The Role of the African Feminist Movement in Promoting Human Rights

 

There is a perception amongst a few that feminism in Namibia operates as a purely western concept that does not fit in the country’s context, and it is often alleged that African feminism does not exist and that the concept is anti-Africanness. African Feminism has been the central driving force in the protection and ascertainment of women’s rights in Namibia. The feminist movement cannot operate outside of its context, wherever it is. It depends on the voices of those who are carrying it for it to function, much like any other movement, it cannot operate in a vacuum or independent of where it is based. Feminist goals to end violence against women, ending harmful cultural practices and other goals that were initiated outside of Namibia such as that  to end victim blaming and slutshaming have all been adopted and driven by the context of Namibia. The focus on their origins has often been used to push the narrative that feminism is divisive and unAfrican.


African Feminism and African Cultures

 

The word ‘feminist’ has been polarising, mainly because of the the ‘fem-’ leading to the misconception that empowering women means oppressing men, and claims that it cannot be a movement for equality if it is rooted in the empowerment of women. There is a broader scope to this, Ama Ata Aidoo has described a feminist as, “…a person, any person, who believes that women have the ability to reach the highest level of development,” this statement affirming the capacity of women, is not synonymous with the view that men should not reach such  levels of development. She goes on to say that, “it is an ideology like any other, whose development is dependent on the environment it is being practised in.” 

To lay down my position on the ‘Africanness’ of Feminism, as it exists in our context today, it is African because it is being voiced by African people about situations in Africa.  It goes without saying that to be an African in our contemporary society is to also coexist with the impact of colonialism. Recovery from colonialism also involved the adoption of principles that can work alongside the ideology of feminism such as democracy and industrialisation. The need to adopt these was for the betterment of the society. 

Many have leaned on the argument that many African cultures were inherently matriarchal and that the gender roles given in all cultures were not hierarchical, and that this renders African feminism obsolete. Whether or not this is true, it is important to acknowledge that colonialism brought along with it patriarchal systems which created and amplified the value of hierarchies and assigned roles. The resultant impact of this is expectations of what and how one ‘ought’ to be and ‘ought’ to do, which have made many feel justified when being abusive. African feminism recognises the impact of these patriarchal systems on the African woman, child and man. The way some roles are looked upon can cause harm to each of us, for example, while the woman may commonly suffer violence because someone feels entitled to her body, the man may also commonly suffer from the economic weight of playing the role of the provider.


We have to move beyond an era when shared human experiences and cultures are considered to be ‘un-African’. African Feminism addresses harmful heirarchies, unchecked power and power dynamics, and the entitlement and expectations that they have brought, as well as how over and above shifting cultural perspectives,  the colonial era brought with it new expectations. Tools such as the Bill of Rights help us recognise that there are some universal human needs that everyone has. There is a standard created of what our social contracts must prioritise. Movements that are within the civil society such as feminism, movements for persons living with disabilities and movements for land equity, to name a few, ensure that these needs are met in these diverse contexts in Namibia.


Organisations such as the Young Feminists Movemment Trust Namibia, works towards ensuring that human rights are promoted and protected and that there is empowerment especially of young women. It is on the basis of these rights that we can identify what cultures and practices are harmful. Through the use of African feminism, this movement, among others, has been a tool for sustaining and developing African communities. 

When pitted against cultural practices, one may believe that identifying and undoing practices that have been deemed to be harmful may inversely be undoing African culture and allowing for eurocentric, colonial ideals to take over. However in this case we may adopt the view of Minna Salami who was of the view that if anything should be treated as un-African it, “is the discrimination and inhumane treatment that significant numbers of girls and women are subject to on a daily basis.” Our goal is to have pride in our Africanness and the customs while still enjoying all our basic human rights It is through work with traditional leaders and religious leaders that organisations like Y-Fem have been able to identify how certain cultural practices hinder the enjoyment of human rights for some, and while these have been going on for so long, their longevity does not outweigh the need to sustain the existence of the people and for them to flourish in their customary and religious identities rather than become trapped by them.


African Feminism exists as a tool for the protection and promotion of all human rights with a consideration for the way in which women and girls have historically been disproportionately treated. It speaks to the local context, and seeks to break down patriarchal social orders that seek to invalidate, minimise and categorise human beings. It recognises that when all things are considered and when shaping the African identity, the togetherness is not authentic if some are suffering at the hands of others and that customs are intended to strengthen not break the individual.


Vimbainashe C Makanza

Advocacy Officer (Y-Fem)

hello@yfemnamibia.com