Pan African Feminism – how is unity gained amongst so much diversity?

Laura Brown | Apr 13, 2017
Maasai women hold hands FIDA Kenya
Our Movement and Network Capacity Manager, Laura Brown, has been spending some time with FEMNET, the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, to share learning on women’s movements. Here, she updates us on her experience so far…

I have now been at FEMNET for one month and through a mixture of reading, chatting to colleagues and osmosis of the feminist vibe that pervades the office, I’m starting to build up a picture of the African women’s rights movement. I want to share a flavour of what has struck me about the task FEMNET sets itself of "mobilising African women for the achievement of gender equality and the realisation of women’s and girl’s rights at all levels."

As we know at Womankind, Africa isn’t one country with a homogenous group of people living in it, contrary to what some people may think. The 54 country strong continent is a beautiful patchwork of diversity with over 200 languages spoken, a range of faiths practiced including Islam, Christianity and traditional African religions and the presence of hundreds of ethnic groups. In Kenya alone where FEMNET is located, there are estimated to be up to 70 ethnic groups.

Deepening our understanding of movements

In Womankind’s history of working in Africa with women’s rights organisations, we have supported and enabled women from a multitude of cultures, faiths and geographies to achieve their rights, for which we are proud. Yet we know through our analysis of the rapidly shifting global context for women’s rights, that to achieve long-lasting change for women we must work more deliberately to strengthen women’s rights movements as broader groupings and sub-groupings of organisations, individuals and others collectively pushing for the achievement of all women’s rights and the dismantling of patriarchy. In making this shift, Womankind is deliberately deepening its understanding of movements and the multiplicity of women who make them. For example, we are connecting with women who are discriminated against because of their gender and disability and those who identify as lesbian, bisexual, queer or transgender; women often on the very margins of society.

A multitude of feminist activists

So within this already multi-faceted reality for women in Africa, what does it mean to be an African feminist? Is there one homogenous definition? The simple answer is ‘no’ because Africa is not homogenous of course. African feminisms are defined, re-defined and pushed forward by a multitude of feminist activists from across the continent.

Yet whilst this is true, a broad ‘Pan African feminism’ has evolved on the back of the development of a Pan African identity and value system. Pan Africanism is an ideology and movement that grows the unity and solidarity of Africans worldwide and was originally dedicated to ensuring the independence of African States. The African Union (AU) was borne out of this vision and is based on the values of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, co-operative economics, purpose and creativity. African feminists do subscribe to these values, but many were dissatisfied with the Pan African movement’s limited attention to women’s specific needs and so FEMNET and other Pan African feminist organisations were born.

Unity in diversity

FEMNET clarifies what it is that unites all women in Africa, transcending identities, cultures and geographies. Put simply, this is patriarchy, a system of male authority which legitimises the oppression of women through political, social, economic, legal cultural, religious and military institutions. While patriarchy manifests itself differently in different contexts, characteristics of this are similar across the continent, including the exclusion of women in decision making at all levels, economies that exploit women and state control over women’s sexual and reproductive health choices. Taken together, the many manifestations and impacts of patriarchy support unity in diversity for women across the continent.

Numerous progressive Pan-African rights frameworks have been developed to advance and realise gender equality and women’s rights. These include the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa - known as the ‘Maputo Protocol', the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Gender Protocol and the African Union’s 2063 agenda.

The presence of these frameworks is undoubtedly positive, but actually putting them into practice is notoriously weak. As a consequence, FEMNET, acting with the consent and input from its members, actively engages with the oversight bodies for these frameworks to ensure they are implemented with appropriate budgets.

African Feminist Forum

In addition to the unifying work of FEMNET, the African Feminist Forum (AFF) was launched in 2006. The AFF was created to both affirm the progressive visions and strategies of African feminists and to contribute to stemming the backlash against basic principles of equality and rights across the African region. The AFF launched a Feminist Charter which seeks to define and affirm commitments to feminist principles for African feminists.

It would be naïve in to suggest that there aren’t divisions within the African women’s movement, with some women on the margins and movements existing within the movement on specific thematic areas or championing the rights of certain women. Yet, the galvanising approaches of organisations like FEMNET and the African Feminist Forum demonstrate there is much that will always unite African feminists, which should be consistently celebrated and strengthened in the fight for the rights of all women.

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