Women and the Human Rights Paradigm in the African Context

Living reference work entry
Part of the International Human Rights book series (IHR)


Women’s individual rights claims in many African countries are contentious in large part because they are considered to be a threat to societal and national cultural harmony. This is even more so when women’s sexual rights come into question. Conservative groups argue that these rights claims are Western-oriented and threaten the moral fiber of their societies. To counter these arguments, women’s rights activists not only have to historicize the colonial foundations of women’s oppression but also strategically dialogue between universalist and essentialist cultural norms. This chapter analyzes the contexts, debates, and discourses of women’s rights in African sociopolitical and cultural systems. The chapter emphasizes the need for women’s rights to be situated within global economic inequities in order to highlight intricate interconnections between global neoliberalism and women’s rights at the local levels. The chapter raises an argument that in the changing sociocultural landscape in Africa, African exceptionalism in women’s rights discourses hinders progressive dialogue on women and minority rights. The chapter also discusses intersectionality and generational differences in rights activism.


Women Africa Human rights Culture Neoliberalism Intersectionality 

I think people should begin to see advocacy, women’s rights, not as a private issue but as a collective issue because what might be good for me may be good for my sister in my village. If something happens to my sister and then we use her as the reference point and we get a policy or a law that changes her situation for the better, it will affect your sister in your village, your mother in your hometown or your colleague in another town. Women’s rights are rights everywhere on this planet. No culture, person or government can take that away from women. (Fati, women’s rights activist, Ghana, 2010)


Women’s rights matters, the world over, bear striking similarities with regards to the entanglement of rights discourses and prevailing sociopolitical, cultural, and economic norms. Therefore, in order to understand the nature of rights discourses in a particular society, it is important to situate those discourses within its geopolitical, historical, and socioeconomic context. To this extent, writing about and evaluating women’s rights concerns in Africa is a daunting task because of the sheer size and diversity of the continent. There is a real risk of oversimplification and generalizations. Africa is an exceptionally diverse continent. While a history of European colonization provides a common general background – in terms of cultures borne out of tensions between indigenous and European domination – the impact, nature, and resistance of the colonial enterprise was varied across the continent. Germaine to this topic, the disruption of preexisting gender relations has been widely seen as setting the foundation for the nature of gender inequity today (Oyěwùmí 1997; Amadiume 2015; Maathai 2011; Nnaemeka 2005). In the post-colonial African setting, women’s rights concerns emanate directly from these unequal gender relations and power distribution. Gender inequality is not only a solid basis for women’s rights violations and or failure to recognize and uphold rights, it is also a human rights issue. To address the foundational issues that underlie women’s rights concerns, it is important to recognize the intertwined nature of culture, gender inequality, and women’s rights (Tamale 2008). To successfully contest the status quo, and constructively engage culture, African women’s rights activists employ what I refer to as a strategic weaponization of universalist human rights discourses. Here, I am referring to their ability to simultaneously deconstruct and challenge universalist constructs of African Culture and women while appealing to and using the power of universal human rights as leverage to engage disadvantageous cultural norms. It is valid and proper to evaluate women’s rights issues and work in Africa from the complexly interwoven tensions of universalism and African exceptionalism.

In this chapter, I advocate for a replacement of cultural relativism with African exceptionalism. This is to achieve two goals: interrupt the “culture as justification” excuse and provide a critical evaluation of imperialistic tendencies in “culture as culprit” trends in international human rights discourses. First, culture is ubiquitous and impacts women’s rights everywhere in the world. The fact that it is used mainly only in reference to non-Western “others” serves an imperial purpose of delegitimizing valid Africanist arguments and therefore reiterates colonial hierarchies that denote the West as sophisticated, modern, and master of nature and culture while Africa is subject to/enslaved by a static and so-called backward culture. This type of representation masks the history and complicity of Western states, capital, and institutions in human rights violations (through various means but mostly in the economic realm) in an attempt to lay the blame solely on African male actors. I employ African exceptionalism, therefore, in an attempt to provide some nuance to the cultural relativism debate in the context of the African continent and to historicize and critique universalist discourses of rights with particular reference to African women, using supranational instruments and documents of the African Union as a backdrop. The aim of the chapter is to situate women’s rights issues in Africa within the broader contexts of international political economy, history, and cultural evolutions.

Methodology and Chapter Organization

This chapter’s theoretical and methodological orientations are influenced by postcolonial African feminist thought, which emphasizes historicity, context-specificity, deconstructionism, and critical engagement with colonial and Eurocentric discourses of African women in knowledge production about African women. It draws from previous work and uses data from fieldwork, participant observations, secondary data analyses, primary data obtained from interviews with women’s rights activists (mostly in Ghana), and textual analyses of primary documents on human rights pertinent to women’s rights in Africa. The chapter is organized as follows: Part one outlines women’s rights issues in Africa and assesses how they are different from women’s rights issues in other parts of the world. This is in order to situate normative discourses of women’s rights within a broader global context. How do global financial flows and economic policies impact women’s rights? How does the traditional focus on rights violations on cultural grounds supersede, and or displace, a focus on larger systemic problems that reinforce local cultural traditions? Part two addresses ongoing debates regarding universalism and African exceptionalism in women’s rights claims in Africa. It places the “culture is culprit/excuse” debate within a global context and speaks to how global economic inequalities exacerbate, encourage, and impact local cultural traditions that disadvantage women. Part three addresses how activists on the ground dialogue between global and local patriarchal systems in defending and upholding women’s rights. I suggest that their strategies speak to the intersectional issues women face in patriarchal postcolonial African societies. The chapter ends by asking how a millennial generation of African women, using the internet and other electronic means of communication, might lead a different kind of cultural revolution with regards to women’s rights.

Global Political Economy and Human Rights in Africa

Women’s rights concerns anywhere, but particularly Africa, cannot be discussed in isolation from the global environment within which rights claims are made, assessed, and mitigated. There is a delicate and intricate interconnection of global economic policies and women’s rights. Women-friendly economic policies, embedded in international agreements and financial flows and transactions will bode well for creating and sustaining enabling environments for the realization of women’s rights (if they existed). Similarly, the absence of such policies creates a toxic environment for women’s rights. Starting with the devastating Structural Adjustment Programs of the 1980s and ending with current global neoliberal free trade policies, austere macroeconomic programs have entrenched gender inequality in Africa. Women have borne the brunt of such policies and programs because of normative gender role expectations for women to perform social reproductive labor (Adeniyi-Ogunyankin 2012). This has entrenched patriarchal cultural discourses that severely disadvantage women. Since most African governments do not have absolute autonomy in their financial and economic policy decision-making, they are unable to resist the neoliberal policy recommendations that come with aid, loans, and other foreign investment agreements. Numerous studies have firmly established the link between neoliberal economic policies and women’s growing economic disenfranchisement in low-income countries (Kanji and Jazdowska 1993; Stromquist 1999; Boesten 2003). For instance, girls are more likely than boys to be withdrawn from school when a family is economically struggling. This ultimately increases the chances and risks of early/child marriages in communities where such a practice is culturally acceptable. Women who are struggling economically are more likely to endure spousal abuse and violence than those who have some economic leverage.

Globally, neoliberalism has contributed to extreme poverty and powerlessness for women in low income countries. These systemic disadvantages, therefore, require empowerment mechanisms that address global economic inequities in tandem with local patriarchal traditions. Unfortunately, women’s empowerment campaigns often aim to address one aspect of the problem: local cultural traditions that privilege men. The focus of many women’s empowerment NGOs on addressing local customs and or focusing on individual women empowerment, while important, leads to deepening the neoliberal habitus where individuals undertake to resolve structural problems through their “personal/individual” choices. It is therefore not surprising that women’s rights empowerment campaigns, in some societies, are fiercely resisted. For instance, internationally funded and acclaimed microfinance projects that target women as beneficiaries operate on certain deeply flawed assumptions about: (a) the causes of the problem and (b) what constitutes empowerment. By assuming that “men,” as a group in patriarchal societies, are the problem, little attention is paid to how power works. In the first place, there is the assumption that all that is required to solve the problem is attitudinal changes from men. Awareness campaigns are often designed to “educate” community members about women’s rights and the legal protections for them. In doing this, societies are compared to their Western counterparts where they are found wanting and backward. This kind of approach is not only ahistorical, it also erroneously assumes that men in poor communities actually have much economic power. This approach fails to recognize that men are equally ravished by poverty in these societies. Furthermore, economic power does not automatically translate into sociocultural and political power for women. As an executive director of an NGO for women’s empowerment intimated in an interview, such a focus on women increases male fear about becoming useless and tends to harden their grip on power in various detrimental ways for women.

Subsequently, such empowerment schemes cause strife and create deep divisions among men and women in an already impoverished society. This schism deepens patriarchal power holds among the dominant male population who feel threatened by what they consider “uncultural” Western impositions. Activists have raised concerns about how particular conceptions of empowerment and Western-oriented empowerment programs exacerbated the plight of women and poisoned the minds of community members to women’s rights empowerment.

I think we still need to do a whole lot of research to understand our socioeconomic and sociocultural systems better to serve as the basis for our advocacy. So yes, there are the bottom end things to do with our women, to build the broader constituency so that it doesn’t look like it’s just us the leadership who are talking […]. We have always advocated for change, but it doesn’t look like we have sat down to think critically about the effects of change. I think we have made a lot of inroads, but there’s still a lot to be done. (Activist 1 2010)

Second, the focus on increasing and improving women’s financial autonomy is one of many factors that constitute empowerment for women. It is common knowledge that most Africans work to support their families. This has not led to transformative changes in power dynamics in society. To understand how power works, it is important to take the social structure into consideration. It is common practice for women to move to their husband’s home and village upon marriage. Married women in these situations therefore have to build social and cultural capital in their new environment. This capital is accrued over time and through an important culturally validating mechanism of mothering. With children, a woman’s cultural capital grows, incrementally empowering her (Bawa 2012). However, she only really becomes powerful through her male children since female children will also eventually leave to their matrimonial homes. Women’s aspirations for power and voice often, therefore, inevitably also involve and revolve around male relatives in one way or the other. Furthermore, African feminist scholars caution against the reading of female bodies anywhere and everywhere as “women,” oppressed or disadvantaged (see Oyěwùmí 1997; Amadiume 1997; Nnaemeka 2005). Within this context, it is crucial for women’s rights activists not to subscribe to universalizing discourses of women and in particular, to pay attention to nuances in local sociocultural environments if they are truly to succeed. As discussed later in this chapter, grassroots activists are able to weave between the universal and local patriarchal dynamics to defend women’s rights albeit it at what may seem a glacial pace. In addition to global economic inequities, an area that has not been given much attention in women’s rights discussions is the role of the environment on women’s rights in Africa.

Studies show that the most vulnerable in the planet will be most affected by negative environmental changes (Denton 2002). This ranges from displacement to food insecurity. With a reliance on rain-fed Agriculture, increasingly erratic rainfall patterns will worsen the current situation of food poverty for millions in Africa and lead to displacement. The worst affected will be women − they will become even more vulnerable to abuse and rights violations in such precarious situations. For Wangari Maathai, the Nobel peace laureate, land rights, environmental protection, colonialism, and women’s rights are closely linked. She explains that in Kenya,

when the British came they introduced the concept of title deeds for land, which they insisted be in the name of the head of the household. That was always the man. That undermined the traditional setting whereby land belongs to the family. This reform stopped women having legal right to the land. British rule also meant that arable land was used increasingly for cash crops (tea, coffee, sugar cane) rather than subsistence farming. When the cash came in, it went into a bank account held by the man, even though it was women and children who did the work in the fields. Women were completely disenfranchised. (Jeffries 2007)

The issues raised in this section establish a connection among imperialism, development, and women’s human rights. I argue that, in Africa, women’s rights cannot be sought in isolation of the national interests of the postcolonial state. It is for this reason that women’s rights activists recognize the importance of working through, with, and around the African Union’s regional as well as national human rights provisions and instruments. The AU, in particular, has recognized the importance of economic, social, and cultural rights to the development of African states. For this reason, the right to development, advocated by African and other third world countries, emphasizes the role of colonialism and imperialism in the impoverishment of millions on the continent (Banjul Charter 1981; UNGA 1986). Specifically, the UN Declaration on the Right to Development (UNGA 1986) states:

Considering that the elimination of the massive and flagrant violations of the human rights of the peoples and individuals affected by situations such as those resulting from colonialism, neocolonialism, apartheid, all forms of racism and racial discrimination, foreign domination and occupation, aggression and threats against national sovereignty, national unity and territorial integrity and threats of war would contribute to the establishment of circumstances propitious to the development of a great part of mankind …. [the General Assembly confirms that] the right to development is an inalienable human right and that the equality of opportunity for development is a prerogative both of nations and of individuals who make up nations. (UNGA 1986)

The next part builds on the links established in this section − among colonialism, global macroeconomic systems, poverty and women’s rights − to engage the “culture” dimension in women’s rights claims in Africa.

Individual Rights in Communitarian Settings

The longue durée of debates on universalism and cultural relativism has resulted in a bifurcation that appears to exaggerate differences between Western and non-Western cultures and cultural systems (Ibhawoh 2004). The oversimplified idea that the West is a homogenous society where women’s individual rights are naturally ingrained in a libertarian culture is a highly flawed but much invoked image in human rights discourses. In particular, the West is often held as a shining example of a human rights habitus. It is a place where culture is not mentioned in the same sentence with/as women’s rights; it is considered a-cultural and ultimately permissive with regards to individual rights. These assumptions are not borne out by the evidence of struggle for women’s rights dating back over hundreds of years. Today while abortion (as an example of women’s rights to bodily autonomy) is legal in many countries (albeit with many restrictions), it remains highly frowned upon by large segments of the society. Abortion clinics are frequently harassed and women who use abortion services are routinely shamed by those who consider such action as morally reprehensible. Among other things, gender pay gaps (even in Canada, a country whose current Prime Minister claims to be feminist), sexual harassment, and assault against women are a reality for women in Western democratic countries. Sociologists have coined the term “rape culture” to appropriately describe this state of affairs. In recent times, the #metoo campaign is evidence that, despite generations of feminist activism for women’s rights and gender equality, Canadian society still has a long way to go. All around the world, reports of similar incidents of rights violations or discrimination against women are commonplace.

Against this backdrop, I argue that culture does play a role in women’s rights concerns everywhere. Therefore, highlighting it as a particular culprit in the case of African countries/societies only serves the purpose of othering African societies as unprogressively different; thereby protracting the differences between the West and non-West (in all of its problematic generalizations). Second, culture is another way of referring to the social, political, economic, and religious make up and dynamics of society. The point here is that the highly privileged position of culture (as static) in discourses of women’s rights in Africa and other non-Western settings is rather moot. Its discursive potential to hinder progressive dialogue on women’s rights is especially amplified in its deification in non-Western contexts. In Africa, perhaps more so than other places, there have been tremendous cultural changes over the course of human existence. This means that cultural excuses, legitimations, and discourses in rights concerns in Africa are ultimately about prevailing power dynamics in the society. Colonially sanctioned, inherited, enhanced or not, patriarchal domination in most societies on the continent largely disadvantages women collectively. African cultural systems predominantly emphasize communitarianism. Ubuntu refers to the collective nature of being and identity formation and experience. One reflects the collective, and the collectives define and reflect the individual. This collective nature of social life is often mistaken to mean that individual aspirations are frowned upon. This is extended to the idea that individual rights ought to be suppressed for the collective good of the community. Characteristic of how power operates, such concerns are only raised when marginalized and minority groups rights come up. The dominant cultural group is male, heterosexual, and patriarchal. Despite being the majority in terms of population, women’s rights in Africa ought to be considered as minority rights because they are considered peripheral and traitorous to the male-centered agenda of nation-state building (Bawa 2017).

As the opening quotation indicates, activism that is collective will dispel the notion that women’s rights advocacy caters to “a few disgruntled women” who have been unduly influenced by Western women’s rights discourses. In other words, it would help to raise awareness of how powerful male actors have managed to suppress the interests of the majority of their citizens through propaganda which seeks to center their interests (though in the minority) as “communal and beneficial to all” (ibid., 29).

Nevertheless, these concerns around imperialism, even though they appear to oppose women’s individual rights, ought to be treated seriously by human rights defenders. For a continent that is barely 60 years postcolonial rule, there are real fears about recolonization through the imposition of universally binding, Western-initiated instruments that lack the representative power of the continent. To be successful, human rights advocates and defenders must find ways to weave between the universal and the local; they cannot dismiss nor be unwaveringly loyal to either group They are caught between two male dominated systems; local and global. These “tensions and contradictions between cultural relativism and universal women’s rights debates suggest an opposition between principles of individual and collective liberties” (Bawa 2012, 94).

Continentally, the Protocol to the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa of 2003 (hereafter the Maputo Protocol) is an instrument that exemplifies the strategy of rights activists on the continent. To date, the protocol has been signed and ratified by 36 countries. By proposing a protocol on women’s rights to the African Union and, therefore, directly engaging the continent’s human rights instrument, the Banjul Charter, African women convey, symbolically three main things: first, they recognize and are acutely aware of the importance of sovereignty to Africa; second, women have a right to culture and play an important role in shaping it on the continent; and third, they signal independence from, and interdependence and solidarity, with the global women’s rights movement encapsulated in the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). I suggest further that, the very act of resisting a blanket/patriarchal interpretation of African culture through the drafting of the Maputo Protocol encapsulates the agency of women in resisting the multiple and intersecting discriminations and oppressions that colonialism instituted (see Obiora and Whalen 2015; Banda 2006). Further to that point, I suggest that

as far as human rights advocacy is concerned, the challenge facing African women’s rights advocates and feminists is their ability to advocate a specific relativism, one that leans towards individual freedoms and individual libertarian values while emphasizing a communal responsibility to protect the rights of women at community and state levels through an institutionalization of these processes, legally and socio-culturally. (Bawa 2012)

Strategies, Successes and Challenges of Women’s Rights in Africa

Today, there is hardly a consensus among women’s rights activists on the continent on strategies and approaches. There are those who have achieved results by forming alliances, being gradual and patient with the system to institute legislative change. There are others who see the urgency of the matter and are less “pleasant” or gradual in their approach. In the next subsection, I draw on examples of successful and ongoing activism on women’s rights by women on the continent to analyze their strategies and the challenges they still face in rights advocacy. Here, I discuss how women are adapting to the changing dynamics of rights advocacy and the generational differences in their approaches.

The Myth of the Silent and Oppressed African Woman

For any keen observer of women’s rights around the world, it is unfathomable to assume that women have ever not protested their marginalization or oppression. Yet, an exception is made when it comes to women’s rights and empowerment in Africa. Outsider intervention often assumes that women themselves are too powerless to challenge the system. The women’s movement in Africa has never been cowed or silenced. Women have successfully campaigned against oppression and violence and fought for their rights. One of the key strategies women’s rights groups use is maintaining only pro-women’s interests by successfully negotiating a space for themselves that does not align them uncritically either to the West or conservative culturalists at home. Their campaigns are, nevertheless, sensitive to the sociocultural environment in order to ensure that their constituents, women, are not alienated from their communities. While women’s rights activism has benefitted from funding by donors from around the world, some of their work has also been hampered by unprogressive campaigns that tend to paint African societies with broad strokes. A popular example of a women’s rights issue that has garnered global attention is female circumcision (otherwise only referred to by its more harmful form, female genital mutilation or FGM). It is important to note that, while I condemn mutilation and harm of any sort, I am unaware of any cultural group or people in Africa that would deliberately cause egregious harm to a section of its population as part of its traditions or culture. In discussions with grassroots activists in Ghana, many stipulated that incidents of the practice are few. There are two possibilities here: either the practice is actually declining or has been driven underground by the aggressive campaigning from international rights groups. The latter is one of the main fears of grassroots activists; silencing and fear because of unintended consequences of strategies designed to improve women’s lives. Subsequently, African feminist scholars, activists, and groups call for a much more critical engagement with communities where such practices still occur (Nnaemeka 2005; Obiora 1997). In addition to this, I argue that the various examples of successful grassroots campaigns to end the practice without alienating community members are the best way to solve the problem. For instance, Tharaka Women’s Welfare Program (TWWP) a community women’s rights group in Kenya has found a viable alternative to circumcision. Additionally, an activist in Kenya founded Umoja, a village that serves as a refuge for women fleeing sexual violence and other forms of abuse including FGM (Bindel 2015). In addition, news reports from Kenya show that, increasingly, local male chiefs are not only supportive but also leading the revolution to end the practice (Onyulo 2015). I highlight these as examples of the leadership of grassroots women’s groups in resolving rights violations. Furthermore, it is important to point out that it is problematic that instead of building on these successful initiatives and highlighting the work by these groups, the international women’s rights community continue to be tone-deaf to the harm they cause when and if their campaigns are not contextually nuanced and informed. Alongside notable stalwarts like Winnie Mandikizela Mandela (South Africa), Wangara Mathai (Kenya), Unity Dow (Botswana), Leymah Gbowee (Liberia) to name a few, so many heroines work at local grassroots levels, sometimes in very unorthodox ways, to defend women’s and girls’ rights without compromising on national development. Their work shows that, contrary to the notion that women’s individual rights harm national cohesion, it actually enhances it. Women have worked tirelessly in the interest of peace and stable governments. In Liberia, for instance, the Women’s Movement for peace has been widely credited for ending the civil war and strife and for helping elect Africa’s first female head of state, Sirleaf Johnson, to office. This work and strategy is captured in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell (Reticker 2008). In terms of political representation, the latest OHCHR report indicates that women’s participation in politics on the continent has been improving in numerical terms. It reports that: “female participation in African legislatures outpaces many in developed countries. Rwanda (at 63.8 percent) is ranked number one in the world, with Senegal and South Africa in the top 10. Fifteen African countries rank ahead of France and the United Kingdom, 24 rank ahead of the United States, and 42 rank ahead of Japan” (OHCHR 2017, 11). This is symbolically important and can form the bedrock for real change. However, it is important to note that women in parliament and government may not necessarily serve women’s interests since they are usually representing the interests of their respective political parties (Bawa and Sanyare 2013).

Changing Landscapes, Generational Differences, and Social Media

Social media in Africa has impacted traditional activism and modes of communication. African women are active on social media in their feminist advocacy. The platform has improved and expanded the space women have to extend their influence on key national and political issues affecting women. These new platforms also create opportunities for rapid and coordinated responses to women’s rights issues. Continent wide, there is a growing new crop of feminist activists and many of them are successfully using social media to do their advocacy. Initially used in an attempt to dismiss the impact of these activists, the term “Facebook, Twitter, or social media feminist” has been (re)claimed by young feminists. In addition to the usual charge that feminist activism is un-African, the key criticism “social media feminists” face is that they are disconnected from the reality of most women on the ground. This criticism is not substantively different from those leveled against feminists for being elitist and disconnected from the concerns of ordinary women. Nevertheless, the continent-wide solidarity and networking to fight violence against women and fight gender oppression is crucial to advancing women’s rights in an increasingly more interconnected and digital world. An observation of some of these debates on social media show lively, if tense, debates on various issues concerning women’s rights. Activists engage different segments of the public on their campaigns. For instance, in addition to prominent individual activists, groups such as Zambia Feminists, African Feminists, and Pepperdemministries have become the go-to commentators on issues relating to women’s rights. In fact, they are sought after for comment and interviews whenever an incident on gender inequality occurs.

In 2016, the hashtag #menarethrash erupted on social media following the gruesome murder of a 21-year-old South African woman in a domestic violence incident. While many criticized the hashtag for being antimale and overgeneralizing about men’s violent tendencies, others praised it for forcing Africans to confront an ugly truth of domestic violence on social media. Following the story, it was comforting for many women’s rights activists to see that the incident was universally condemned. However, the issue of militancy in the activists’ strategy was the bone of contention. This is not uncommon in discussions around women’s rights activism in Africa. Many are uncomfortable with what they consider a militant approach where dialogue would be more productive. Indeed, as several male interviews intimated during fieldwork in Ghana, they expect women to “progressively seek for rights and not be militant about it.” Similarly, the hashtag #mydressmychoice which originated from Kenya following the undress and shaming of a young woman in Nairobi, garnered world-wide attention and solidarity. Activists and women not only took to social media to register their protests and disgust, they also demonstrated around the continent to register their concerns. Another hashtag that emanated from Nigeria, #bringbackourgirls quickly went global. People like Michelle Obama joined in this social media campaign to pressurize the Nigerian government to rescue over 200 girls captured in Chibok, Nigeria. Overall, social media has provided an unprecedented opportunity for women to democratically engage powerbrokers and governments on women’s rights issues. With the threat of international shaming, governments are no longer cavalier about discourses around women’s rights.

Intersectionality and Changing Dynamics of Women’s Rights Activism in Africa

Increasingly, LGBTQ groups in the continent are becoming visible in their activism for rights specific to their sexuality. Because women’s rights activism is often seen as Western and anti-African, the movement is also blamed for encouraging Western incursions on the cultural values of the continent. To escape these charges, many feminist and women’s rights groups go to great lengths to dissociate themselves from LGBTQ groups.

The issue of LGBTQ rights, in particular, brings the paradoxes of the global human rights debates to light in the African setting. With a focus on economic redistribution and subsistence, sexual minority rights may appear a luxury to the economically struggling African state. Similar to the rhetoric on women’s rights, but with much more hostility, the rights of LGBTQ communities have been constructed as un-cultural to Ghanaian society. Therefore, rather than merely compel countries in the Global South to legislate favorably on this matter in the midst of such great hostility, it is crucial to encourage education and dialogue to provide an enabling environment for people within these communities to enjoy these rights. (Bawa 2017, 39)

In West Africa, for instance, evangelical Christianity, which is largely antigay, is on the rise. Many women are organized in groups within their church and faith communities and therefore often espouse their faith doctrines. In the majority of cases of women’s rights, the problem is not the lack of progressive legislation but enforcement. In the case of LGBTQ rights, there are actually prohibitive laws against same sex rights. Nevertheless, in the face of reprisals, women’s queer activism has increased and become more and more visible. For instance, the Association sourire de femme (Senegal), Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), the Bisi Alimi Foundation (Nigeria), the Gay and Lesbian Coalition of Kenya, OutRight (South Africa), Shams (Tunisia), and the Association of Gay and Lesbians in Zimbabwe are some of the groups fighting for the inclusive intersectional rights of women and queer people in Africa.

Alliances between women’s and LGBQT activism on the continent are few. While an expanded basis for rights in Africa will benefit all marginalized groups; many activists are concerned that such alliances will alienate their constituents. The challenge facing women’s rights advocates in Africa at the moment is how to operationalize intersectional identities in their activism without generalizing to all human rights concerns and therefore losing the momentum to even out the inequitable situations of women as a special category. In other words, how does the women’s movement address rights claims for its queer constituents under the umbrella of women’s rights? This is an area that still requires further studies.


Years of hard work and strategic activism from advocates has resulted in much progressive legislation, policy and attitudinal changes, and cultural shifts for women’s rights in Africa. Concerted efforts of activists, albeit disparate, have broadened discourses of women’s rights beyond economic empowerment to sexual rights. A key strategy that has worked in this regard is the two-pronged method of deconstructionism of local patriarchal culture and strategic deployment of universalist human rights norms. By critically engaging and historicizing “African culture” activists have provided much needed space for women’s rights claims. At the global level, women’s rights issues are closely intertwined with the international political economy. By relying on their entitlement to universal human rights while critiquing international policies that violate rights to economic empowerment and exacerbate cultural norms that disadvantage them, advocates and scholars provide opportunities for critical engagement with the global human rights community on the interdependence of first and second generation rights. This also provides a unique opportunity to dialogue with global rights groups and solidarity networks (funders and NGOs) on issues of imperialism, agency, and power in women’s rights work. An area that requires further study is how intersectionalism is operationalized in women’s rights advocacy in Africa.


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Law and Cases

  1. African (Banjul) Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (1981) African UnionGoogle Scholar
  2. Protocol to the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa [Maputo Protocol] (2003)
  3. UNGA (1986) Declaration on the right to development. UN Doc A/RES/41/128. UN General AssemblyGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional StudiesYork UniversityTorontoCanada

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