The role of women as Afropolitanists

By Ndioro Ndiaye | April 09th, 2015

Africa is the birthplace of humanity, both from a biological standpoint and in terms of civilisations. The continent stretches over 30 million km2 and is the second largest after Asia.

Almost entirely colonised by European imperialist powers during the 19th century, it is now divided into 54 states.

Economically, the continent has tremendous wealth based on agricultural, mining, petroleum and hydraulic resources, and it owns the largest deposits of strategic ores (cobalt, uranium, manganese, etc.) and precious minerals (gold, silver, diamonds). Although they are not the largest in the world, Africa does have very substantial reserves.

Towards the end of the 18th century, a political movement, known as Africanism developed throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa, with a project of uniting the disparate movements to form a network of solidarity to put an end to oppression. This led to pan-Africanism, which is inherently a movement of ideas and emotions. 

Indeed, pan-Africanism refers to a social and political vision, which seeks to unify Africans from Africa and the diaspora to form a global African community that calls for political and economic unity on the continent. Thus, there is a common personality inherent in all men and women of the black race, which holds specific values of wisdom, intelligence and sensitivity.

Afropolitanism and pan-Africanism have the concept of Africa as the birthplace of humanity in common and also share the same aim and ideal: the emergence of the African continent. But neither Afropolitanism nor pan-Africanism could have come into being without the men and women coming from and living on the continent and those of the diaspora. And emergence necessarily implies breaking away from strong tendencies and adopting a voluntaristic outlook based on the seeds of change.

According to Achille Mbembe, Professor of History and Political Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and in the French department of Duke University in North Carolina, “Afropolitanism is the way Africans create the world, manage the world and irrigate the world.” 

Afropolitanism goes even further than pan-Africanism, in the sense that it no longer focuses on affirming the African world, but rather on the circulation of worlds within and emanating from the African continent. It posits the particularity of being native to a place and touching on universality, without denying one’s uniqueness and cultural authenticity. The idea is to be a citizen of the world, beyond individual nations without being limited to just one with a view to maintaining one’s original culture. It can also be said that the emergence of Afropolitanism was driven by the free circulation of African peoples, which resulted in the current economic and cultural mobility within a transnational space.

Post-2015 Vision

Actions implemented for women as the “Mothers of Humanity”, as forces for change, since 1960 and especially their relative intensification from 1975 to the present date have the very great merit of putting the issue of women on the agenda, hence the following question: what new vision can there be for Afropolitan women? What new type of “feminism” needs to emerge in our contemporary societies? 

The history of all of our African regions abounds with achievements that clearly illustrate the central role of women in the political decision-making and economic events that have governed our lands since time immemorial. Much closer to us, the Charter of Kurukan Fuga, adopted by Soundjata Keita and his allies in 1236, during the great assembly that enshrined the constitution of the Mali Empire stated in article 16 that: “Women, apart from their everyday occupations, should be associated with all our managements.”  

The Charter of Kurukan Fuga also took care to specify the importance of granting women their rights, and notably the right to participate in the conduct of public and political affairs. In addition to the Charter, the oral literature contains tremendous amounts of speech and images that positively or negatively credit the roles and status of women during the precolonial and colonial periods. Furthermore, all of our societies grant importance to the maternal lineage, although the status varies: sometimes women hold authority, sometimes there is a balance, and in some cases, women are considered minors. 

It should, however, be noted that the period running from African independence to the various international meetings initiated by the United Nations revealed that African women up to that point had had very little input onto the planning and development of their countries and their continent. And they may well ask themselves: what historical, political, economic, sociological, moral and religious circumstances allowed them to escape from that dynamic and start afresh? 

Prospective studies conducted today confirm that African women are a new resource that has yet to be properly used, and that they are capable of producing new ideas and new priorities that could help our developing countries discover and implement new initiatives for their development.

During the 1970s, awareness of the role of women in development and of politicians’ inability to take account of their role increased. At the same time, in Europe and the United States, new feminist movements were emerging, and their demands focused essentially on equal rights for both sexes as well as shedding light on the social, sexual and cultural roots of discrimination. 

In developing societies, new women’s movements subsequently emerged with strong social, ethnic or cultural connotations (particularly in the feminist milieus in Latin America). Women’s groups were formed within trade unions and farmers’ organisations and in political parties. Women were particularly involved in the fight against violence, conflict and war (i.e. the women in black movement and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina). 

Since 1985, feminist movements in the South (Yewu Yeewee, Femnet, etc.) have been demanding empowerment and also focusing on building women’s self-confidence. They have criticised previous approaches to development and the western feminist movement (women’s lib) and developed multiple theories on development. They refuse the homogenisation and victimisation of third-world women.

From an Afropolitanist standpoint, women’s participation in Africa’s development is not limited to the continent itself, but rather it extends to the world, by highlighting the actions accomplished by women to build, manage and sustain the world based on their own individual African values and cultures.

Today, around the world, women’s movements remain very heterogeneous in their structures and ideologies, but continue to mobilise around the concept of Gender, which links and interconnects social, familial, economic and power relationships. Through the concept of Gender, the movements in the North and South deviate from ‘the norm’ of male domination. They point out the differences, the unique needs and strategies of women and men in development. The Nairobi Conference of 1985 enabled the emergence of women’s associations and movements recognised by the state and donor organisations. Above all, the conference marked the arrival and visibility of women’s groups whose references, values and goals were more focused on gender equity as opposed to merely gender equality in both society and development programmes. 

A new brand of feminism for today’s Africa?

The determining factors that will have an impact on women’s lives beyond 2015 and into the 2015-2035 generation, and which will contribute to the development of a new kind of feminism, more compatible with the requirements of the development of our continent and more capable of integrating the principles of equity and social justice are the main command variables of the current evolution of women in our countries, which are the strongest variables, are not really driving forces and are difficult to change. These include our conception of the state and its methods of governance that are unfavourable to us, the education system, gender inequality,  the rapid urbanisation of our cities, the adoption of new technologies tailored to the urban system, public-private partnerships, internal and international migrations, youth, internal and regional conflicts, etc. 

Among these command variables, two points (gender inequality and the education system) are becoming short-term strategic issues for most African governments, because by acting on these essential command variables our states can put an end to the economic, legal and political marginalisation of women and reduce inequalities in terms of remuneration, employment, access to training, credit or land, political participation, etc. 

The variables that are growing in importance over the long term in Africa, and must be taken into account in any new definition of pro-women policy focusing on women’s self-organisation   in a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship, their growing role in the creation and mobilisation of internal national savings to give impetus to sustainable development, job creation, and knowing their own rights and having the will to ensure they are upheld, etc.   

It also goes without saying that regional integration and regional conflicts will impact on a great number of factors over the next quarter of a century. They will be driving forces in many of the strategies implemented in our countries. To this end, the involvement of motivated and competent African women, who are credible and have strong leadership skills, will be required to ensure that their voices are heard and their abilities are brought to bear to influence the agenda for peace and development in Africa. 

If we hope to achieve a new type of feminism, then women themselves must influence our development agendas to create or ensure the creation of the necessary conditions to change strong trends (gender inequality, values and behaviours, the role and status and positions assigned to women, etc.) that are obstacles to effective women’s participation in the POLITICAL affairs of their nations. We also need to promote the generation of strong seeds of change, which are necessary to enable women to provoke healthy reactions to these challenges, which necessitate new opportunities for alliances, change and regulation (political role of women and regional integration, and participation in peace and security on our continent).

This new feminism must be able to mobilise useful resources to INVENT a different political framework for development that takes account of women’s qualities and interests and that is mastered by women. A development process could be envisaged that takes account of women’s interests, is based on their capacities and resources and ensures their participation in the commands and control of the process. This is what Democracy is about.  

Two general strategies can help us find our way out of the current situation: adapting and reinventing the education and training system, one of the great challenges facing Africa in the 21st century. This is all the more fundamental in that, today and especially tomorrow, global competition is or will be competition between firms and corporations that will draw their strength from their human resources. Although public planning is the point of departure for the range of public and political services that citizens expect from their governments, the latter often ignores women’s specific needs and priorities. Gender equality must be a stated objective in all plans, supported by specific actions and also by adequate funding.

The other general strategy to be adopted is changing values and behaviours through decisive action aimed at changing mentalities and attitudes towards equality between men and women.

The time has come for African women leaders to contribute to building states capable of delivering the services expected by their populations, in close collaboration and in partnership with African leaders. Only then can we make a new contribution to universal civilisation, and foster a common conception and awareness of Africa as the source and birthplace of international development and lasting peace. 

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