked difference in women’s political and financial power overall.
“Women can now benefit from a ‘democracy fund’ that we have set up to train and facilitate women to become more competitive and to take up political leadership positions, ahead of the 2022 general election,” Riria told Kenya’s Daily Nation news channel in March 2018.