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Women's and Feminist Activism in West Africa



This entry discusses the contributions that women's organizations have made to the advancement of women's rights and to political development in countries across West Africa. It highlights their roles in the anti-colonial struggle and in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and explores the challenges that they face. It also introduces new research that studies the impact of women's organizations on women's rights in West Africa.
Women’s and Feminist
Activism in West Africa
University of Ghana, Ghana
Women’s organizations in West African
states have been pivotal to the advancement
of women’s rights and have contributed to
development in the region. Although their
leaders and members are women, these orga-
nizations are characterized by key dierences
in structure, focus areas, and ecacy. ey
range from loosely coordinated grassroots
groups that lack written mission statements
to highly professionalized non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) with multi-year action
their activism to problems that they consider
to be women’s interests, others have adopted
broader agendas, thus mobilizing to inu-
ence political, social, and economic issues
that aect all of society at the subnational,
national, and international levels. Similarly,
while the majority of these groups have
self-identied as womens organizations, a
few have embraced the “feminist” label and
at the forefront of their eorts. However,
even when they have not prioritized equality
between men and women, some women’s
organizations have challenged the patriarchal
status quo and improved women’s status. To
accomplish this, they have adopted a variety
of strategies that have evolved over time
in response to national and international
political, economic, and technological trans-
formations. ese strategies have enabled
women’s organizations to challenge dom-
inant and oen discriminatory political
and socioeconomic beliefs, practices, and
e Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, First Edition. Edited by Nancy A. Naples.
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2016 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118663219.wbegss182
structures, and sometimes to eect changes
in them.
e presence and activism of women’s
organizations in West Africa predate colo-
nialism. Women organized in formal and
informal groups to protest decisions and
practices that threatened their livelihoods.
ey formed market networks to protect their
trading interests and, in the process, gained
relative autonomy from men in the domestic
sphere (Tamale 2000). ey frequently stood
up to authority in the colonial period. Not
only did women’s organizations challenge
colonial laws and institutions that discrim-
inated against women, but they also played
key roles in the ght against colonialism
and the struggle for independence. While
under British rule in 1951, Sierra Leonean
women demonstrated against the proposed
steep increase in food prices and market dues
brought about by Lebanese traders’ monop-
olization of wholesale food distribution
(Steady 2005). eir protests won them the
ernment and paved the way for the formation
of the Sierra Leonean women’s movement.
In southeastern Nigeria, the anticipated taxa-
tion of women by British colonial authorities,
combined with a litany of other grievances
including corruption among members of the
Native Court, led Igbo women to launch the
Women’s War in 1929 (Mba 1982). e upris-
ing lasted for about a month and involved
demonstrations, the burning of Native Court
buildings, and violent clashes between the
women and colonial forces. e war, which
resulted in the deaths of over 50 women, led
the British authorities to assure the women
that they would not be taxed, although many
of the exploitative and oppressive governing
practices persisted.
Women’s organizations also sought to
address women’s concerns in the domestic
sphere. ey did not limit their activities
to issues that were specic to women, how-
ever, but also opposed colonial policies
that were inimical to men and mounted
strong resistance to colonial rule. Ghanaian
women fed activists at countrywide rallies
and mobilized citizens to join the struggle
for independence (Ampofo 2008). Kwame
Nkrumah, the country’s rst president, in his
autobiography lauded the contributions of
women to Ghana’s independence. ese and
other challenges to colonial authority across
the region bolstered the anti-colonial struggle
and paved the way for independence.
Women’s political activism did not end
with colonialism. However, their expec-
tations of inclusion in governance were
largely unmet. is is partly because post-
independence governments had inherited
political structures that consolidated male
domination and female subordination and
partly because of a lack of suciently strong
and independent women’s organizations
(Tamale 2000). Women were, therefore,
poorly represented in the governments of
most newly independent West African states.
Nonetheless, women’s groups continued
to advocate for women’s socioeconomic
rights, with attention paid to issues such as
land tenure, education, and employment.
However, their autonomy was compromised
in several countries, including Ghana and
Nigeria, with the entrenchment of one-party
systems in the 1980s. Women’s organizations
were co-opted and turned into cheerleaders
and extensions of the ruling parties, a move
that prevented them from holding their
governments accountable. is phenomenon
was evidenced in Ghana where the ruling Pro-
visional National Defense Council (PNDC)
created the 31st December Women’s Move-
ment in 1982 and used it to mobilize women
in support of the party (Fallon 2003, 2008).
e second wave of democratization and
the introduction of multiparty systems in the
1990s weakened states’ control of civil society
organizations and opened up the political
space to the participation of autonomous
women’s organizations in most countries.
Women’s organizations have begun to cam-
paign for the passage and amendment of
laws in favor of a range of issues. ey have
launched several campaigns including ones
for the introduction of gender quota laws
to increase the representation of women
in parliament, for the criminalization of
female genital mutilation and other forms
of gender-based violence, and to make basic
education compulsory for girls. ese calls
for legal change have been accompanied by
the implementation of programs to educate
the skills and tools to empower themselves
socially and economically. In Niger, women’s
organizations mobilized to ensure the imple-
mentation of the country’s 2000 gender quota
law. Among other things, they supported
female candidates and pressured political
parties to respect the law. eir eorts have
contributed to the mainstreaming of women
in Nigerian politics (Kang 2013).
Whether working independently or as part
of national womens movements, organiza-
tools including demonstrations, strikes,
awareness-raising campaigns, lobbying, and
negotiations to attain their goals. While
activism in the precolonial, colonial, and
immediate post-independent stages of West
African history was aimed at the mostly
male leadership of local institutions, the
past two decades have seen women orga-
nize transnationally with the goal of placing
their concerns on the agenda of interna-
tional organizations such as the United
Nations (UN), the African Union (AU),
and the Economic Community of West
African States (ECOWAS), and of harnessing
their respective governments to pass and
enforce women-friendly laws. eir eorts
have been facilitated by changing interna-
tional norms that emphasize respect for
women’s rights (Tripp et al. 2009). is
appeal to powerful international actors has
not only provided women’s organizations
with political clout but has also enabled
Women organizing across national bor-
of West African conicts. e Mano River
Women Unio n Pe a c e Ne twor k ( M ARW O P-
NET) formed in 2000 by peace activists from
lence and other forms of human insecurity
that threatened people in the conict-ridden
Mano River countries. ey have combined
this transnational activism with in-country
to call for peace at the outbreak of the coun-
try’s civil war in 1989 and were later joined
by other women’s organizations that were
formed during the war. Women fought to
have their voices heard at the many peace
conferences that were held during the 14-year
war. A coalition of Muslim and Christian
women, the Women in Peacebuilding Net-
work (WIPNET), demanded an end to the
violence. At the 2003 peace talks in Accra,
which produced the Comprehensive Peace
Agreement (CPA), they protested the warring
factions’ unwillingness to accept the terms of
the peace negotiations (African Women and
Peace Support Group 2004). eir activism
has not ended with the signing of peace
agreements. Women’s organizations have
participated in the disarmament, demobi-
lization, and reintegration of ex-combatants
struction of their countries. Sierra Leonean
women were at the forefront of the passing of
gender-based violence laws in the aermath
of the country’s civil wars. In Liberia, a favor-
able political opportunity structure combined
with the political and nancial support of
international organizations, such as the UN,
have enabled women’s organizations to have
an inuence on police response to rape
(Medie 2013).
development and peacebuilding, women’s
organizations confront several challenges that
limit their impact. Women’s organizations
face resistance in some countries. Religious
norms and extremism limit women’s orga-
nizing and the issues they can include on
their agendas in places such as northern
Nigeria. Furthermore, many organizations
across the region are hampered by a lack of
funding. Not only has this hindered their
ability to organize and implement programs,
but it has also resulted in an overdepen-
dence on international organizations for
funding. Consequently, the agenda of some
organizations has been dictated by donor
the neglect of issues that are not on donors’
agendas. Competition for resources and poor
coordination have led to the duplication of
programs in some areas, a practice that not
only wastes nancial and human resources
but also takes them away from other areas
that deserve attention. Another problem is
the NGO-ization of women’s organizing. is
phenomenon is characterized by dependence
on donors as well as by the lack of a mass
base and of accountability, the preference
for a technocratic approach instead of one
prioritization of a “short-term project-based
approach” over “long range broad agen-
das” (Tsikata 2009, 186). is has rendered
women’s organizations less capable of chal-
lenging the actors, beliefs, and practices that
perpetuate all forms of discrimination against
e research on women’s organizations
in West Africa is expanding to address the
outcomes of women organizing. Feminist
organizations such as the Association of
African Women for Research and Develop-
ment (AAWORD) are producing work that
explores feminism and women’s organiza-
tions in Africa. Scholars have also begun to
examine more systematically the impact that
women’s organizations have on the advance-
ment of women’s rights and to establish the
conditions under which organizations are
inuential (Kang 2013; Medie 2013). ese
studies are providing new insight into the
signicance of women’s organizations, using
comparative case studies and large-nanaly-
ses. eir ndings educate not only on the
roles of women’s organizations but also on
how the contributions of these groups can be
enhanced in West Africa.
SEE ALSO: Colonialism and Gender;
Community and Grassroots Activism; Gender,
Politics, and the State: Overview
African Women and Peace Support Group. 2004.
Liberian Women Fighting for the Right to be
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... In other places such as in Liberia, refugee and displaced women became leading forces in the national women's movement for mobilizing for the cessation of conflict and for the negotiation of a new postwar order to make society more gender equitable and protective of women's rights (Medie 2013(Medie , 2016. This produced the first elected African woman head of state in Liberia. ...
This chapter highlights region-building and game-changing efforts in other regions in Africa focusing on the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the East African Community (EAC). Regional integration has the potential to enhance sustainable peace, economic growth and development in Africa. In a bid to establish institutional frameworks to promote Pan-Africanism, African leaders established ECOWAS in 1975 and the EAC in 2000. However, these regional bodies face several challenges that range from conflicts to weak institutions, low levels of intra-regional trade and dependence on external donors. Given that these regions’ approach to security is increasingly focused on human security as opposed to the state, the role of civil society actors is critical. The chapter reveals that they are home to vibrant civil society actors that play a significant role in regional thickening and game-changing, especially in the arenas of conflict and gender equality.KeywordsECOWASEACCivil society actorsRegionalismWomen
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