Let the women speak!

Africa Files have organised a series of ezine articles on the Economic Empowerment of African Women to be edited by Anene Ejikeme. The series starts with an editorial by Ms Ejikeme titled “Let the women speak!” in which she challenges the standard view as African women lacking agency and “African” traditions as the main reason for the impoverishment of African women.

She quite rightly points out that, first of all, there is no such thing as “African” tradition but multiple traditions existing across the continent, many of which are actually relatively new dating back to the colonial period. She gives the example of land ownership in Kenya which was introduced by the British but which is now used by Kenyan men claiming it is a “tradition” and thereby denying women the right to own land. I would add that the same goes for the claim that lesbians are “unAfrican” and not part of the tradition of any African society – Again this was introduced during colonisation when the British imposed their own laws and belief systems on the indigenous population which included homosexuality and the rights of women.

“What is considered “traditional” in African communities is often of relatively recent vintage and was colonially-generated. Foreign aid workers and African men are too eager to point to “Tradition” when excluding women from development projects.”

Although Ejikeme acknowledges the dire state of African women’s lives, aid is not the solution because firstly aid programmes have always discriminated against African women and secondly have brought nothing but increasing debt to African countries.

“African women receive only 1 percent of credit facilities extended to agricultural producers. Yet, at least 70 percent of African women are involved in agriculture.”

The realities of Western consumption and resource exploitation along with militarisation are some of the main causes behind the poverty of African women. The substitution of cash crops for food and local needs which do not benefit African farmers (women) due to the ridiculously low prices of for example cocoa, rice add to the impoverishment of women. Add to this the environmental damage to the creeks and ponds of regions such as the Niger Delta (again women are the ones who fish) and the substitution of local fish for imported frozen fish – like importing sand to the desert.

Related to economic development must be the question of arms sales. Africa is awash in arms, from small ones to massive missiles. Armed conflict makes agriculture impossible and does not allow for the kind of stability that investors want. The number of Africans affected by armed conflicts is staggering. Between 1994 and 2003 more than 9 million Africans, mostly women and children, perished as a result of armed conflict. That’s the entire population of Sweden.

One does not have too dig very deep behind the armed conflicts in Africa to find the scramble for gold, oil, diamonds, copper, cobalt by Western multinationals and the aid of their proxy armies along with corrupt African leadership and elites. Part of the brief of AFRICOM is too try to “integrate the environment with other development issues and human security”. (Seminar: US Dept of Defence and US Forest Service International Program 18/01/08) Enviornmental security includes climate change and deforestation but also the protection [ownership] of natural resources.

Ejikeme concludes that smaller grassroots are more likely to succeed because they require the active participation of women unlike large scale programs that are designed and implemented by large impersonal agencies and imported aid workers that only nourishes the NGO business. She provides an excellent example of the NGO business and UN agencies attitude to African in general and African women in particular.

UN Commission on the Status of Women has declared its theme for 2008 as “Financing for gender equality and the empowerment of women”. In February 2007 the Commission convened an informal expert panel to discuss how to move forward on this agenda. It is disheartening — but, unfortunately, not surprising — that no African women were amongst the list of panelists; indeed the only African — the Minister of Finance for Zambia — was also the only man.

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