Against All Odds: Reflections on African Feminism and Gender
This article reflects on how African feminism plays out among specific women populations in Ghana. Specifically, the authors talk about the informal caregiving roles of women, women as leaders in different fields of endeavours, and how these roles reflect the position of women in the Ghanaian society. Dwelling on Nnaemeka’s (2004) concept of ‘nego-feminism’, the various intersecting factors that play out in the day to day realities of Ghanaian women are highlighted. These discussions are pertinent to social work discourse, as an understanding of the intricacies involved in working with black populations, and in this case, black African women, are important to developing anti-oppressive social work practice.
Feminism as a concept has contested meanings across different contexts and scholars. While the goal of this article is not to add to the debate on what feminism is or is not, it is important to indicate early on that the author(s) situate the discussion within aspects of an African feminist framework, which among other issues, addresses the relegation of women's struggles against a dominant patriarchal system. Essof (2001) reports how Amina Mama, a Nigerian writer expressed that a major challenge with the concept of feminism in Africa has to do with making the term “our own by filling the name with meaning” (p. 125). Arndt’s (2002) attempt at explaining African feminism helps to bring some context to this term as a framework:
Generally speaking, African feminism gets to the bottom of African gender relations and the problems of African women - illuminating their causes and consequences - and criticises them. In so doing, African feminism aims at upsetting the existing matrix of domination and overcoming it, thus transforming gender relationships and conceptions in African societies and improving the situation of African women (Arndt, 2002, p. 32).
As female social work researchers in disability and gender studies respectively, we reflect on how African feminism comes to bear among the groups with whom we conduct our research. Specifically, we talk about the informal caregiving roles of women, women as leaders in different fields of endeavours, and how these roles reflect the position of women in the Ghanaian society. Dwelling on Nnaemeka’s (2004) concept of ‘nego-feminism’, the various intersecting factors that play out in the day to day realities of Ghanaian women are highlighted. These discussions are pertinent to social work discourse as an understanding of the intricacies involved in working with black populations, and in this case, black African women, are important to developing anti-oppressive social work practice.
African feminism focuses not only on the history of Africa after colonization, but also “present struggles under neocolonialism, neoliberalism and globalization” (Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists, 2016; p.4). Gatwiri and McLaren (2016) assert that although the re-building of Africa was done jointly by women and men, women’s efforts have been “largely unacknowledged”, a situation they attribute to patriarchy (p. 265). Thus, African feminism seeks basically to “politicise the struggle for women’s rights, …question the legitimacy of the structures that keep women subjugated, and … develop tools for transformatory analysis and action” (Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists, 2016; p.3). One of the ways in which this is accomplished is through what Nnaemeka (2004) refers to as nego-feminism.
Nego-feminism is described by Nnaemeka (2004) as the feminism of negotiation, and she further asserts that the term also stands for “no ego” feminism (p. 377). She elaborates on how many African cultures share in the values and principles of “negotiation, give and take, compromise, and balance’ (pp 377-378). For Nnaemeka (2004), African feminism employs negotiations and compromise to challenge the patriarchal systems that are predominant in African societies. Essentially, there are times, places, and strategies, that can be used to confront patriarchal structures; and there are also times, places, and ways to go around those same structures. Through the lens of nego-feminism, we analyse the realities of selected groups of women in the Ghanaian society.
Women as informal caregivers
In Africa, the role of informal caregiving largely rests on the woman. A cursory look at various literature on caregiving attests to the predominantly female nature of informal caregiving (Bozalek, 1999; Owusu-Ansah, 2015). Some of the factors which trigger the informal caregiving roles for women in Ghana include birth, ageing and disability of a family member. For example, socio-culturally, mothers are recognized and expected to be the primary caregivers of children in Ghana. There is next to no argument about that, and it does not matter whether the mother is fully employed outside of the home or not. Thus, it becomes the responsibility of the woman to make childcare arrangements to cater for the periods she may be away at work. This becomes a way in which working mothers negotiate with the entrenched structures that expect them to be the primary caregivers of children and other family members who require care. Interestingly, some of the options that a working mother may have would be to bring in other female family members; perhaps her own mother, sister or other female who may be available to help. Consequently, this affirms the female’s role of providing informal care in the Ghanaian society.
Other more complex factors play out when a child is born with a severe disability. The presence of a disability in the child presents different challenges for the birth mother. Due to the negative perceptions and beliefs associated with disability in Ghanaian society, family members (including biological fathers) may abandon relations with these mothers for giving birth to a child with disability. In the past, it was common to ‘see off’ children born with disabilities in the community, based on the belief that they are either spirit beings or a curse on the family (Botts & Evans, 2010; Botts & Owusu, 2013; Mills, 2018; Reynolds, 2010). However, incidents of infanticide have been reportedly low, perhaps due to efforts by the disability and women’s rights movements locally and globally which call for cessation of such inhumane acts. Nonetheless, when the child born with a disability is ‘allowed’ to live, the burden of care once again fall on the woman. As a matter of fact, many of the women who have shared their stories disclose that they resolved to care for their child with disability with or without their family’s support. For those who were abandoned by their husbands and/or families because of their decision, they faced additional stigma, neglect, and difficulty in providing care for their children. The difficulty in getting an informal caregiver to assist with the care of a child with disability, leads some mothers to quit or lose their formal jobs due to the constraints they face. Those in non-formal employment may also experience diminished productivity, thus affecting their income levels. Social work practice with populations such as described in this article ought to consider the intersectionalities in women’s socio-cultural contexts and develop interventions that reduce their vulnerabilities.
Women as leaders in small and big spaces
Women have occupied “small and big” spaces in the Ghanaian society and have excelled in these spaces although their successes come with many sacrifices. Doing research with women in formal sectors such as academia and politics, and the informal sector of trade and family businesses, it is evident that women have had to employ several strategies in order to become relevant and successful in the light of their domestic responsibilities, gender stereotypes and other threats that often serve as a hindrance to their advancement in their professions. At the micro, mezzo and macro levels, women often contend with overt and covert forms of discrimination, gender stereotyping and sexual harassments. At all three levels, women are working in concert with other women and male allies to influence change for themselves and others. Academia and politics for example, are male dominated spaces which often exhibit institutional cultures attributable to the legacies of Colonialism and socio-cultural factors peculiar to the African continent (Assie-Lumumba, 2005; Tsikata, 2007). Women are not welcome in certain spheres, or even if they are, they should be seen to be exhibiting socio-cultural traits of being female by subordinating to men. It has been suggested that there are deliberate obstacles that create contexts to communicate to successful women that they are exceptions and those who are struggling that setbacks are their own faults for failing to be sufficiently aggressive or committed to the job (Boateng, 2018).
For women to be successful, they have quickly learned to either collaborate, compromise (negotiate) or contest with their male counterparts for space to operate. In the framework of Nnaemeka (2004), African women challenge [patriarchy] through knowing “when, where, and how to detonate patriarchal land mines, as well as also knowing when, where, and how to go around patriarchal land mines” (p. 377). In my research, I have come to appreciate that as a matter of urgency, women are required to dance the unequal and intricate dance of knowing when and how to pick their battles, when to exercise agency and when to give space. As Tsikata (2007, p.39) notes, “…for […] women to succeed in the university, they would have to conform to certain norms and accept certain disadvantages as normal.” Through delicate collaboration, compromise and contestations, some successes have been chalked. From pre-colonial times to date, Ghanaian women have utilized these three strategies to get legislation, policies and programmes for themselves and others notable among which are the passage of the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against women (CEDAW), the creation of women’s desks and centers for gender studies in some public institutions, the passage of the Domestic Violence Bill into law, and the setting up of the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police Service.
This article discusses the socio-cultural realities of selected populations of women in the Ghanaian society through the lens of nego-feminism. The issues explored are relevant for anti-oppressive social work practice with African women as their experiences help to highlight strengths, struggles and strategies which practitioners could focus on as they develop interventions.
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