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Africa and African Diaspora Feminism

Feminist Activism

Despite its diversity, feminist activism in Africa in the early twenty-first century can probably be defined by its relative autonomy from the state, and the expansion and spread of numerous kinds of organizations within and across borders. While much African feminist activism continues to focus on lobbying and making demands on the state, the limited gains in recent decades have seen many activists preferring to work from outside, rather than within the state. This explains the proliferation of organizations and networks that do not derive any support from government. The growth of feminist thinking within African universities reflects the increase in the overall numbers of women attaining higher levels of education and becoming less likely to passively accept the subordinate positions that African societies continue to arrogate to women. While there has been an increase in the number of women pursuing political careers, only a minority pursue explicitly feminist agendas, and there is a growing consensus over the need for strong autonomous women's movements to push feminist agendas in and beyond the sphere of government.

The Zimbabwean women's movement is a good example of this shift. While the new state established a women's bureau and opened up some space for legal and policy reforms, it was only a few years before key activists left government to establish independent organizations, among them the Women's Action Group and the Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre and Network. The Women's Action Group was formed to resist the widespread victimization of women during Operation Clean-up in the early 1980s. The Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre's key role in supporting the formation of a coalition of women's organizations to intervene in the constitutional drafting process and the Land Lobby in the 1990s is illustrative of this capacity for autonomous activism. The increasingly oppressive nature of the regime of President Robert Mugabe has also had negative effects on the women's movement and has created a new degree of reticence that did not characterize the same movement five years earlier.

In South Africa the Women's National Coalition (WNC) marked a high point in South African feminism. Formed during the negotiations that culminated in the coming to power of the African National Congress (ANC), the WNC carried out nationwide consultations and produced the National Women's Charter and ensured women a high level of participation in the emerging polity. However, the institutionalization of gender within the state apparatus has become identified as a source of concern, as independent activism has largely subsided since then, allowing for a slowing down of change, despite the proliferation of "gender desks" within government.

The uptake of gender matters within the state has seldom led to radical changes, although it has seen incremental increases in the number of women in government in many countries. Analysts frequently point to the importance of more autonomous mobilizations that can continue to lobby and advocate for change.

Despite the limits encountered within state-focused activism, the 1990s were also years of growth and diversification for feminist activism across the region, as evidenced in the number of independent organizations and networks espousing feminist causes. The best known national and subregional organizations include the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme (TGNP), the Zimbabwe Women's Resource Centre and Network, Baobab and Gender and Development Action in Nigeria, the Nairobi-based FEMNET, and the Women and Law in Southern Africa network based in Harare. Various branches of international women's organizations like the Federation of International Democratic Advocates (FIDA), the Soroptimists, and the numerous church-related and Islamic women's organizations also deserve to be mentioned.

There is also a trend toward greater specialization in organizations, as more have taken on a sectoral focus, or have been established to pursue work in a defined field. Specific organizations have addressed matters that cover the full range: domestic violence, legal rights, education, health and sexuality, reproductive rights, HIV/AIDS, militarization, peace-building, housing and land, cultural and religious practices, female genital mutilation. These are just some of the areas being addressed by women's movements in different parts of Africa.

More recently African feminists are deploying information and communication technologies in highly innovative and radical ways, as evidenced by the activism of a number of electronically-based networks, notably ISIS-WICCE, GAIN, GENNET, and the Feminist Studies Network.

However, autonomous movements of the 1980s have often been replaced or displaced by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) primarily charged with the delivery of specific funded projects. NGOs differ from women's movements in being usually small in scale, urban-based, often sectorally specialized, and reliant on external funding. The NGO reliance on donor funding, while ensuring space for gender activism to continue in increasingly resource-starved environments, is increasingly viewed as compromising the capacity for autonomous feminist activism. Critics variously describe this as the "projectization" or "NGO-ization" of feminist movements, drawing attention to the manner in which even limited funding can have divisive and fragmenting effects, and lead to the reintroduction of conventional hierarchical structures and the neutralization of feminist agendas. It is this complicated scenario that leads African feminist Sisonke Msimang to write

I am part of a new generation of young African feminists whose entrance into "the movement" has been marked by feminist engagement in ways that are distinctly new. Many of us are feminists by profession and our "experience" and analysis comes from having worked on projects that employ the terminology of Gender and Development. We enter the arena of activism not necessarily through struggles specifically geared towards women's liberation, but through a complicated route that often involves the technical jargon of Gender and development and human rights. (p. 54)

With the democratization of politics in many African countries, women have continued to mobilize, demanding greater participation in political life, a concern reflected in the Beijing platform of 1995. In doing so they have also challenged the patriarchal biases of the political establishment, its militaristic culture, and the fact that large sums of money are necessary to the pursuit of political careers. Feminist politicians who have held seats in parliament have often found themselves profoundly challenged on key issues such as militarism, HIV/AIDS, land, and financial corruption, and in situations that have left them unsupported by the political mainstream. More commonly, they are simply not taken seriously by their male counterparts, as Sylvia Tamale's insightful study of women in the Ugandan parliament indicates.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adrenoceptor (adrenoreceptor; adrenergic receptor) to AmbientAfrica and African Diaspora Feminism - Continental Feminism, History, Postcolonial Feminism, Feminist Activism, Feminist Intellectuals, Feminism In The African Diaspora