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Women's Rights in Africa: Unpacking Africa's Religious and Cultural Ties to Patriarchy

Angela has been writing on issues in Africa for the Perspective Africa Magazine for the past year.

Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist responsible for leading a women's peace movement, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women."

Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist responsible for leading a women's peace movement, was awarded the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tawakkul Karman "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women."

The rights we want:

We want to choose our husband

We want to own the land

We want to go to school

We don’t want to be cut anymore

We want also to make decisions

We want respect in politics, to be leaders

We want to be equal

—Rebecca Lolosoli

The quote above contains simple words. Too simple, it seems to somebody like me, as I sit in a western country where many of the above come easily, almost as a birthright stemming from being a citizen of a country where the fight for Women’s Rights started in the 19th Century and was largely won in the mid 1970s. It would be easy to draw a conclusion that African countries lag behind many western countries in the area of women’s rights and in doing so feel a level of superiority as a civilisation.

However, you wouldn’t have to dig too far into the geographical and political history of the continent to understand how direct comparison is a futile and unhelpful exercise. To take just a small example, most African countries didn’t achieve independence from colonialism until the '60s and '70s. Quite simply, we got a head start.

In comparison, the UK took a little over 700 years to progress from small mentions of women's rights in the Magna Carta (1215) to achieving the right to vote (1918). Furthermore, it wasn’t until 1975 that the sexual discrimination act was passed, and still to this day the fight continues to protect victims of rape, close the gender pay gap, improve employment rights for mothers etc. We are arguably further along but far from being an equal society still.

History of Women's Rights in the UK

On 15 June 1215, King John met with angry barons at Runnymede, England, to negotiate terms and sign the Magna Carta. For the period of time it was written in, the Magna Carta was and is still seen as somewhat of a revolutionary document, establishing the principle that everyone—even the King—is subject to the law, guaranteeing the rights of the individual, the right to justice and a fair trial.

Two clauses address a woman’s right when widowed, meaning for the first time a woman had freedom to make a choice for herself.

  • Clause 7 enables widows to gain inheritance after the death of her husband and to remain in the house of her husband for 40 days after his death.
  • Clause 8 permits a widow the choice to not marry as long as she wishes to remain without a husband; this did, however, place her under the protection of the King or Lord, whoever owned the land, from whom she must gain consent should she wish to marry later on.

These may seem small steps now, but these clauses caused respected mediaeval historian and expert on the Magna Carta, James Holt, to describe the document as “one of the first great stages in the emancipation of women offering widows a direct route to freedom from a forced marriage."

After decades of campaigning, women over 30 in the UK were given the right to vote in 1918 with the representation of the people act, which was later updated to reduce the age limit to 21 in 1928. The representation of the people act also allowed women to stand as candidates and be elected as MPs in Parliament, seeing the first female MP elected in 1918. The suffragette movement also campaigned for other rights such as the right to initiate divorce, the right to education and the right to hold any job. However, their main focus was the right to vote, believing that this achievement would give them a say in the laws affecting them.

Closing the Gap in Africa

The continent of Africa, though, continues to make strides encouraged by the U.N.’s millennium development goals, which expired in 2015. Sub-Saharan Africa fell somewhat short of these targets. Being one of the areas of the world with the biggest gap to close it was a difficult target to achieve. But as a result, we see more high-profile influential women in the media and in communities. However, progress is still slow as the continent struggles to manage progressive laws with native cultural customs.

Equality in Nigeria

For this reason, the Nigerian Senate has received stern criticism having rejected the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill on 16 March 2016. The bill was intended to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women as well as promoting women’s equality in marriage, inheritance and education.

Those opposed to the bill argued that the rights of everyone are already recognised in the Constitution. Another reason given is that the bill is incompatible with Nigerian culture and religious beliefs. Various religious texts and practices were cited.

Despite ‘everyone’ being recognised in the Constitution, women’s rights in Nigeria are found severely wanting. At odds with the Constitution is it's discriminatory customary and religious laws, particularly in relation to early and forced marriage, divorce and ownership of property.

Child Marriage

UNICEF reported in 2014 on child marriage stating that 23 million girls and women in Nigeria were married as girls making Nigeria home to the greatest number of child brides in Africa, allowing girls to be married as young as 12 in customary law but still child brides as young as 9 have been found in some regions of the country.


Women are hardly recognised in divorce either, for example, in places where Sharia Law recognises four main types of divorce, none allow women the freedom to initiate divorce without heavy investigation into the truth of the reasons for wanting a divorce, in some instances having to pay a marriage termination fine. This process is made even more difficult because of other customary laws allowing only men the right to own land and preventing a widow from inheriting marital property.

Tanya Charles at the Sonke Gender Justice points out that “In many instances, religious and cultural texts support women’s rights, but these texts are hardly ever referenced. Instead, people rely on a narrow reading so that they can use this to justify the negation of women’s human rights.”

Nigeria like all other sub-Saharan states uses a plural legal system. This system incorporates native African Customs with Western-style legal courts. Although designed to be culturally inclusive they often trap women’s rights between formal laws and traditional culture with the latter seeming to have a greater influence on the outcome.

At this point, it’s difficult to imagine progress until patriarchal attitudes stop influencing policies and plural legal systems take a bold step to defining what is unacceptable in one definitive law.

Surveys on Equality

There is, however, an undeniable appetite for progression in this area. In an Afrobarometer Survey taking in 34 African countries between 2011–2013, Africans of both sexes support women’s equality with 72% agreeing that women should have equal rights. Of those surveyed 68% of men and 76% of women share this view.

North African countries fall far short though when the data is broken down to individual countries with more than 50% of people in most North African countries believing that traditional laws should trump equal rights compared to the rest of the continent where less than 15% agree in each country.

Examples of Modernising Traditions

Slowly but surely more African countries are heeding the voices of the people and making moves to modernise the traditions and laws. In Cameroon, a 500-year-old tradition that, at its most extreme, sees widows stripped of their inheritance and trapped in bonded labour, is slowly being reversed after years of campaigning from a Muslim student group, Musab. And Morocco abolished a law that allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they married their underage victims.

Women are becoming more visible in politics too; the inter-parliamentary union reports that two African countries sit on the top ten of a table which ranks countries around the world on the percentage of women in lower or single house political systems. Rwanda sits at the very top at number one with 63% of the house being female representatives while Senegal follows in sixth place with 42%. This is even more impressive when compared to key countries known for their liberal societies like the UK at position 48, Australia at 54, Canada at 60 and the USA at 95 with a mere 19% of the lower house being women.

When Africa finds a way to achieve equality in law despite cultural customs, the continent will truly rise.

While making huge strides, Africa still struggles to find a balance between religious freedom and gender equality

While making huge strides, Africa still struggles to find a balance between religious freedom and gender equality

10 Facts About Women’s Rights in Africa

  1. A woman in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than she does of learning how to read (BBC, 2002)
  2. Seventy percent of women in Niger report being beaten or raped by their husband, father or brother (UNOCHA 2007)
  3. In Sub-Saharan Africa about half of the population live below the poverty line; over 80 percent of the poor are women (UNFPA 2008).
  4. Africa did not have an elected female president until 2006, when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the presidential election in Liberia.
  5. At the current pace of change, it will take approximately 80 years to achieve gender parity in workplaces (World Economic forum)
  6. Only 2 women are listed on South Africa’s top 100 CEOs. This when held up against the narrative of Africa Rising, suggest a lack of clear incentives for ensuring inclusive advancement of women to leadership positions in corporate Africa. (Africa Advisory Group).
  7. In Mali, Nigeria, Malawi and Burkina Faso over 70% of women report that they have no say in their own health needs as they have to seek permission
    from their husband. (World Vision)
  8. The five North African countries surveyed by Afrobarometer—Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia—collectively report the lowest levels of support for women’s equality, and the highest frequency of discrimination
  9. 68% of Africans believe women are as capable as men of being political leaders, including 74% of East Africans, but just 50% of North Africans. (Afrobarometer)
  10. Women's literacy rates remain 24 percentage points lower than those of men in Africa, compared with a global difference of just 10 points. (Afrobarometer)
Women's Rights March linking a women's right to Human Rights

Women's Rights March linking a women's right to Human Rights

Quotes From Women Fighting for the Rights of All

“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.” – Wangari Maathai– Kenya

“Solidarity between women can be a powerful force of change, and can influence future development in ways favourable not only to women but also to men.” ― Nawal El-Saadawi – Egypt

“If someone hasn’t felt how it feels to eat last, to work more and to earn less, how do you expect them to support you?” Solome Nakaweesi Kimbugwe– Uganda

“There is a rich tradition of feminism in Africa- it needs to be documented and publicised!” – Hakima Abbas– Kenya

“If you followed the media you’d think that everybody in Africa was starving to death, and that’s not the case; so it’s important to engage with the other Africa.”- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Nigeria

Culture and Religion vs. Gender Equality?

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.