Source: Flickr by UN Women/ Karin Schermbrucker

Identifying women as a symbol of hope for Africa – in a context where the continent is confronted with political and economic tensions as well as commonly accepted endemic and epidemic outbreaks – would imply that women are viewed as an answer to the problems of development.

However, the consideration of contextual specificities – relating to a system of representation, social organization, and the status of women – opposes this idea with a complex social process. This seems to determine the difficulties of evaluating the role of women in social change. The latter, in turn, is an assignee of functions of production, reproduction, or community. Which is, in reality, either concealed as an actor of development; or overdetermined in its capacity to generate a global dynamic of transformation.

Dimensions of womanhood

These two ambivalent dimensions will be approached in the course of our reflection, through the ideological hierarchy of female activity.

Thus, the productive role assigned to women, on this scale, carries a negative attribute. This allows for character to emerge, from the disabling construction of a set of activities that are performed by the woman.

In other words- there is a case, for questioning the maternal and domestic functions of these women.

Equally, it can be said that Western women, as much as African women, have a local colouring determined by their interactions with the environment and their culture. Thus, in Africa, where the use of rudimentary tools for food processing is common, the repetitiveness and arduousness of gestures are accentuated. In addition, they are sometimes extended by long hours of walking, for the purpose of collecting water or gathering firewood.

These many obligations, which are carried out successively or simultaneously to save time, have no less impact on the length of a women’s working days. The hours are estimated to be about fourteen to sixteen hours, but are not included in the labour register. Indeed, the dominant ideology only conceives labour as being work-paid activity.

A woman’s invisibility

Indeed- even if a woman is in continuous motion, in search of satisfaction of the primary needs of her family unit- her action is seen as being paradoxically invisible. This is not only because it does not involve economic profitability; but also because women are still culturally perceived more as a product, than a producer.

There is, therefore, an argument that suggests reproductive activity is disqualified from participating in the mechanisms of economic production, despite its usefulness. As such, it remains difficult to establish a significant link between domestic space and development space. This means that the initial postulate, suggesting African women have a leading role in the evolution of the continent, is thus discredited.

However, the boundary is not always clearly identifiable, between reproductive and productive activities; because in some tasks, non-market work and market work can overlap. This overlapping makes it necessary to consider the productive function of the African woman, in relation to existing social practices. Those which are more or less restrictive, depending on the proximity that populations maintain within the traditional norms of social regulation.

Source: Pxhere

The urban environment

A vector of syncretic practices- that leaves more autonomy and power to women.

A sign of this- is the possibility, for some of them, of occupying important political or economic spaces. Mention should be made of the role of “economic operators” in various African countries, and particularly that of the “Nanas Benz” (whose activity, organized around the trade in loincloths of the “Dutch Wax” brand), gives them an economic power recognized across borders.

This is an interesting power on two counts:

  • it frees these women, and their husbands, from certain beliefs; sometimes favoring a reversal of roles.
  • it encourages the implementation of networks, through semi-wholesale or retail transactions, profitable for a large category of players. These networks, more the object of individual initiatives than those of the “Nanas Benz”, fit into a continental context; where commercial activity is the mode of work most commonly practiced by women.

To this labour register, salaried activities are added into the public or private domains; affecting a minority of women whose profit extends beyond their nuclear family.

In rural areas

Commercial activity is also practiced and is generally organized around fishing, arboriculture, and agricultural products. Cooperation is often necessary, with men, for the realization of this work. In reality, this reveals the power relations in which the autonomy of women is weakened.

Thus, in this labour field of agricultural production, we can mention the problems of access to land.

In some ethnic groups, such as the Mossi woman (the majority ethnic group) of Burkina Faso- despite national norms of land appropriation and exploitation, through land agrarian reorganization (RAF); advocating equal access to land for men and women, it can be seen that women are excluded from it by the system of regulation of kinship, and organization of matrimonial alliances.

Through one example: “The daughter of”, waiting to become “The wife of”, carries a provisional status.

A system of kinship

Yet in another example of women’s status- we can see how women complete the status of a foreigner, thanks to a kinship system transmitted unilaterally in the male line.

Two different considerations, consequently keep African women at a distance from the system of transmission of goods. Thus, an African woman becomes affiliated with a strictly hierarchical social formation, in which her status as a person is subordinated to that of the man. Hence the woman, in terms of access to land, is content with the attribute of usufructuary of a small plot. This is allocated by her family aggregate and is allocated to the production of vegetables, for domestic consumption and informal marketing.

The coercion of rules endogenous to patrilineage acts, on the exogenous relations of women to society as a whole, by magnifying their difficulties of access to agricultural inputs, to micro-credits thanks to which they could improve their productivity or implement projects individually.

Women, in this area, we can see, are hampered in their potential as economic actors by this system of collective standards. Obstacles, gradually circumvented by improvisations, find their place in a form of so-called community management; which is intended to cover the collective aspect of its production. The community management role of women is often perceived as an extension of their domestic function. It does this by taking on a contextual dimension in Africa, as a response to the failure of the State (accelerated by the waves of structural adjustment programs); in essential sectors such as health, education, and literacy. It, therefore, takes the form of a multitude of actions: the construction of schools, raising awareness of the educational needs of girls, the development of school canteens, the fight against malnutrition and HIV, as well as the development of crafts, etc.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Transposition of the female model

For the exercise of these community activities, in which women take on responsibilities or commitments, they rely on traditional networks of neighborhood and neighborhood alliances, but also on women’s groups, and associations; financed by foreign donors, finding in them “the key” to social change. The interest invested in the mobilization of women by exogenous agents seems to be based on a common discourse, granting the attribute of the worker to the woman, and to the man an almost parasitic status. This postulate, fueled by objective variables such as the length of a woman’s working day- constructed from an ethnocentric vision of the world, by disqualifying men from the process of change, maintains an absolute opposition between the man and the woman. It suggests the idea of transposition of the female model of development of well-being, within the framework of the family unit, to the female archetype of innovation and change- in the dimension of the nation-state.

In this way of apprehending social relations- the sexual division of labor and the symbolic connotation, conveyed by certain tasks reputedly perilous for male masculinity, are not taken into consideration. This challenges his ability to procreate, to transmit a name, and therefore beyond the maintenance of the durability of the patrilineage- to maintain a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead, in a process of exchanges. The sexual division of labor, more than a domestic matter, relates to the security of the group. Through such a social structure, women are subjected to functions that limit their freedom and their creativity in terms of progress.

Men as an instrument of progress for women

These considerations do not dispense with thinking of women as essential actors in development projects. These are actresses who have specific needs, different from those of men, according to gender as wives, as mothers. Actresses who do not win by being identified in constant opposition to men. For example, in a family planning program, even if it seems obvious that the woman is the first target, the man should not be excluded, because of the cosmogonic conception of the world which is specific to them. In some formations social, it places the woman with regard to the unborn child, not in a relationship of appropriation, but of trust, with regard to her biological body in a relationship of subordination to the husband, to the social body. To this end, the appreciation of men and women as subjects of information and awareness is relevant for the effects mainly beneficial to the latter.

It is deducible that the man, being subject or actor, can be an instrument of progress for the woman or for the whole group. As much as it is important not to discredit this status of the man, it is also important to recognize that of the woman, by upgrading it, by restoring to it the qualifier of actor, quite simply of person. However, the overdetermination of women by a certain developmental discourse in the process of social change apparently segregated from the dominant system of thought which undervalues them, is ultimately its superlative reproduction. Against the same ideological background, this discourse does not consequently deconstruct the symbolic violence suffered by African women.

Final thoughts…

Let us simply retain the imperative that the woman can be considered as a person, as an actress. The cognition of such a determination leads one to think that its activities should not be circumscribed only in terms of opposition to those of man, but under the angle of a differentiated complementarity; activities whose dynamics, to overcome an unproductive paradigmatic scope, must be inserted into a coherent government policy for the management of goods and people.

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