Women's Self-Help Organisations in Africa and their Role in the Democratization Process

African women have a long tradition of fighting against injustice and despotism. In terms of courage, they do not lag behind men and in the fight against colonialism and colonial hegemony some even took on positions of leadership. In Zimbabwe, Mbua Nehanda, who was a "spirit medium", led the first fight for independence which ended with victory over the British and her own execution. In the Mau Mau movement in Kenya, there was a "female field marshall" called Muthoni Kirima who was ignored in official historiography until she was recently rehabilitated by the Kenyan women's movement. In the Casamance, in Senegal, Aline Sitoe fought against and organised the resistance when the French colonial masters requisitioned stocks of rice and recruited men by force for the war in Europe. She,too, had to pay with her life.

The well-known heroines represent the numerous unknown women who were involved in the fight for independence: in Algeria in the fifties and sixties in the national liberation front FLN; in the second "chimurenga" which ended with the victory of ZANU and ZANLA; in Eritrea where women formed a third of the "fighters" of the EPLF; and not last in Namibia and South Africa where their heroic fight in the front line hit the headlines.

But where are these women today? We can, with a few exceptions, look in vain for them in positions of leadership in politics or the economic sphere. In Algeria, after independence, they yielded - with a few exceptions - to the traditional role of women. They were not able to prevent the downfall of the encrusted and corrupt FLN supremacy and the victory of the Islamic Fundamentalists who decreed the veil and subjugation. In Zimbabwe, only the very few have managed to build up a secure existence,most manage to survive rather worse than better. In Eritrea they are fed up with fighting and would like, at last, to lead a completely normal woman's life, marry and have children - and to that they have a right. History always seems to repeat itself: when the fight has ended, when victory has been achieved, then women regard their task - to be involved in the fight for a matter of national concern - to have been fulfilled. They do not apparently consider fighting for themselves and for the realisation of matters in their own interests.

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Women's Groups and Social Movements

The impression that women only mobilise themselves in exceptional situations or in national crises is, however, deceptive. They also have a long tradition in helping one another and in solidarity in everyday life. The roots probably lie in the customary institution, in almost all societies in Africa, of "age groups" not only for boys but also for girls, and in the custom of neighbourly help in work in the fields. For the past almost 15 years,we can observe almost everywhere the mushrooming of self-help groups and observe too that the majority of the members are women. This derives certainly more from the effects of famine and the general price increases in the fight for survival than from mobilisation in the framework of the UN decade for women. Many of the groups which were initiated "from above" only exist on paper, while groups which have grown "from below" in many regions have become a firm constituent part of the social system. The phenomenon has a different stamp from country to country. In Kenya there are meant to be about 25,000 such groups, but many of them could belong to the "filing cards out of date". In Burkina Faso, the phenomenon appears to stem more from the grass-roots level. In many countries the groups are in the process of getting together at the district or provincial level and are gaining political importance; in other countries they are rather isolated and unknown.

In this connection it is interesting to look into how these groups function. At the top is a management committee which generally consists of a chairperson, a secretary and a treasurer, as well as a deputy chairperson. Some groups also include an - often male - adviser, who can help them in matters concerning officials and the authorities. The chairperson is often the initiator of the group, the secretary can read and write and the treasurer is an older lady who is trusted. It is rarely the case that an office holder is voted out of office, the chairperson often remains in her position until the end of her life. It is rarely the case that the rights and obligations of the management committee are precisely defined, it concerns more the overall perception of certain duties such as the taking of minutes, safekeeping of money etc. Most groups have rules of procedure which are appropriate to their activities. Therein is, in many cases, very precisely stipulated how often the group meets, when and how cooperative work is to be carried out, how much money is to be paid in the event of unexcused absenteeism. In this way, many groups show an astonishing talent for organisation.

Women are certainly in the majority in self-help groups, and even mixed groups have generally more female than male members. As soon as structures develop at a number of levels - in Senegal up to the level of a national federation - then men clearly dominate. Women's groups clearly find it difficult to get together at the next highest level. This is certainly due not least to the fact that women have less time and are not so easily available. Attempts are,however, being made to form regional associations, e.g., in the Province of Kivu in Zaire, in Western Nigeria and in Burkina Faso. The federations mainly stem from an initiative of a woman who already played a leading role in the formation of a group at the grass-roots level.

Another problem is that women's groups are easily manipulated and exploited. They cultivate,for example, cotton so that the church can buy bicycles for the catechists. They cook for the local party secretary or member of parliament who gives them the honour of visiting them without contributing a penny. In Kenya, 80 per cent of the "Harambee" money (a type of "voluntary" contribution to development) is supposed to come from women. And everywhere governments try to get votes through women's groups, which makes corn mills financed by foreign development money appear particularly appropriate.

In any event, women's groups play an important role at the grass-roots level in the formation of a wider social movement, without whom democratization would stand on a weak footing.

In Bamenda, in north-west Cameroon women demonstrated, in May 1990, with six small wooden coffins against the shooting of six young people during the first public meeting of the first opposition party in the one-party history of the country and they did this without being influenced by the presence of armed military personnel and policemen.

In Bamako, the capital of Mali, women were massively involved in the protest marches which led to the overthrow of the dictator Moussa Traore.

In Togo, it was mainly market women who demonstrated repeatedly against the blocking of the democratization process by President Eyadema and his military personnel.

In Kenya, mothers and wives of the political prisoners demonstrated for weeks at the corner of "Uhuru" Park - which has since then been called "Freedom Corner" - for the release of their husbands and sons.

Even in Niamey, the capital of the very Islamic Republic of Niger, the first major women's demonstration took place in May 1991 with a "sit-in" in order to force the participation of women in the forthcoming preparatory committee for the national conference.

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Women's Organisations and Professional Groups or Interest Groups

In the past, national women's organisations were almost exclusively appendages of the single party, just like the youth organisations or also the trade unions. While some had founded themselves as independent organisations - e.g., Maendeleo ya Wanawake in Kenya - they soon became an extended arm of the ruling politicians, who saw them in the first place as an instrument for mobilising women. However this did not always pay off, or rather when the single parties had collapsed the national women's organisations also landed on the rubbish dumps of history. This is what happened to the already mentioned Kenyan women's organisation and the Union Nationale des Femmes du Mali, while the Association des Femmes du Niger tried to become an independent women's organisation, just as the National Union of Eritrean Women has tried to stress its independence since the victory of the EPLF. It will be interesting to follow the development of the women's organisations in southern Africa.

While the national women's organisations appear to have made no notable contribution to the democratization process, more and more professional and interest groups have subsequently appeared which cannot be assigned to any party political tendency. I encountered one of their first forms of expression about 15 years ago in Burkina Faso, the "Association for the Protection of Widows and Orphans" which incidentally stemmed, like most self-help groups from the great famine at the beginning of the seventies. In the meantime they belong in almost every country to the social spectrum and are increasingly being taken seriously: e.g., the "Women's Action Group" in Zimbabwe which reacts against every form of discrimination against women and informs women throughout the country about their rights, or the association against the impairment of health of women in the Republic of Niger, also the association against rape which a committed woman in Kenya founded recently.

Another role is being played by women's professional organisations which are being formed everywhere: female lawyers, journalists, teachers, midwives and nurses are coming together in order to react against professional discrimination and to enforce their rights. Incidentally, the oldest female professional associations are those of traders who have particular weight in the West African coastal towns. Before the civil war, the Liberian "Market Women Association" was the largest professional organisation in the country and ranked ahead of that of the transport employers. It is not since democratization that regional and continental associations of such federations have been formed e.g., of female laywers and journalists and certainly the "African Association of Women in Research and Development" is one of the most well-known. These associations are, above all, a town phenomenon, afterall their members belong to the privileged women who have enjoyed school and professional education. This is, however, not an indispensable prerequisite for a strong association as is proved by the market women, many of whom cannot read and write, but who can mobilise their members within a short space of time in order to defend their interests - also against single-party regimes and military dictatorships, as occurred in Ghana and Benin.

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Women and Parties

In the old single parties and the new - and old/new - opposition parties, some of which, in the meantime, form the government, women are hopelessly in the minority, although not so blatantly as the small farmers and young people - two other, even more, neglected groups. The parties - at least those who lead them - appear as town phenomena, as a matter of the powerful and/or educated, in any case as a male alliance and frequently as an alliance of older men. At their head are professional politicians, opponents from the beginning of the present rulers, or those who split after a difference of opinion (Oginga Odinga and Mwai Kibaki in Kenya), or the sons and brothers of old veterans from the fight for independence ( Tieoule Konate in Mali, Hermann Ouedraogo in Burkina Faso, Ahmed Ould Daddah in Mauritania), but one can search in vain for daughters and sisters. Many of the newly founded parties were cut to fit the personality of their leader, their programme is vague, if they even have one. Associations of democratic forces, on a wider basis, are not always maintained after the fall of the dictator, against whom they lined up. The ADEMA (Alliance pour la Democratie au Mali) has succeeded, FORD (Forum for the Restauration of Democracy) in Kenya is falling into pieces.

Women are represented in these parties either only poorly, or not at all, even though they managed - as in the case of Kenya - to convince female candidates to stand for election. It appears that they are opposed to this type of politics, the "politique politicienne" as it is called in the French-speaking area. I found one exception in the Republic of Niger, where a small party of "Greens" (Rassemblement pour un Sahel Vert) was very popular with women and women hold a quarter of the positions of leadership. Women in the ANC have also made their mark: at the party political conference in April 1991 in Kimberley it was decided that 30 per cent of the seats in all ANC committees should be filled by women.

Can it be that women are reticent to join parties because they have a different understanding of politics? A German political analyst, Birgit Meyer, who has researched into this topic for years, has discovered that men are primarily interested in institutionalised parties or government politics, while women have a concept of politics which transcends the institutional: for her environmental protection and social justice belong just as much to humane politics - and therefore democracy - as a multi-party system. Can it be that this observation also applies to the attitude African women have of politics?

I would like once again to cite Professor Wangari Maathai as an example that this assertion appears to be confirmed. Her fight against the construction of a skyscraper on the grounds of the very popular Uhuru Park, a recreational area for many of the population of Nairobi, is equally as political as her attempt to form a joint platform for the opposition parties.

From this the following three conclusions can be drawn:

1. In order to satisfy the political understanding of women, democratization must not be limited to the introduction of a multi-party system based on the market economy, but must be concerned with the whole society in all its forms. This must also definitely involve the incorporation of grass-roots groups and interest groups and professional associations.

2. In order to achieve "sustainable democracy", politics must be carried out in such a way that not only the political but also the social, economic, environmental and cultural results of measures are balanced and this for all population groups and at all levels. It is only in this way that it can be avoided that women feel the negative effects, for example, of liberalisation measures.

3. In order to achieve lasting democratization and with it the political stability of the continent, the major environmental tasks must not only be thought over and tackled at the national and regional level but also at the continental and international levels. In concrete terms, if as a result of the so-called structural adjustment programmes, the major part of the population in Africa becomes even poorer and thereby women on an above average basis, then it is nonsensical to cultivate the idea in the western metropolis that a development policy taking account of women will be in the position to improve the situation of women in the Third World. There can be no democracy if the fundamental economic problems are not tackled at the international level. It concerns here the real world economic system and not structural adjustment programmes which are only one of its instruments. That appeals of this nature are not heard, does not in any way mean that they are superfluous. The call of Rosa Luxemburg to be a woman, socialist and realist and to believe in utopia is more compelling than ever today.

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Braunmühl, Claudia von, 1992: "Nord-Süd-Zusammenarbeit der Frauen" Beitrag zur 4. Bundeskonferenz der Nord-Süd-Foren vom 21. 2. - 24. 2. in Göttingen (unveröff. Ms).

Bruchhaus, Eva-Maria, 1992: "Das Richtige wollen, das Falsche erreichen - Formen und Prioritäten der Frauenförderung", in ASW-Brief, September 1992.

Lachenmann, Gudrun, 1992: "Frauen als gesellschaftliche Kraft im sozialen Wandel in Afrika", in Periphere, No. 47/48, July 1992, p. 74.

Meyer, Birgit, 1992. "Die 'unpolitische' Frau- Politische Participation von Frauen oder: Haben Frauen ein anderes Verständnis von Politik?" B 25-26/92 ("Das Parlament").

National Committee on the Status of Women, 1992: "Report on the First National Workshop on Capacity Building for Women Candidates" Nairobi, 17. 7 - 18. 7. 92

Wichterich, Christa, 1992, "Moral, Markt, Macht - Frauengruppen in Kenia, in: Peripherie, 47/48.

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