Gender means examining the sociocultural factors involved in constructions of female and male and their relationship with one another. It is therefore a comparative concept. According to Davison (1997), each gender (male or female) ‘ has attached to it a set of ever-changing, socially defined characters that includes sexual orientation, procreative values and behaviours, and the social scripts through which individuals and groups interact and provide for their economic and social survival.
Definitions of Gender and Gender relations are subsequently cultural constructions within a specific social context (Moore, 1988) and, as such, vary over time and space. They can only be investigated and not assumed. The World Conference in Mexico City in 1975 marked the beginning of a global examination of women’s role in the economic, political and social life of their societies and recognition of their right to participate fully and equally in all aspects of society.
Constructions of gender depend heavily on positionality. As Patricia Hill Collins (1993) argues, ‘the production of knowledge and knowledge claims about gender, as well as other phenomena, are forced to submit to a Eurocentric validation process that disadvantages those outside the majority culture. ‘ It must therefore be noted that a Caucasian female from a developed country makes the analysis and opinions in this word limited essay.
To what extent there has been very limited progress in reducing gender inequality, in West Africa, will be investigated by examining social, economic and political aspects, highlighted with examples. Bosrup (1970) was one of the first authors to examine gender as a social category. The myth of women as the submissive victim in so-called traditional societies was finally dispelled, but instead new myths were created (Zdunneck, 1995), as women’s statistics are still not investigated as deeply as men’s statistics. However, socially, cultural constraints especially weigh heavily on women.
Coquery-Vidrcvitch (1997) argues that most men in West Africa still think of women as mothers submerged in traditional families that impose on them women’s and children’s social circle dominated by male strategies, with the village as the compulsory social and cultural reference point. Yet a women’s life today is actually centred on a small, nuclear family that in the cities no longer obscures the harsh realities of social inequality. The woman is the basic core around who gather the children of several fathers. Exceptions are women that marry late or just co-habit.
African birth rates remain the highest in the world because men do still not accept sterilisation. If it were up to the woman they would have half the number of babies but men will not compromise in this area because it is closely linked with the very conceptual basis of virility. However, in recent years Westernised ideas have begun to change women’s views and understandings of these constraints and have begun to fight for their rights. Until recently the bias implanted in traditional sex roles limited the access of girls to formal education, especially beyond the primary level.
In theory, girls are faced with the same education opportunity structure as boys. In practice however, socio-cultural constraints still inhibit the education of girls beyond a certain level in various parts of the region and notably Muslim areas. In Ghana, women with no education have on average 6. 7 children compared with 3. 6 for women with more than middle school education (Adepoju, 1994). Programmes to promote health of mothers and children through antenatal, delivery and postnatal services and immunisation schemes have received outstanding success in Burkina Faso and parts of Ondo State in Nigeria (Hill, 1990).
The emphasis in female migration has shifted from women who accompany or join their husbands to women as autonomous migrants (Findley and Williams, 1990). Women may migrate in response to natural disasters, or in flight from poverty, war and internal strife to look for better opportunities such as economic independence. Overall, migration is associated with profound changes in women’s entire role. Education is closely correlated with migration, especially where this interacts with other socio-economic variables such as age, sex, and occupation.
Trading activities are West African women’s main economic activity. A situation that has facilitated their visibility in both international and internal migration. Sudarkasa (1974-75) aptly documented this phenomenon among the Yoruba women of Nigeria and Benin. Women dominate short-distance migrations, while men predominate in international and internal rural-urban migrations. Ivory Coast and Zambia are rapidly becoming heavily urbanised countries, at the same time the sex ratios are becoming more even because of more women migrating to towns.
Rural women may be migrating to escape the hard farm labour that is their usual lot, posing another threat to African agricultural production and making change imperative in the skewed division of labour whereby women do most of the farm work. Women in Ghana are well known for their high rates of economic activity. Currently with the higher levels of education that women have achieved and with the radically diminished chance of formal sector employment, there is reason to expect that some women will be innovative at work and more militant in protection of their interests (Guyer, 1995).
West African women still find it continually difficult to work within changing systems of production and are still adjusting to economic restructuring (i. e. under structural adjustment policies). For example, where women producers neither own the land nor have financial access to inputs of production such as credit, fertiliser and seed and where they do not receive the income from cash or export crops that increase their labour and interfere with growing food for the family and community. This is because patriarchal relations still govern the economic behaviour of most rural households.
The economic crises of the past two decades have hit African women particularly hard. Estimated economic activity rates for women actually fell between 1970 and 1990. A woman’s attempt to increase her earning capacity by engaging in independent agricultural or off-farm activities are severely limited. However, more recently African women’s efforts in women’s groups are portrayed locally, nationally and globally as a viable means for economically successful ventures which have resulted in improved economic conditions.
Researchers have recognised that Africa has a particularly rich heritage of women co-operating with women. For example, in secret societies, revolutionary groups, and official women’s organisations that may be associated with a ruling party, employment, and trade union organisations, voluntary associations, modern co-operatives, rural work groups and urban and rural groups mobilised for development purposes. As a result, the Government or other self-help enterprises providing economic assistance often respond to women’s difficult financial circumstances.
Nigerian women have historically held substantial economic powers, whether through agriculture, petty-trading, or wholesale business enterprises. However, the improvement of conditions under which she functions is most desirable, as with other illustrations of West African inequalities the males needs and desire are put ahead of the females. Responding to the ideals of the United Nations Decade for Women, The Nigerian government has made genuine efforts to integrate women in the socio-political affairs of the country (Chukukere, 1998).
Women have been appointed as commissioners in all state cabinets, directors general and deputy governors in Lagos and Kadnuna States. In current transition politics women have boldly emerged on the scene, but with minimal results. Gender barriers, social norms, poor planning and severe financial constraints have been identified as factors limiting women’s effective participation in Third World Politics. 1