Journal Issue

Guest Article: The Economic Woman in Africa

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 1992
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An African commentary from a sociobgical perspective

In many traditional African cultures there is a belief that God made woman the custodian of fire, water, and earth. God Himself took charge of the fourth element of the universe—the omnipresent air.

Custody of fire entailed responsibility for making energy available. The greatest source of energy in rural Africa is firewood. The African woman became disproportionately responsible for finding and carrying huge bundles of firewood, though quite often it was the man who chopped down the big trees.

Custody of water involved a liquid that was a symbol of both survival and cleanliness. The African woman trekked long distances to fetch water. But where a well needed to be dug, it was often the man who did the digging.

The custody of earth has been part of a doctrine of dual fertility. The woman ensures the survival of this generation by maintaining a central role in cultivation—and preserving the fertility of the soil. She ensures the arrival of the next generation in her role as mother. This is quite apart from the more universal role of women as homemakers and as child rearers.

These responsibilities have weighed heavily on African women, and perhaps on women in other traditional societies. Yet, men have played a disproportionate, though by no means exclusive, role in running societal organizations and economies. As African economies ran into difficulties, attention has focused on the participation of African women in these economies.

Professor Mazrui, from Kenya, is currently Director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies at SUNY, Binghamton. He is also Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large at the University of Jos (Nigeria), and the Andrew D. White Professor-at- Large at Cornell University (United States). He was the host of an acclaimed television series “The Africans: A Triple Heritage” (BBC and PBS, 1986).

Changes in role

What has happened to the doctrine of triple custody in the period since the colonial days?

Among the factors that increased woman’s role on the land was wage labor for men. Faced with an African population reluctant to work for low wages, colonial rulers had already experimented with both forced labor, “vagrancy” laws, and taxation as a way of inducing Africans (especially men) to join the colonial workforce. After the Great Depression and World War II, migrant labor and conscription of males, compounded by the growth of mining industries, left a relatively small proportion of men working on the land.

In southern Africa, the number of men migrating to the mines increased dramatically over time. From the 1930s onward, women, left to manage the farms, became more deeply involved as “custodians of earth.” By the 1950s, a remarkable bifurcation was taking place in some southern African societies—a division between a male proletariat (industrial working class) and a female peasantry. South Africa’s regulations against families joining their husbands at the mines exacerbated this tendency toward gender-apartheid, the segregation of the sexes. Many women in the “Front Line States” (bordering South Africa) had to fulfill their triple custodial role of fire, water, and earth in greater isolation than ever.

The wars of liberation in southern Africa from the 1960s took their own toll on family stability and the traditional sexual division of labor. Some of the fighters did have their wives with them. Indeed, liberation armies in southern Africa often included significant numbers of women soldiers, some of them high ranking. But on the whole, these conflicts disrupted family life and the traditional sexual division of labor.

After independence, there were “counterrevolutionary wars” in some of the Front Line States. In addition to the usual disruptive consequences of war for the family, these conflicts damaged the transport and communications systems, so that many migrant workers never got home to their families between their contracts with the South African mines.

It is not completely clear how this situation has affected the doctrine of “dual fertility” of African women. One possibility is that the extra long absences of the husbands have reduced fertility rates in parts of some countries, for example, Mozambique. The other scenario is that the pattern of migrant labor in southern Africa generally has initiated a tendency toward de facto polyandry. If the more widespread pattern is that of declining fertility, the woman’s involvement in matters pertaining to the fertility of the soil may have been increased.

Impact of technology

Other changes in Africa during this period that affected relationships between men and women included the impact of new technologies on gender roles.

Mechanization of agriculture in Africa has tended to marginalize women. Their role as “custodians of Earth” is threatened by unwarranted male prerogatives in new and more advanced technologies. It is true that greater male involvement in agriculture could help reduce the heavy burdens of work undertaken by women on the land. On the other hand, there is no reason why this relief in workload for women should not come through better technology. Cultivation with the hoe left the African woman centrally involved in agriculture. But cultivation with the tractor was often a prescription for male dominance, as men received financing to purchase tractors and only men operated them. In brief, new technology produced new threats to the role of women in economies.

Another threat to the central role of African women in the economy has come from the nature of western education. The westernized African woman in the second half of the 20th century has tended to be more free but less important for African economies than the traditional woman in rural areas. We define a westernized African woman as one who has successfully completed western-style secondary education plus at least two years of post-secondary training or education in a western-style institution (as distinct from Islamic or indigenous forms of education). More highly westernized African women are usually those who have completed university education or professional training in the western tradition.

Guest Articles represent the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the IMF or the World Bank, We invite readers’ comments—Editor.

The great majority of African women who have successfully completed secondary education neither return to the land nor enter comparably productive professions in cities. They settle for jobs as clerks, telephone operators, secretaries, and teachers. The balance of the female role shifts into the services sector. Nevertheless, it may be worth noting that Liberia has had a woman president of the university, while Uganda has had a woman foreign minister—jobs that are still not commonly held by women even in developed economies.

It is true that the westernized African woman is usually more mobile and has more freedom for her own interests than her traditional sister. But a transition from custodian of fire, water, and earth to keeper of the typewriter is definitely a form of marginalization for African womanhood. This is not necessarily a case against western education for women. The imperative is to ensure that female westernization does not result in functional marginalization.

The third threat to the role of the African woman in this period has come with the internationalization of African economies. When economic activity in Africa was more localized, the African woman had a decisive role in local markets and as a trader. But the colonial and post-colonial tendencies toward enlargement of economic scale have increasingly pushed the women to the side in international decisionmaking. It is true that Nigerian women especially have refused to be completely marginalized, even in international trade. But on the whole, the Africans who deal with international markets and sit on the boards of transnational corporations are overwhelmingly men. At the meetings of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)— where Muslims predominate—there are additional cultural inhibitions about having even Nigeria represented by a female delegate.

Policy implications

While Africa does need to modernize and mechanize rural production, it must find ways of doing this without adversely affecting women. The triple custodial role of women needs to find modern equivalents in the productive sector. What can be done to build on the African woman’s traditional roles and responsibilities so that she may play a greater role in economic activities? Women as custodians of earth have traditionally emphasized food cultivation. Their greater involvement in the production of cash crops for export could be one way of linking tradition to modernity—and preventing Africa’s economic internationalization from resulting in the marginalization of African women. The export trade need not be so male dominated.

But support for traditional market women in food production and local trade need not suffer as a result of this approach. Credit facilities should be made available in such a manner that there is equity, not only between men and women but also between westernized and nonwesternized females. Currently, traditionalist nonwesternized women are often at a disadvantage when assessed for creditworthiness, often because they are also non- literate. Peer-lending schemes in Nigeria are a step in the right direction.

A higher proportion of nonwesternized women are involved in agricultural production than are their westernized sisters. Indeed, cultural westernization of women—though improving their creditworthiness—tends to decrease women’s direct involvement in economic production. Highly westernized African women farmers are almost unknown in many African countries—though there are exceptions in Kenya, Nigeria, and more recently Zimbabwe. Nonwesternized women farmers are the rule all over rural Africa. A balance has to be struck between the two categories of women in relation to both access to credit and role in production. Preventing technology from marginalizing women is yet another imperative. Mechanization is no excuse for sexism. Special programs for women in technical training—from driving tractors to repairing a lorry engine—should be inaugurated.

Women as custodians of fire are the greatest users of firewood in the continent. But shouldn’t women also be centrally involved in forest management and reforestation? Wood should increasingly be approached as an integrated industry, bearing in mind the needs of environmental protection and ecological balance. Women as the greatest users of firewood should also become among the leading planters of trees for reforestation.

Carpentry and furniture making are crafts that cry out for much greater female involvement than has been achieved so far. Culturally, women are often the selectors of furniture and the trustees of the domestic infrastructure of the family. Yet, it is an anomaly that African women have played such a limited role in designing furniture or making it.

As traditional custodians of water, do women have any special role in this era of faucets and dams? Africa’s women, as we indicated, still trek long distances in some rural areas for their water. But water-related industries are surprisingly still male dominated. This includes the whole infrastructure of water supply in urban areas. Even commercial laundry and dry cleaning for the elite and for foreigners in African towns is still usually owned and managed by men, even when women do most of the washing and ironing.

The future of the continent depends upon a new sexual equation in the whole economic process, involving a cultural rather than a purely economic structural adjustment. On the gender question, Africa needs a cultural reformation—“Seek ye first the cultural kingdom, and all else will be added unto it.”

But classical privatization and laissez faire would simply permit worsening conditions of marginalization for women. Progress toward female entrepreneurialization would be aborted or retarded. This is a major reason why Africa needs an activist and enlightened state role in support of gender economic equality.

Ali A. Mazrui

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