Jobs Drive Gender Equality In Africa


Investment is the key to equality between the sexes in Africa, according to Richard A. Schroeder, associate professor of geography at Rutgers University.  In his book Shady Practices: Agroforestry and Gender Politics in The Gambia, Schroeder details how women in that country were able to challenge traditional male power structures by small scale, female targeted projects in commercial gardening. With little capital, these women were able to raise their earning capacity and increase their economic power.[1]  Meanwhile, political change in the country of Zimbabwe has seen the creation of a Ministry for Women’s Affairs and the elevation of a woman to Vice President.  More change is needed, contends activist Jenni Williams, the head of Women of Zimbabwe Arise. She feels that an even stronger female presence is needed in government to insure “that gender equality is clearly spelt out in the constitution. However, it must not only be gender equity, but also social justice.”[2]

There is still concern that these progressive laws will do little to change the situation in places such as Kenya, where its many laws to protect the rights of women go ignored in rural areas, superseded by customary law. The Human Rights Watch organization believes that “discriminatory property laws and practices impoverish women and their dependents,” as well as subject them to other impossible living conditions, “relegating them to dependence on men and social inequality.”[3]   Gender balance can be found in international attention and activism, as well as programs meant to empower, such as those in The Gambia and the Women in Development programs of the 1970s and 1980s, “instigated because of a general recognition that many aid programs had not addressed the needs of women or had ignored them entirely.”[4]

Mr. Schroeder recalls how the community of Kerewan, a once impoverished village on the River Gambia, changed over two decades. “The town’s women transformed the surrounding lowlands into one of key sites of a lucrative female-controlled, cash-crop market garden sector.”  In his first visit the area production was small scale, but ten years later, large gardens, managed by women, “had come to dominate the landscape.” He believes that “the arrival of tools and construction materials donated by developers” helped to empower women, by providing a “surge in female incomes.”  This eventually led to “an escalation of gender politics centered on the reworking of…the ‘conjugal contract’.” Men were bitter at first, regarding their wives attention to their garden as that of being a “second husband.” However, a financial crisis “undermined male cash-crop production” and the husbands household monetary contributions, meaning “that gardens were often women’s only means of (household) financial support.”[5]

Eventually, “by virtue of their new incomes,” women were able to enter into “intra-household negotiations,” thereby changing their traditional role in marriage.  Women were now the lenders; men now borrowed money from their wives, who more or less, “purchased…freedom of movement.” Before the gardens, men controlled the cash flow and it was the wives who received pittance.  “The advent of a female cash-crop system reduced (men’s) leverage…because women’s incomes had outstripped their husbands’.” “Men dropped their oppositional rhetoric, became more generally cooperative, and began exploring ways to benefit personally from the garden boom.”  Noticing this change, women worked harder to “sustain production on a more secure basis.” Schroeder believes that “women in The Gambia’s garden districts succeed in producing a striking new social landscape.[6]

In Zimbabwe, “top-down” changes in male-dominated politics have occurred, beginning with Joyce Mujuru being named Vice President in 2005.  In light of the Zimbabwe’s economic crisis and current political crossroads, the former Minister of Women’s Affairs called “for zero tolerance to violence against women and girls,” adding, “violence has negative socio-economic implications. Violence is unacceptable as it dehumanizes the victim and the offender. It’s a sign of weakness.” She was criticized however for avoiding the subject of “Jestina Mukoko and other women such as Concilia Chinanzvavana, who were…abused in prison by the Mugabe regime.[7] Mukoko, who chronicled state sponsored human rights abuses, was beaten and tortured for three months, and her detainment became “one of the most prominent examples of…Mugabe’s refusal to restore human rights in Zimbabwe.”[8]

There is discontent, still, after the recent power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe.  Jenni Williams believes that “nothing will ever come out of this deal until women are included.” [9] People like Luta Shaba, director of the Women’s Trust, contend that “only through proportional representation can women, together with other previously marginalized groups, rise.”[10]  Rutendo Hadebe, deputy chairperson of The Women’s Coalition, believe that “the coalition will take advantage of the constitutional reform process to lobby for progressive provisions that will empower women and “close a past of inequality.””[11]  There is cynicism, however, that the challenges of tradition could stand in the way.  Gladys Hlatswayo, of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, says “We have heard these nice words before but, without political will, they do not mean anything…the power relations are uneven and reflect the power struggles of the general Zimbabwean society.”[12]

Tradition holds sway in the country of Kenya, as well, where women face a variety of discriminatory practices along with poverty and disease.  Many are “excluded from inheriting…stripped of their possessions and forced to engage in risky sexual practices from their husbands.”  Human Rights Watch cites “a complex mix of cultural, legal, and social factors” as responsible for the property rights violations.  Unwritten customary laws that exist beside formal laws, continually override Kenya’s constitutional prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex.  HRW argues that “the few statutes that could advance women’s property rights defer to religious and customary property laws that privilege men over women.” Women are seen as “untrustworthy, incapable of handling property, and in need of male protection.”

This paternalist attitude is emulated by state, judicial, and traditional leaders who “often ignore women’s property claims and sometimes make the problems worse.” Women generally have “little awareness of their rights” and those who “fight back are often beaten, raped, or ostracized.”  Meanwhile, “the agricultural sector, which contributes a quarter of Kenya’s gross GDP and depends on women’s labor, is stagnant.”  Their assessment is that in order for “Kenya to meet its development aims, it must address the property inequalities that hold women back.”  HRW charges that “unequal property rights and harmful customary practices violate international law,” and that Kenya “must develop a program of…reforms…and initiatives that systematically eliminate obstacles to the fulfillment of women’s property rights” in order to progress.[13]

Investments in women’s programs that are designed to ‘enable’ are necessary for the furtherance of women’s rights and economic growth in Africa.  Schroeder’s documentation of the progress of women’s gardens in The Gambia, show a balancing change in traditional roles between the sexes. The Human Rights Watch’s avocation of more legislative protections in Kenya could help to build upon the gains made by women in Africa. Activism such as that of Jestina Mukoko and other women’s rights organizations can, in turn, build upon that. Continued awareness will address the crisis of inequality by informing the world of these discriminatory practices. Ultimately, calls for equal gender representation, like in Zimbabwe, will one day, have women changing these laws for themselves. The empowerment of women in Africa could one day bring equality to a traditionally male dominated power structure.


1  TAKING SIDES : Clashing Views on African Issues, Issue #13

2  Mpofu, Thulani. “Zimbabwe’s Women Feel Left Out of Power Deal.”  The National.

3  The Zimbabwean.  “Women Join Hands to Fight Violence.”

4  Celia W. Dugger. “Zimbabwe Activist Released, In Victory For Opposition.” New York Times.

5  Kwidini, Tonderai. “Now To Share Power With Women.” Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

6  Association for Women’s Rights in Development.  “New Cabinet Ignores Quota For Women.”

[1] TAKING SIDES: Clashing Views on African Issues, Issue #13.  232-239

[2] Mpofu, Thulani. “Zimbabwe’s Women Feel Left Out of Power Deal.”  The National.

[3] TAKING SIDES: Clashing Views on African Issues, Issue #13.  240-243

[4] TAKING SIDES: Clashing Views on African Issues, Issue #13.  233

[5] Ibid. 235-236

[6] Ibid. 238-239

[7] The Zimbabwean.  “Women Join Hands to Fight Violence.”

[8] Celia W. Dugger. “Zimbabwe Activist Released, In Victory For Opposition.” New York Times.

[9] Kwidini, Tonderai. “Now To Share Power with Women.” Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

[10] Mpofu, Thulani. “Zimbabwe’s Women Feel Left Out of Power Deal.”  The National.

[11] Association for Women’s Rights in Development.  “New Cabinet Ignores Quota For Women.”

[12] Kwidini, Tonderai. “Now To Share Power with Women.” Resource Centre for the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples.

[13] TAKING SIDES: Clashing Views on African Issues, Issue #13.  240-243

written: 04/02/09

image via recent Africa & Women’s Micro-finance MSM coverage:
IFC & Goldman Sachs Launch $600 Million Global Fund for Female Entrepreneurs (03/06/14)

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