Women and collective action in Africa

Steady first examines the dominant Western feminist paradigm and explains that the African feminist perspectives and needs are not represented there. But, Steady says, there is enough commonality among Africa’s diverse women to speak of an African feminist ideology. Steady’s book, however, is not about ideologies, it is about the constituents of these ideologies, the market women, the women in public office, and the women whose identities are rooted in traditional practices. Steady focuses on secret societies, women’s associations, and mutual-aid societies.

The secret societies are integral parts of gender identity in Sierra Leone and other African countries. Steady explains that these societies are very influential and can often impact a woman’s standing in her public career. Steady says that a woman’s affiliation in a secret society in Sierra Leone has a huge impact on that women’s success in her ambitions of political participation and for political office. Steady goes into detail about one of these societies, the Sande/Bondo female society, discussing its origins as well as some of its practices, like clitoridectomy, or female circumcision. Almost sensing an onslaught of criticism, Steady explains the history of female circumcision and its ties to the West. Steady recognizes the debate that talks of female circumcision creates and poses an alternative view. Steady looks at the important role female circumcision plays in African societies, namely it “builds female solidarity and provides a power base for women” that Steady says can “translate into political capital”. Steady is not advocating female circumcision, but is offering an alternative view to the practice and considerations of alternatives.

Women’s associations, according to Steady, address “development issues, the welfare of the country, and peace”. Women make up half of Africa’s population, and women’s associations are harnessing the power of that constituency. These associations are popular all over Africa and history is full of examples of their success in bringing about the winds of change in various countries all over the continent.

These groups were active and influential from precolonial times, the struggle for independence, up through the civil war and beyond. In more recent times Steady points to how these associations played an important role in Sierra Leone’s peace process, pushing for democratic reforms,

Mutual-aid societies, often called Susu credit systems in West Africa, were created out of necessity. Without discussing here the well-known difficulties African business women face in securing bank loans, Steady reviews some of the financial constraints facing African women and the need for mutual-aid societies in helping women secure funding. Steady reviews in great detail the different types of aid societies in Sierra Leone, including religious organizations, and some of their varying structures. Steady also includes a chapter on education in which she examines the gender bias in girls education in Sierra Leone. These societies, according to Steady, also provide scholarship funding for several girls who would otherwise not be able to afford it, as well as training courses and apprenticeships.

Steady concludes her book by looking women’s movements all over the continent. She goes into detail on examples of women’s groups in Nigeria & the Niger-Delta, South Africa, Kenya & the Mau Mau, Tunisia, and Algeria. She also looks at continental organizations that unite women. These groups include the African Federation of Women Entrepreneurs (AFWE), ABUNTU, the Greenbelt Movement, The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), Association of African Women for Development (AAWORD), Femmes Africa Solidarite (FAS), and the Pan-African Women Liberation Organization (PAWLO) among others.

Steady’s book is an excellent look at grassroots movement among women in Africa. It is not about African women who are being funded by the state or the West. The organizations featured tend to be self sustaining and self sufficient. The book is also more than just a case study of Sierra Leone, as it includes information on women’s organizing all over Africa. The book expertly delivers the promises of its title and is plain and simple a detailed look at women and collective action in Africa. ‘ AllAfrica.com.

September 2006
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