Why we need Pan-African ecofeminist visions for today and our future

Women in powerful poses raising hands in air in protest

Why we need Pan-African ecofeminist visions for today and our future

Credit: Artwork by Khubu Zulu

“The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem. . . . all the conflicts came back to this question of femaleness. Femaleness as opposed and inferior to maleness.” ― Tsitsi Dangarembga, author – Nervous Conditions

The politicisation of feminist and political activist Andrée Blouin through her son’s death from a lack of adequate healthcare in 1942 mirrors the reality of African children and women 80 years later to the present day. “The death of my son politicised me as nothing else could,” Blouin wrote in her memoir, “[Colonialism] was no longer a matter of my own maligned fate but a system of evil whose tentacles reached into every phase of African life.”

Blouin understood justice and the liberation of women from patriarchy to be intertwined with political and economic freedom. This, as the structural physical and psychological abuse that is entrenched in the narrative of being a woman, was and is related to the destruction of women’s bodies for surplus value of their unpaid labour. The institutional and societal manifestation of the patriarchal domination of women is intimately related to the capitalist model of accumulation and development.

Capitalist development – a pillaging of humanity 

Founded on the systematic oppression of people and nature, capitalist development is dialectically related to underdevelopment, pillaging humanity based on gender, sexuality, race and class. This founding violence, which built much of the so-called ‘developed’ world as we know it through colonialism, has been woven into the fabric of African nations and communities, with gender inequalities on the continent being amongst the highest in the world.

African women face a high occurrence of child marriages, with West Africa having the highest rate of child marriages globally with a prevalence of 77% and 61% in Niger and Mali, respectively. Over 50% of adult women in Africa cannot read or write. Women largely carry the social reproductive burden in societies. In Malawi, women spend seven times more time than men on unpaid work, and over 70% of the women live below the poverty line. Africa is considered the world’s most dangerous region for women, with one in three women subject to gender-based violence including high levels of lifetime intimate partner violence.

The neo-liberal economic failures of African governments have been acutely experienced by women and children. For example, infrastructural challenges such as lack of access to clean drinking water mean women walk up to 6 kilometres daily to collect water. The gendered division of labour places women as heavily dependent on natural resources such as water and land for their lives and livelihoods. This means that it is African women who are most dispossessed in the colonial scramble for Africa, and the large-scale resource extraction which characterises contemporary African economies.

The growing economic, social and ecological debt burden that Africa faces is a key characteristic of the historical uneven economic relations of African nations. Therefore the anti-colonial liberation movements addressed many of our ongoing social and political challenges. Economic, social and political emancipation remains a question of mobilising against the humiliation and exploitation of Black people by imperialism.

The failure of “growing” extractive African economies to translate economic growth into social and environmental gains is rooted in the privileging of the ‘profit-driven’ agendas of multinational corporations at the expense of indigenous peoples.

Recentring the radical

In the face of poverty, the extreme violence women face in conflict situations and in everyday life, the insecurity under which they raise children, farm land, sustain livelihoods—in the face of all these different struggles and how women absorb the costs of an inherently violent system—I’m reminded of the words of Pan-African revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara:

“Comrades, there is no true social revolution without the liberation of women. May my eyes never see and my feet never take me to a society where half the people are held in silence. I hear the roar of women’s silence. I sense the rumble of their storm and feel the fury of their revolt.” – Thomas Sankara

International Women’s Day cannot be an empty annual commemoration. It must take us back to our movements for dignified lives for women in both rural and urban Africa. Feminist and social movements that prioritise indigenous African knowledges and voices and centre the experiences of those most burdened from black women, queer womxn, differently abled women and others, in all their diversity. These movements must allow for the development of alternatives that emancipate women from unpaid labour practices, and ensure communities have the structural conditions to shape their own futures. To foster space and opportunities for collective analysis, inspiration and creativity to build just and equitable futures. Liberating Africa from capitalist exploitation, is synonymous with the liberation of African women from capitalism’s rapacious plunder.

“The Liberation movement was an opportunity for us to break out of a long history of fighting individually because we couldn’t enter the public, a male-dominated space… Now we must consolidate our feminism as the culmination of struggles to regain our freedom as complete and autonomous human beings.” – Patricia McFadden

Boipelo Bonokwane was past Pan-African Research Coordinator at WoMin African Alliance. Bonokwane is a Pan-African feminist activist who is passionate about the political and economic emancipation of the working class and the poor.

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