Women's movements in Africa have come a long way over the past half century or so. In the first three decades after independence, women's organisations were often tied to the patronage politics of the single-party state and tended to focus on welfare, domestic and developmental concerns whilst avoiding political engagement. At the grassroots level, women's groups produced handicrafts, promoted literacy, farmed, engaged in income-generating projects, and in cultural activities.
This began to change in the 1990s as women's movements were increasingly influenced by international women's rights agendas as well as by the United Nations, African Union, Southern African Development Community and other sub-regional organisations.
The 1985 UN Conference on Women held in Nairobi and especially the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing served as catalysts for many organisations and activists. International donors, weary of state corruption and waste, began to shift resources towards non-governmental organisations, including women's associations.
At the same time, women activists became involved in democratisation movements, which, in turn, opened up political space for women's mobilisation. One-party systems gave way to multiparty systems; military dictatorships dissolved into civilian rule; freedom of press, association and assembly expanded. The decline of conflict in Africa, especially after 2000, further sped up the push for women's rights, especially in post-conflict countries.
With time, women's organisations became increasingly independent of government and the dominant political party. Women activists began to acquire their own resources, select their own leaders, and forge their own agendas. New women's networks and conferences organised around violence against women, peace, the environment, and reproductive rights.
Although the older welfare-oriented and developmental agendas persist to this day, a new emphasis on political participation and advocacy has emerged. New women's organisations formed to improve leadership skills, encourage women's political involvement, promote women's political leadership, press for legislative changes, and conduct civic education.
On the one hand, some of the successes of African women's movements can be attributed to the roles played by international organisations in catalysing change, providing broad spaces for debate and action, and offering examples for African nations and campaigners to emulate. But on the other hand, African organisations can be seen to have taken unique and novel approaches to campaigning for female empowerment in ways that have influenced the rest of the world.
While some of these women's rights agendas have been inspired by international feminisms, African women are themselves contributing significantly to global understandings and implementation of women's rights as we see in the struggles over quotas and constitutional reform.
The notion of 'gender mainstreaming' that became popular in the 1980s had been articulated by women like Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo from Burkina Faso already in 1960, when at a UN meeting she argued for the need to keep a double stream, to have specific support for women while at the same time trying to involve them in the mainstream of decisions and actions.
More recently, women's increasingly visible presence in African legislatures has also resulted in new global discussions about strategies to enhance women's political representation. In the predominantly Muslim country of Senegal, for instance, the proportion of female parliamentary representatives jumped from 23% to 43% in the 2012 elections, following the adoption of a new parity law.
For over a decade, the movement Conseil Senegalais des Femmes (COSEF) had been campaigning for greater gender parity and their efforts finally bore fruit with the establishment of a law that ensured candidate lists alternate between male and female candidates.
Another area that has generated considerable momentum in Africa has been the adoption of 'gender budgets', or attempts to make the gender implications of national spending priorities more explicit and ultimately fairer.
After the 1995 UN Women's Conference in Beijing, many countries in Africa adopted women's budgets patterned along the lines of South Africa's 1994 budget exercise. While South Africa's budget was itself inspired by Australia in 1984, gender budgeting has been taken on by a number of countries across Africa, facilitating its subsequent spread more widely in the rest of the world. The European Union has endorsed this approach as have the parliaments of some of its member states.
In Rwanda, women now hold 56% of the country's legislative seats. In Senegal, Seychelles and South Africa, more than 40% of parliamentary seats are held by women, while in Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania and Uganda more than 35% of the seats are occupied by women.
There are female speakers of the house in one fifth of African parliaments, which is higher than the world average of 14%. But beneath these statistics lies an even greater success: Unlike many other rights, which are dictated from a top-down international (and often Western) level, Africa has actively enhanced global understandings of feminism.
By Guylain Gustave Moke