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The Role and Place of Women in Sub-Saharan African Societies

By Agnes Loteta Dimandja, Civil Metallurgist Engineer

July 30, 2004

Situation of African Women in Context of Crisis

According to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and much literature published on developmental issues, the poorest person on earth lives somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa and is probably a woman. The purpose of this paper is to consider the role and the place of such a poor woman from her own perspective. In the Africa's current situation where basic human rights are violated, African women are indeed denied their dignity. My study, however, explores the implications of these negations with particular emphasis on how specific crises cause the role of the woman in Africa to be more complex than depicted in reports by experts in development and by statistics of economists and images of media propaganda. 

For many African women, reality is an ugly picture painted with images of impoverished kin and people living in lowly ranks. Beneath their tragedies and subsequent poverty are the roots of misfortune which exceed cultural boundaries. Weakened by a tumultuous history, African women came to be some of the first victims of an ongoing situation of violence. It is therefore, paramount to my approach to frame this topic in the context of historical violence. Women in these societies are crying for peace, a peace that exists as a necessary condition for development. 

As we revisit the roots of conflict in Africa, it is evident that economic war is often based in politics and is heavily influenced by tribalism, dictatorship, ethnicity and other factors which ultimately offer a rationale for the African situation. To this extent the era of globalization of economy and culture, as it follows the colonial period of forced labor and dehumanization, brings into effect the program of structural adjustment and other international programs of restructuring of African economies. Consider, for example, the geography of wars and its consequences on women in Africa.

Countries where women suffer the most as a result of wars are paradoxically the richest countries coveted for their raw materials. When we think of poverty, rape, mistreatment, deprivation, suffering and any form of humiliation upon African women, we must think simultaneously of the diamond, copper, gold, oil, and other mineral resources of Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Democratic Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc. The Africa where there is mistreatment of women is the same Africa rife with economic warfare. Though this picture contrasts the beauty and elegance praised by the poets of the Negritude, the abjection of African women must be highlighted in this situation of crisis. Outside of this context, African women play another role that is rather culture-centered: they are mothers, spouses and educators in their African way. 

African Women as Mothers, Spouses and Educators

From a current observation of African society, women are generally banished from the public spheres of power. When they are urged to participate in the political life of their countries through civil and political authority, for instance, they often become indebted to the "chief" to whom they owe their "promotion". Women can pay back this debt in a humiliating way. Outside of the political arena, however, African women demonstrate their merits in another way. This ambivalent role is disclosed through the figures of mother, spouse and educator. Through these eminent and unique roles, whereby women hold the indispensable function of life giver and peacekeeper, they exercise the power to protect life in dignity and pride more so than anyone else in African society. 

Firstly, as a mother, the woman has a privileged relationship with her son, despite whatever the son becomes. This ascendancy of the son lasts forever and the mother can usefully use her prerogative to advise or even to command her son. In most cases, the son listens to his mother more than he does his father. She is the foundational pillar upon which all the family and community structures rely. The African mother is more than a "domestic cook" in charge of managing the household. In a way, she manages the entire community and is more efficient than any "First Lady" or Mme Minister. 

As a personage in the shadow of her son, the African mother indirectly exercises her power through her motherly attributes. There is an African depiction of the process of decision making where the role of the woman as mother is omnipresent, in contrast to the Western traditions of relationships of power. In her capacity as mother of the most influential persons in the society, she is respected and feared, as well as honored and admired. In traditional Africa, I noticed the role played by queen mothers in the foundation of the empire and the establishment of civil peace. Nowadays, women of great importance still play a deciding role in the construction of their society. There are some African societies that are marked by matriarchy where the obvious political influence of the mother, source and principle of power, is recognized. 

Secondly, as spouse, the African woman is not just a "female": she is a partner equally involved in the process of building the family, the nucleus of the community. The subjugation she suffers from today on the grounds of her being the "weak sex" is falsely determined by the difference in role from men which is only slight. In effect, her role as a responsible spouse, in partnership with her husband, is possible if both are trusting in each other. The ideal is that husband and wife become "friends: one taking the advice of the other into consideration. This is possible only through communication. Here again the African difference is disclosed by "invisible spaces" of communication. 

African spouses do not protest, in a democratic way, to claim equality with their husbands in times of conflicts. They are not expected to vociferate their demands because the society has provided them with adequate room to air their grievances without demonstrating against what they think the right things are. Consider the meaning of the African dictum. "la nuit porte conseil-" Advice does not come from the nightmares which can challenge the lonely man much concerned with his problem. This saying is a request for more time in order to consult one's wife during the night. Nights are the best time to discuss important issue as family business and professional and other issues.

The third specific attribute of the African woman is her role as an educator. Education entails not only the teaching of human and cultural values, but as mothers and educators, women lead their sons and daughters on the road to a good life. Genuine education involves the shaping of character through the example of the educator. This challenging aspect of the role of the African woman requires that she live a life worthy of imitation. In African tradition, women are the first pedagogues in the sense that they are the first to lead their children. It is this attribute that explains why African women are capable of doing anything they can to sustain a disrupted family.

They do whatever possible to meet the needs of their family, as they assume their unique role as educator when men abdicate their responsibility. They sacrifice their lives, if necessary, in order to educate their children. With economic bankruptcy and the collapse of many African institutions, women try to maintain life in many African countries, through daily food supply to the long-term investment by way of paying education fees for kids. If African communities are surviving the economic crisis, it is largely due to the ingenuity of women who are still fulfilling their roles while men are run away from their duties. The question, then, is to know who ultimately retains the legitimacy of power in African societies in order to make development possible. 

Women As Agents of the Development

Even if women in Africa are destitute and experience suffering and humiliation, there remains a great deal of human values that can only be transmitted by women in the process of rebuilding the damaged African society. In this process, they can be referred to as agents of a genuine development. Let us explore now the foundation of women's role in Africa, which I labeled earlier as life giver and peacekeeper. I want now to propose an African anthropology of development, whereby women, as agents, can sow the seeds of the peace that nourish the lives they give. Because they give life, they are more concerned about what threatens life as well. 

Simply put, development, as theorists argue, aims at bettering the quality of life, by fostering human progress. We have seen from the African setting that women, in their roles as mothers, spouses and educators, deal with the transmission of the values that keep and promote life. Consequently, an African anthropology of development is probably woman-centered. The issue should not be only the economical, nor must it be political. In the situation of the endemic violence in African societies, the function of peacekeeper must be viewed as an agency of development led by the African woman. She is already playing this role in the family setting when she returns the power of a husband and a son inclined to immoderate use of force. 

Traditional organizational structures have changed so much in African society due to colonial legacy. Women, traditionally in the shadow of power, can no longer play the discreet but efficient role assigned to them. Nowadays, they are too often overshadowed by powerful men known as dictators. Their presence must be more visible. Their status, as I have argued all over this paper, claim some rights to be recognized as favors for woman. Rather, what matters is a question of recognition de facto of the prevailing situation: there is no development of African societies when women who are the agents of this policy of well-being are left aside. 


As I conclude this paper, I just want to point out some major concerns by way of recommendations. The role of African women in the context of violence is to restore peace. The survival of African society depends basically on women as we recognize their function as life giver and peacekeeper. Only women can shape developmental policies as they scrutinize whether the proposal of a better life by development theorists does not really promote life in Africa. Therefore, my claim is to provide for African women socio-political structures and spaces nationwide where they can lead to conflict resolutions. 

Because they know the price of life more than anyone else, they would do whatever they can to protect fragile lives. And in times of peace, when development is possible, women manage the dying organizations with their practical marketing skills for the benefit of the whole national community. Women can use their ability as peacekeepers to play other important roles only if their places as mother, spouse and educator are recognized. It is only by recognizing the feminine role with its specific primacy on life issues that the development of African nations will be effective because there is no development without such recognition. 

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