Women’s Activism in Africa: Struggles for Rights and Representation

Facebook Twitter Email

Our popular Book Club feature brings you accessible and powerful summaries of the best books on Africa. In this edition, Balghis Badri and Aili Mari Tripp share essential insights from their important new book Women’s Activism in Africa.

Women’s Rights Activism Africa (Zed Publishers, 2018) makes a unique contribution to the literature by showing how African women activists have contributed to global discourses on women’s rights. It challenges one of the great fallacies that feminism started in the Global North and found its way eventually to the Global South by describing how women’ rights activism in the Africa has its own trajectories, inspirations, and demands, and how they were rooted in African struggles for independence, democracy, and against oppression women experienced. It looks at their diverse strategies, achievements and obstacles. Most of the contributions are by African scholars, many of who themselves have participated in these movements they are describing.

The book — which includes chapters on Sierra Leone, Ghana, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, Tanzania, Kenya, and South Africa — challenges the assumption that universal understandings of women’s rights as embodied in UN treaties and conventions were formulated by activists in the North. For example, in the drafting of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the All African Women’s Conference was one of six organizations and the only regional body involved. Moreover, from the outset African activists fought for more inclusive understandings of the women’s rights agenda in such fora.

The book explores the use of a million signature petition to pass family law reforms in Morocco in 2004; the interaction between secular and Islamist women activists in Sudan; the use of social media in the 2011 Arab Uprising in Tunisia; and the ways in which elite urban activists linked up with women traders in Ghana.  It shows how these contemporary struggles have their roots in anti-colonial movements; how they have led to national and regional alliances, and how women activists have been able to build bridges across ethnic, religious and other differences, especially during times of conflict.

Moreover, African women have helped shape global norms regarding gender policy for over half a century. In 1960, for example, Mali’s Jacqueline Ki-zerbo had already developed the idea of considering the gender impacts of policies. It was only decades later that this idea – now commonly known as “gender mainstreaming” – gained international currency, particularly in national budgetary processes.

Women in Africa have also set new standards for women’s political leadership globally. Many African countries have made important gains in women’s representation in politics. Rwandan women today hold 61% of the country’s legislative seats, the highest in the world. In Senegal, South Africa, and Namibia, more than 40% of parliamentary seats are held by women. There are female speakers of the house in one fifth of African parliaments, higher than the world average of 14%. Women have claimed positions in key ministries throughout Africa. And women have increasingly run for executive positions, with Liberia, the Central African Republic, Malawi and Mauritius all having had female heads of state. Moreover, these increases in female representation are taking place across the continent, including predominantly Muslim countries such as Senegal, where women hold 42% of legislative seats.

African women have also been pioneering in business. Aspiring young female entrepreneurs today have several role models they can follow such as Ghana’s Esther Ocloo, who pursued the idea of formalizing local women’s credit associations and became a founding member of one of the first microcredit banks, Women’s Worlds Banking, in 1979. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, African countries have almost equal numbers of men and women either actively involved in business start-ups or in the phase of starting a new firm. And in countries such as Ghana, Nigeria and Zambia, women are reportedly more likely to be entrepreneurs than men. The number of women in board rooms is virtually on par with Europe and the US and ahead of Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Finally, a younger generation of activists is emerging throughout Africa today and redefining women’s rights from an African perspective. One sees this not only in the work of the African Feminist Forum, which first met in 2006, but also in the work of figures such as Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,  Kenya’s Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, and Uganda’s Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, all of whom have offered new ways of imagining women. Feminist discourse meanwhile has become commonplace throughout the continent on websitesblogsjournals, and social media.

There are clearly still enormous hurdles for African feminists to overcome in fighting for gender equality, such as building solidarity, capacity building for running for office, and using different communication channels to voice their demands and exchange experiences. But as they have over the past half a century, Africa’s women activists of today are reshaping not only African feminist agendas in tackling these challenges, but global ones as well, as this book illustrates.


Balghis Badri is Professor of Social Anthropology at Ahfad University for Women.

Aili Mari Tripp is the Wangari Maathai Professor of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Join in the debate... let us know what you think!

Discover more from Democracy in Africa

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading