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Whose Africa is rising? A feminist perspective

Celebrating the success of women who succeed against all odds might be an important part of the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative, but only if it served to also disclose the struggles and interests invested in their success



“What does it mean to describe us as ‘the world’s third-largest emerging market’, when Africa’s location in the global terms of trade remains unfavourable? Will African women becoming an ‘emerging market’ like China or India [allow] us to realise our potential, free ourselves and our dependents from abjection?”1

– Professor Amina Mama

Africa’s so-called “GDP miracle” is celebrated by global institutions, the media and the local elite as an economic growth success. However, this is only part of the story; there is a sub-narrative at play, of “African women rising” and taking the continent by storm. This, we are told, is evidenced by the first women presidents on the continent (Dr Joyce Banda of Malawi and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia), the election of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as chair of the African Union, and Isabel dos Santos (the oldest daughter of Angola’s long-time president, José Eduardo dos Santos) being identified as Africa’s richest woman and first African woman billionaire. These political appointments and economic acclaim, which are celebrated in the media and at events across the continent, frame the discourse for anything to do with “women” and “Africa”.

But what are we celebrating? The “Africa rising” narrative celebrates GDP growth in sub-Saharan Africa that has averaged 5 percent between 2004 and 2013, and has been particularly strong in countries such as the Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Mozambique, Rwanda and Sierra Leone that have reached GDP growth levels between 7 and 15 percent. Thus, approximately one-quarter of sub-Saharan countries have fast-growing GDPs and this, we are told, means that Africa is now finally on the right path, and prosperity is sure to follow.


Similarly, the “African women rising” narrative promoted by business journals (e.g. The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and Forbes Magazine) celebrates that 3.7 percent of Africa’s nations are led by women. While women political leaders might challenge patriarchal discourse about what women can and cannot do, that there are so few is more a cause of concern. Although there are exceptions (e.g. Rwanda and South Africa), most countries do not have anywhere near parity for women’s political participation: sub-Saharan Africa has an average of 21 percent women in national parliaments. The few women who have reached these heights remain in precarious positions. Banda, for example, is likely to lose the Malawian national elections next year, despite her popularity on the continent. Further, women occupying positions of power does not necessarily translate to a woman’s agenda and has not brought about significant change for the lives of the majority of women.

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More than 50 years since the beginning of Africa’s political independence, what does it say that so few countries are considered successful, and so few women, compromising 50 percent of the continent’s population, are in positions of political and economic power?

The “Africa rising” idea of GDP growth as a measure of success is dangerous. Its façade leads us to believe that we are on the appropriate path, while a close look at economic fundamentals and the lived reality of ordinary people appears to tell a different story. Similarly, the “women rising” discourse uses examples of women in power to create a façade in front of a significantly different and worse situation. There is nothing to indicate that things are getting better for women. This alerts us to the fact that these limited gains are a function of power and do not reflect the realities of most African women. As Jessie Kabwila succinctly points out: “Ms Zuma, Sirleaf and Banda are card carrying members of the ruling elite, socially and politically”. If we continue to herald these advances as if they were truly advances for all women, and if we continue to follow this path, then we will continue to reproduce structural inequalities between rich and poor and women and men.

Critiques of the “Africa rising” discourse rightly identify the main problem to be the neo-liberal development path, which maintains Africa’s subordination in the international world order. However, there is a glaring omission in this critique when women are silenced. While there may be some level of class analysis, a feminist analysis that includes race, gender and geographic location is absent. In a 2013 Afrobarometer survey of poverty in Africa that offers a glimpse behind the GDP statistics, the word “women” does not appear at all! This tells us something about the process, what it seeks to uncover, and what story is deemed important to tell. The critique does not see the need to look at the different experiences of women; it merely surmises that Africa’s ordinary people are not rising. An alternative critique is therefore required, one that can take on both the dangerous discourse of “African women rising” and provide a real look at how women – in particular black, rural, poor women – are located in the discourse in very particular ways.


This article begins the process of telling that story. Using recent research from the 2013 Human Development Report’s Gender Inequality Index, the 2013 Millennium Development Goals Report, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it highlights the kind of research and analysis that is required and what activism we should be supporting.

Angolan tycoon, Isabel dos Santos. Photo: Paulo Novais/Landov

Angolan tycoon, Isabel dos Santos. Photo: Paulo Novais/Landov

If, as some observers claim, Africa is not on the whole “rising”, then what has this GDP-led growth meant for African women? Has the leadership of Africa changed things for the majority of women at social and economic levels, if not political? The evidence suggests that, despite these high levels of GDP growth, the majority of women continue to face extraordinarily high levels of violence, the highest levels of poverty, the lowest incomes and, over time, decreasing access to critical social services that patriarchy makes them responsible for seeking out (e.g. childcare, healthcare, water and sanitation) in the context of high levels of HIV-infection and other diseases. As inequality increases and economic conditions worsen, women face an increased need for gender-specific social services.

Africa continues to be heavily reliant on the export of raw materials: 80 percent of exports in 2011 were resource-based raw and semi-processed goods. Trade liberalisation has cost sub-Saharan Africa USD 272 billion in the last 20 years and local producers are producing less, with specific impacts on women who remain the primary producers of food.

An attempt to bring poor people above the poverty line in the recent past has focused on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and now the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Poverty is decreasing in some countries and increasing in others, but the measures themselves are problematic. With the poverty line set at USD 1.25 per day, the MDG targets for reducing extreme poverty have been reached, but 1.2 billion people (24 percent of the world’s population) still live in extreme poverty, of which approximately 70 percent are women. In sub-Saharan Africa, almost 50 percent of people live on USD 1.25 a day and 27 percent are hungry. Expanding the poverty line marginally to include those who live on USD 2.00 per day captures almost half the world (2.8 billion people). In most countries, income inequality continues to grow: approximately 100 000 Africans boasted a net worth of USD 800 billion in 2008, or about 60 percent of Africa’s GDP.

Women wait for meals handed out by charity organisation, Gift of the Givers in Mogadishu. Photo: Getty

Women wait for meals handed out by charity organisation, Gift of the Givers in Mogadishu. Photo: Getty

However, poverty and inequality are not gender-neutral.

Under patriarchy, women take on unpaid and unrecognised reproductive labour roles in the home and the commu-nity. Under neoliberalism, the cutting-back of the state and privatisation of critical services such as water has meant that women act as a buffer and absorb the costs (physical and financial). Added to this, more women are poor, live in under-resourced rural areas, are single parents, and have poorly paid and insecure jobs. In the context of high levels of economic and gender inequality, women face incredibly high levels of violence and the response is to police women’s bodies (through laws and practices that deny women the right to make decisions about their reproduction, for example), which is presented as a way of restoring the “moral order”.

Increased GDP is also not necessarily linked to human development and gender equality. The sub-Saharan African region scores 0.577 in the gender inequality index (GII), making the region the most unequal in the world in terms of gender. Although these measures do not capture the full range of what women require to lead healthy, safe and fulfilling lives, they give us insight into some critical points. The maternal mortality ratio (MMR) for the region (measuring maternal deaths per 100 000 live births) is 475, well above the world average of 145. As Table 1 shows, some of the countries with the highest GDP growth in Africa in 2012 ranked very low on that year’s human development index (HDI) and GII. With the exception of Libya, the MMR is also very high, with many countries far worse even than the regional average.



These are the same countries identified by The Economist and the World Bank as having a positive economic outlook! Once again, serious inequalities between women and men, and the position of women in Africa’s national economies, are not considered important enough to be incorporated into evaluations of economic success.

Women Pushing On

The above evidence indicates that the benefits of “Africa rising” are not accruing to all who work and live on its land. Celebrating the success of women who succeed against all odds might be an important part of the narrative, but only if it served to also disclose the struggles and interests invested in their success. We must be cautious, however, to not perpetuate a narrative that reinforces the idea of African women as helpless vic-tims, the poorest of the poor, and lacking agency. Confronted with the realities of poverty and economic and gender inequal-ity, women across the continent have found creative ways of organising for survival – for example, through cross-border trading, sav-ings clubs, co-operatives, informal trading, and activism for local and national change.

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