Sample: Women’s Movements in the Global Era

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Table of Contents


Abbreviations and Glossary

Amrita Basu


1 Women’s Movements in Africa
Aili Mari Tripp

2 A History of Feminist Moments: The South African Women’s Movement, 1950–2014
Elaine Salo


3 Pakistan’s Women’s Movement: Protests, Programming, and Revitalization
Farida Shaheed

4 The Indian Women’s Movement Today: The Challenges of Addressing Gender-based Violence
Poulomi Pal

5 Feminist Struggles in a Changing China
WANG Zheng


6 Varieties of European Women’s Movements1
Silke Roth

7 Russian Women’s Activism: Grassroots Persistence in the Face of Challenges
Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom

8 Women’s and Feminist Movements in the United States: The Contradictory Effects of Class-based Success
Benita Roth


9 Seeking Rights from the Left: Gender and Sexuality in Latin America
Elisabeth Jay Friedman

10 State Feminism and Women’s Movements in Brazil: Achievements, Shortcomings, and Challenges
Cecilia M. B. Sardenberg and Ana Alice Alcantara Costa


11 Feminist Movements in the Maghreb
Valentine M. Moghadam

12 The Palestinian Women’s Movement
Islah Jad

13 The Women’s Movement and Feminism in Iran: Revisiting a “Glocal” Perspective
Nayereh Tohidi

Appendix: Country and Region Information
Selected Bibliography
About the Contributors



Amrita Basu

Women’s movements are among the oldest, strongest, and most globally interconnected social movements.[1] They have engaged in nationalist, democratic, and anti-authoritarian protests as well as autonomous struggles against gender inequality. They have challenged and changed dominant discourses, laws, political institutions, and family structures through consciousness raising and direct action. They have created and energized regional and global networks as well as national government agencies that promote women’s interests.

And yet, despite the strengths of women’s movements, gender inequality is systemic, severe and pervasive throughout the world. Many feminist demands remain unfulfilled; many achievements have been reversed.[2] In recent years, the religious right and xenophobic nationalists have increasingly opposed women’s rights and freedoms. Wars and militarization have increased women’s vulnerability and weakened women’s movements. The spread of neoliberalism, which transfers control over economic resources from the public to the private sector, has deepened structural inequalities while decreasing states’ responsibilities to address them.

This revised edition of Women’s Movements in the Global Era charts the trajectories of women’s movements, with particular attention to the more than two decades since the UN’s 1995 women’s conference in Beijing. It tracks the roles of women’s movements, amidst the growth of organized assaults on women’s rights, as well as popular struggles—from Occupy to the Arab Spring to Black Lives Matter. This edition contains six new chapters by leading scholars of women and gender studies, on individual countries and several major regions of the world, to illuminate both national and supra-national patterns. There are chapters on nine countries (Pakistan, China, India, South Africa, Palestine, Iran, Brazil, Russia, and the United States) and four major regions (Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Maghreb, which comprises Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia).

As politically savvy, strategic actors, women’s movements thrive in the most diverse and fraught political environments. At the same time, the strength of women’s movements varies enormously across nations. At one end of the spectrum is the Russian women’s movement, which, Lisa McIntosh Sundstrom argues, barely exists. At the other end is the Brazilian women’s movement, which Cecilia Sardenberg and Ana Alice Costa describe as strong and flourishing. Capturing a theme that describes many other settings, Benita Roth, drawing on Jo Reger, describes US feminism as both everywhere and nowhere: while in recent decades feminist ideas have become pervasive, many women’s movements have apparently disappeared. What explains this? How should we characterize the strengths and weaknesses of women’s movements, and what explains differences in their cross-national character, size, and power?

In the years since the publication of the first edition of Women’s Movements in the Global Era and its predecessor, The Challenge of Local Feminisms, many important works have appeared on women’s activism, feminism and women’s movements. This revised edition of the book makes several distinctive contributions. First, unlike many studies that focus on transnational or global movements, this book examines women’s movements primarily within their national and regional contexts. Whereas the extent of global influences on national and regional women’s movements varies widely through time and space, national conditions are always significant. Of particular importance are structures of national power, what Raka Ray describes as political fields, which include the state, political parties, and social movements (Ray, 1999).

Second, unlike studies that focus on a single issue across countries, the chapters in this volume consider a range of issues that women’s movements have addressed. To provide bases for comparison, the authors were asked to explore whether and to what extent women’s movements have addressed a core set of questions—sexual violence, political representation, reproductive rights, and poverty and class inequality. They also explore whether and how women’s movements have addressed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights because of the importance of this issue and the convergence of feminist and LGBT struggles.[3]

Third, this volume analyzes women’s movements in diverse rather than similar political, economic, and social settings.[4] Women’s movements have emerged and grown under divergent conditions, and it is illuminating to compare the challenges that they confront in different locales. In particular, the close examination of feminist struggles in the global South emphatically challenges myths and misconceptions that feminists are most active in the global North, that global flows of information and ideas are primarily North to South, and that international influences always have a positive impact on women’s movements in the global South. As several chapters in this book demonstrate, the opposition that women’s movements encounter does not generally emanate from “traditional” cultural and religious values but from organized political forces, some of which are transnational.

Fourth, the chapters in this volume address women’s movements that span the scales of political life and work with diverse populations. There has been extensive scholarship on state feminism, in which femocrats (feminist bureaucrats) play crucial roles. There is also a rich literature on community organizations and grassroots movements. This book includes accounts of feminists who work within and outside the state, nationally and locally, and among the poor, middle classes and elites. Capturing the diversity in women’s identities and conditions across multiple lines of stratification necessitates examining a range of organizations that have challenged gender inequality and the multiple forms that feminist struggles have assumed. How feminist activists have negotiated the local, national, and transnational arenas is another key theme of the book.

There are risks in adopting the approach I describe. One is to unduly privilege the state and national boundaries. To address this issue, chapters on Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Maghreb explore cross-border activism and the cross-fertilization of ideas among women in each region. Many of the chapters critically assess the relationship between feminism and nationalism and weigh the costs and benefits for women’s movements of working with and within the state. Islah Jad describes the challenges that the Palestinian women’s movement faces in working with a divided, quasi-state with limited authority that endures continued subjection to the Israeli Occupation.

Another risk is that description may overwhelm the theoretical analysis that can yield fruitful comparative insights. However, all of the chapters address a core set of comparative themes concerning how women’s movements achieve a productive balance between alliance and autonomy in several spheres. This entails, first, attaining strong foundations within the national context while forging productive links with transnational forces. Secondly, as several chapters show, women’s movements have been most successful when they have engaged the state through contestation and collaboration, without abdicating their own identities, constituencies, and concerns. Third, women’s movements have been best served by joining other social movements and groups within civil society while maintaining their own objectives and identities.

This introductory chapter is organized in five sections. In the first section I provide a definition of feminism and its relationship to women’s movements. The second, and longest, section, explores the different forms that transnationalism has assumed, including the United Nations (UN) international women’s conferences, transnational and regional advocacy organizations, and internationally funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs). It assesses the different implications of transnational influences on women’s movements in the global North and South and authoritarian and democratic settings. The third section shifts attention from the international and regional to the national level and discusses the domestic conditions under which women’s movements emerge, emphasizing their connection to nationalist and democratic struggles. Section four describes women’s movements’ negotiations with the state, particularly around political representation and economic justice in the neo-liberal era. Section five explores two burning issues that women’s movements have addressed: violence against women and sexual orientation. The conclusion reflects on the challenges women’s movements confront going forward.

I. Feminism and Women’s Movements

Many women who engage in struggles to achieve gender equality do not describe themselves as feminists. Often they are reacting to the perceived roots of the term. In some settings, feminism is associated with Westernization, as Nayereh Tohidi notes in the case of Iran. Women’s rights activists in Central and Eastern Europe, as Silke Roth argues, had an ambivalent relationship to both socialist state feminism as well as to Western feminism, which did not adequately address the concerns of women in postsocialist societies. However, some gender equality activists, as in Morocco and Tunisia, have long described themselves as feminists, and other activists who in the past avoided the feminist label embrace it today. Such is the case in Russia, Sundstrom suggests. Aili Mari Tripp comments that young African feminists have increasingly redefined feminism in African terms. Wang Zheng states that the younger generation of Chinese feminists has rejected the ambiguous term nüxingzhuyi (feminine-ism) and openly embraced nüquanzhuyi (women’s right/power-ism).

Not all feminist interventions take the form of self-identified women’s movements. I use the term women’s movement to describe organized social movements to challenge gender inequality and the term feminism to describe struggles that have the same goals but need not be organized women’s movements. Feminism, unlike women’s movements, can occur in a variety of arenas and assume a variety of forms. Feminism connotes both ideas and their enactments, but does not specify who will enact these ideas or what forms these enactments will take. It includes women’s ordinary day-to-day activities that defy proscriptions of ruling clerics and transgress patriarchal norms and boundaries. For example, Tohidi notes that many Iranian women do not describe themselves as feminists and lack ties to feminist networks, but have strengthened women’s movements through their acts of defiance. She speaks of the power of women’s presence as they challenge, resist, and circumvent state repression in their daily lives. Feminist discourses influence the character of speech, thought, and expression in the home and the workplace, among individuals and groups, in everyday life, and, episodically, in politics, culture, and the arts. Feminists have made cultural interventions through magazines, bookstores, coffeehouses, clubs, novels, poetry, plays, and performances. They have created new epistemologies and subjects of research.

These expressions of feminism have a cumulative impact on society, the polity, and the economy that is powerful, if difficult to measure. But the significance of feminism rests not solely on its impact on societal structures and institutions, but also on the opportunities that it creates for women’s self-expression. The performative dimensions of feminism often draw on earlier repertoires of protest. For example, Tripp describes how in many parts of Africa, women used to strip in public to curse and shame male abuse of authority. In the contemporary context, women have organized collective naked protests in Kenya, Nigeria, and Uganda. Embodied protest has far-reaching implications for women and for society as a whole. Farida Shaheed argues that the most effective political actors in Pakistan, including the religious right and armed extremists, have employed expressive means of occupying the public sphere. She believes that the survival of the women’s movement depends on including vibrant, expressive dimensions.

The authors in this book use the term women’s movements to describe movements of women that have sought to challenge gender inequality. However, to appreciate the diversity and dynamism of these movements, they include in their definition not only autonomous women’s groups but also other social movements in which women have made feminist demands. Women have been active in many social movements that are neither wholly composed of women nor primarily committed to addressing gender inequality. To exclude women’s activism in movements for decolonization, democracy, human rights, and economic inequality risks narrowing our definition of women’s movements and confining attention to liberal, middle-class movements.

Following Maxine Molyneux (1985), one might differentiate between women’s practical and strategic interests. She suggests that strategic interests, commonly identified as feminist, emerge from and contest women’s experiences of structural gender subordination. Practical interests, by contrast, emerge from women’s immediate and perceived needs. Elisabeth Jay Friedman fruitfully employs this distinction to describe the greater commitment of leftist governments in Latin America to addressing women’s practical interests, concerning economic inequality, than their strategic interests, concerning bodily autonomy and identity recognition.

However, the distinction between the two is not always clear. Elaine Salo points out that racism and misogyny were so tightly intertwined under South Africa’s apartheid state that black women’s struggles against bus boycotts, rent strikes, land occupation, and pass laws were both strategic and practical. Furthermore, movements are dynamic entities. What may begin as a struggle to achieve women’s practical interests can turn into a struggle to defend women’s strategic interests, and vice versa. Sardenberg and Costa argue that women’s strategic interests in Brazil are contextually defined; they vary by time and place, and by female activists’ social locations.

A key feature of women’s movements in the contemporary era is their focus on coalition building and intersectionality (a recognition of multiple and overlapping inequalities). The two are closely related since women’s movements must often ally with other social justice movements, including peace, environmental and human rights movements, to address the breadth of women’s interests. These alliances can be informal and are sometimes barely visible. Benita Roth argues that not only has an understanding of intersectional oppressions become part of US feminisms, it has also been incorporated into the DNA of other social movements. By way of example she cites Black Lives Matter (BLM), which was founded in 2013 by three black women who were social justice activists, to fight police violence against African Americans. Benita Roth considers BLM a good example of how the feminist concept of intersectionality has permeated other social movements.

II. Transnational Influences

Some of the most significant influences on women’s movements over the past decades have been global institutions, discourses and actors. Transnational advocacy networks, international funding for NGOs, and global discourses concerning women’s rights, have dramatically expanded. The growth of market forces and communication technologies has fueled the growth of transnational networks.

Observers sometimes refer to global influences on women’s movements without carefully differentiating those influences. I use the term international to refer to nations and transnational to entities that operate between and beyond borders. Transnational networks differ in important respects from international organizations. Whereas international organizations are typically composed of representatives from multiple national member organizations, transnational networks are coalitions of loosely affiliated, decentralized coordinating bodies, whether government-connected or not.

Three distinct types of international and transnational influence have had the greatest impact: UN international women’s conferences and treaties that seek to promote gender equality; transnational and regional networks and advocacy groups; and international funding for NGOs. All three of these transnational and international influences have generated new discourses, particularly by introducing or increasing a focus on women’s rights or, more specifically, women’s human rights. All of these global influences have contributed to institutionalizing women’s movements by strengthening NGOs and collaboration between the state and women’s movements.

The UN International Women’s Conferences

The UN is the source and site of vital transnational linkages among women’s movements. It has produced international agreements on gender equality that most national governments have endorsed. The most important of these is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which the UN General Assembly adopted in 1979 and implemented two years later. CEDAW is an international bill of rights for women that addresses discrimination in areas such as education, employment, marriage and family relations, health care, politics, finance and law. Countries that have ratified CEDAW are legally bound to implement its provisions and submit national reports to CEDAW every four years on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.

Four UN world conferences on women—in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995)—provided key sites for interactions among national governments, between NGOs and governments, and among women’s movements cross-nationally. These UN conferences strengthened and were strengthened by national women’s movements in several ways.

The first involved preparing for the UN global women’s conferences. Feminist groups organized meetings throughout their respective countries to learn about women’s conditions across regional and class lines and formed linkages with local women’s groups and other social movement organizations. Sardenberg and Costa describe preparations for the Beijing conference as contributing to the growth of the Brazilian women’s movement. Shaheed notes that because governments lacked relevant expertise, they often relied on women’s organizations to prepare draft plans and final reports for the conferences. The skills that feminists developed through these processes enabled them to lobby more effectively for better laws and policies.

Second, the UN conferences enabled women activists from around the world to meet and collaborate, forming relationships that lasted long after the conferences ended. They also increased the visibility and legitimacy of nationally based women’s organizations, especially in authoritarian settings like China. The Chinese women’s movement, writes Wang Zheng, was the driving force behind China’s decision to host the Beijing women’s conference. The opportunities that conference provided to network with international and diasporic groups strengthened the Chinese women’s movement.

The third important impact of the UN women’s conferences was in getting member nations to arrive at a common set of goals to promote gender equality. Thanks to lobbying by feminist organizations, the UN conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993 took important steps to protect and promote women’s rights. Twelve years later, the Beijing women’s conference extended and expanded these initiatives. The UN conferences offered unparalleled opportunities for women’s movements to share experiences, gain legitimacy, and influence their national governments. Jean H. Quataert and Benita Roth summarize the conferences’ contributions aptly:

They strengthened local women’s movements’ collective hands and encouraged, through preparatory processes, the makings of links on the ground among actors interested in women’s rights even across borders. They facilitated exchanges among women where western hegemonies of understandings about women’s rights, inclusive alliances, and development agendas were challenged. They also forced states, democratic and nondemocratic alike, to grapple with plans for actions on women’s and human rights that emerged from the meetings. (Quataeret and Roth 2012)

The most impressive and ambitious outcome of the Beijing women’s conference was the Platform for Action. It covered twelve major areas: poverty, education and training, health, violence, armed conflict, economy, power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms, human rights, media, environment, and the girl child. It asked states to ensure that women held at least 30 percent of elected positions. It called on governments and NGOs to engage in gender mainstreaming, namely, ensuring that gender perspectives and the goal of gender equality were integrated into the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of legislation, policies, and programs. UN Women, formed in 2010 by the General Assembly, took responsibility for implementing these goals by working with national governments, intergovernmental agencies and civil society organizations.

In March 2015 the UN Commission on the Status of Women undertook a review of governments’ progress in implementing the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, twenty years after its adoption. It reported on some positive developments, including a global rise in women’s life expectancy, more laws to address violence against women, increased girls’ enrollment in primary and secondary education, a growth in women’s labor force participation, and women’s increased access to contraception in most regions of the world. Citing a study by Laurel Weldon and Mala Htun on seventy countries over four decades, the report acknowledged that feminist organizations have played decisive roles in countries which have made the most progress in adopting gender equality policies and attaining women’s rights (Weldon and Htun 2012).

However, overall, the failures and setbacks were more striking. UN Women stated in its report:

Twenty years ago we were buoyed up by the unified determination and conviction of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. …Twenty years on, it is a hard truth that many of the same barriers and constraints that were recognized by the Beijing signatories are still in force globally.

In recent years, progress on gender equality has been held back by forces in the global political and economic landscapes that have been particularly hard to mitigate or combat. Persistent conflicts, the global financial and economic crises, volatile food and energy prices, and climate change have intensified inequalities and vulnerability, and have had specific and almost universally negative impacts on women and girls. (“UN Women Summary Report: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Turns 20,” 2015)

The Report’s findings are sobering: women are more likely than men to live in poverty and to have fewer opportunities for decent work, assets, and formal credit. Due to pervasive occupational segregation, women are overrepresented in low-paid jobs, have less access to social protection, and are paid on average less than men for work of equal value. Women’s employment outcomes are further limited by the disproportionate share of unpaid care work they perform. Women are more seriously affected than men by climate change. All regions have unacceptably high rates of violence against women; according to recent global estimates, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetimes. Women remain significantly underrepresented at the highest levels of political office as well as across public and private sectors. Discrimination against women embedded in the legal system remains pervasive, particularly in family law.

UN member nations decided not to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015 as a twenty-year follow up to the 1995 Beijing Conference. Some opposed another global conference on the grounds that the gains women had achieved might be reversed, given the increased strength of conservative anti-feminist groups. In 2015, a group of countries describing themselves as “Friends of the Family” formed a delegation at the UN to challenge women’s rights for supposedly threatening the family.[5] Some opponents of another global conference felt that governments should devote themselves to implementing the Platform for Action before adopting new goals. Some feminists worried that government representatives and bureaucratized NGOs would dominate a fifth world conference and exclude more radical perspectives.

Opposition to a fifth world conference on women is a sad commentary on the global political climate for feminism today. Concerns about the bureaucratization of feminism that follows upon its institutionalization, in part as a result of UN mandates, are well founded. However, some observers believe that the response should be to create more inclusive processes rather than giving up on UN conferences (Sandler and Goetz, 2015) A fifth global women’s conference would have enabled feminists to put collective pressure on governments to implement the Platform for Action and to devise strategies for confronting right-wing attacks on women and sexual minorities.

Many seasoned feminists who participated in the UN conferences and no longer view the UN as a platform for progressive struggles consider the World Social Forum (WSF), a venue of anti-neoliberal activists, a more desirable, radical alternative (Wilson, 2007). At the 2002 WSF in Brazil, feminists launched the Campaign against Fundamentalisms, a network of Latin American Southern Cone feminist organizations to challenge neoliberalism and religious fundamentalism. Feminists from the global South organized packed sessions on Feminist Dialogues in Mumbai in 2004 and Porto Alegre in 2005 that explored how feminists could address gender inequality within the global social justice movement. Thanks to the efforts of Tunisian feminists, women’s rights figured prominently in the WSF in Tunis in 2014. Impressive as these achievements are, the WSFs are not a substitute for UN women’s conferences since they cannot devise programs that carry treaty obligations. More broadly, the UN remains an important site for pressuring the state, which retains the ability to deny or support many feminist demands.

Transnational and Regional Networks

Transnational networks are broad based coalitions that engage in research, lobbying, advocacy, and direct action to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. These networks are a product of globalization and have addressed the inequalities it generates with respect to climate change, unemployment and low wages. They have also engaged in struggles to promote women’s health, reproductive rights and family law reform.

Transnational networks take many forms. Some include governmental and non-governmental actors, foundations, the media, and regional and international agencies (Keck and Sikkink 1998, 9). Other more activist-oriented networks exclude government representatives. This latter group includes Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), Women in Development Europe (WIDE), the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), and the Women, Environment, and Development Organization, all of which have addressed the impact of neoliberalism and globalization on women (Moghadam 2005). Although movement activists may participate in transnational networks, the networks themselves are not movements but broadly affiliated groups.

Regional feminist networks have taken up UN mandates and worked with transnational groups, but their character and concerns are deeply influenced by regional political and economic forces. Some regional networks have explicitly or implicitly contested national borders.

Regional networks have been especially robust in Latin America. For Latin American feminists and women’s organizations that joined other human rights groups in democratic struggles against military dictatorships in the 1970s, a rights-based approach has been relatively uncontroversial. Such an approach considers certain rights universal rather than culturally specific, a claim that feminists in other regions of the world have contested. Sonia Alvarez argues that “the peculiarities of the regional and national political contexts in which feminisms unfolded also impelled local movement actors to build trans-border connections from the bottom up” (Alvarez, 2000, 30–31). Since 1981, Latin American and Caribbean feminists have organized encuentros, gatherings for sharing ideas, developing strategies, and fostering closer links among women’s movements in the region. They have also brought together indigenous women, lesbians, and Afro–Latin American and Afro-Caribbean women who experience marginalization within national and regional contexts. Encuentros have taken place in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Mexico, and Peru. Participants in the encuentros have fiercely debated contentious issues and insisted on inclusion despite differences (Friedman 2015).

Regional networks in Africa have sprung up in the aftermath of civil wars and ethnic conflicts since the mid-1980s. They are a product of both international influences and the cross-fertilization of ideas among national women’s movements that are committed to peace, security, personal law reform, and economic justice. Women have mobilized for peace in conflict-ridden nations like Nigeria, Burundi, South Sudan, Somalia, and the Eastern Congo as well as through regional networks. Liberian women’s peace organizations have been particularly active, and worked with Africa-wide peace organizations like Femmes Africa Solidarité.

In Europe, alongside a number of regional networks that address women’s rights and development, the European Union (EU) has strengthened ties among women’s movements and led the twenty-eight EU member states to adopt more gender-equitable laws and policies. Silke Roth argues that the EU played a significant role in strengthening feminist demands. She suggests that gender equality legislation was an unintended side effect: initially France, the only founding member with equal-pay legislation, demanded that the other member states follow its lead. Over the years, gender equality policies expanded beyond pay equity. Prospects of joining the EU led—for example—Polish, Czech and Irish feminists to lobby their governments for gender equality legislation, and for the creation of official bodies and funding to support their activities. Silke Roth describes EU policies as a hybrid of liberal and social-democratic approaches that reflect the policies of different member states.

In the Maghreb, as Valentine Moghadam describes, regional networks, like the Collectif 95 Maghreb-Egalité, created by feminists in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia in the early 1990s, have sought to advance women’s rights. The Collectif worked with women’s groups across the region to fight for egalitarian family codes and women’s full and equal citizenship. The Collectif also forged ties with other transnational feminist networks: first with Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), formed in 1984 in opposition to Islamic fundamentalism and discriminatory family laws; and later with the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), established in 2000 with many network partners. A WLP conference facilitated networking between Moroccan and Iranian feminists. In 2009, Iranian feminists collaborated with the WLUML in the Stop Stoning Forever Campaign.

The strongest networks of Asian feminists have emerged in countries that share conflictual histories and contested borders. In 1989 Kamala Bhasin, at the time an officer with a UN agency, organized the first gathering of South Asian feminists in a small village in Bangladesh. Suspicion and recrimination among women who had experienced wars, militarization, and ethnic violence gave way to strong affective ties and a shared political commitment to denationalizing identities and strengthening cross-border ties and perspectives (Chhachhi and Abeysekera, 2015). Several regional gatherings and South Asian Feminist Declarations in 1989 and 2006 followed. In 1998 Sangat was formed, a network of South Asian gender activists and trainers. Sangat has broadened its focus from gender inequality to address justice, peace, and democracy throughout the region.

Several authors comment on the open, inclusive character of regional networks. Tripp notes that women’s movements have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for building coalitions across ethnic, class, religious, and other cleavages in nations riven by civil war and violence. Moghadam argues that although critics have long faulted women’s movements in the Maghreb for being westernized, elitist, and intolerantly secular, in fact these broad networks include both men and women, both religious and secular women, and both younger and older activists.

International Funding for NGOs

A third form of transnationalism occurs through international funding for nationally based NGOs that engage in education, advocacy, service provision, income generation, research and documentation, and, sometimes, protest activities. The impact of NGOs on women’s movements has generated heated debate. Some critics claim that NGOs, driven by donor funding and agendas, dissipate feminist activism. Others who may share some of these questions nonetheless consider certain NGOs crucial to sustaining feminist struggles, believe women’s movements can avoid donor dependence, and worry about increased government restrictions on funding for women’s rights NGOs.

One influential critique concerns the very conditions associated with the growth of NGOs (Alvarez 2000). International funding for NGOs has grown alongside neoliberalism as states have transferred tasks they once performed onto civil society actors (Fraser 2009 and Silke Roth in this volume). As a result, Silke Roth argues, women’s movements became NGO-ized in East Germany and other Eastern European countries in the wake of the state’s retreat from social welfare in the 1980s. This raises the question of the extent to which NGOs can and should take up responsibilities that states are better equipped to handle.

Another critique is that women’s NGOs have contributed to the demobilization of women’s movements. As one observer notes,

Part of the problem is that the science of delivery has been strangling the art of social transformation. Driven by the need to measure results, donors have helped to nurture a cadre of contracted civil society organisations, who are excellent at “accounts-ability” but less good at disruptive change. (Sriskandarajah, 2015)

Islah Jad questions a tendency to use the terms social movement and NGO interchangeably in Palestine. She argues that the grassroots women’s organizations that emerged during the first Intifada in 1987 mobilized women across the class spectrum. International funding transformed women’s organizations into NGOs that collaborated closely with the Palestinian Authority and failed to challenge the Occupation. In the process they left a political vacuum that Islamist forces have filled.

The kind of funding NGOs receive and the freedom they have to determine how to use their resources often constrain the activities of progressive grass roots organizations. Most donors are located in the global North and fund large, professionalized civil-society organizations that have the capacity to deliver tangible outputs. In South Africa, Salo argues, professionalized, urban NGOs have failed to work with poor rural women. The most restrictive funding in Africa, Tripp notes, is from corporations that do not fund programs that address the structural underpinnings of gender inequality. However, even multilateral and bilateral donors provide relatively little funding for grassroots organizations. Moreover, women’s organizations generally do not receive multi-year and unrestricted core funding that they can use to strengthen their organizational capacities (AWID 2011).

NGOs have become increasingly bureaucratized and de-politicized. Sundstrom suggests that Western funding in the 1990s was partly responsible for the emergence of women’s NGOs that addressed violence against women and formed crisis centers in Russia. International funding enabled these activists to achieve autonomy from the state and critique its policies. But if foreign funding played a valuable role in the short run, it deterred NGOs from mobilizing domestic resources to achieve long-term viability and establish their own agendas.

Until around 2000, Shaheed notes, women’s organizations in Pakistan received foreign funding for programs of their choosing. Thereafter, donors began tying funding to their own agendas, using a bidding process and boxing ideas into Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound (SMART) outputs. This increased competition among women’s organizations and impeded the creation of broad-based coalitions. It also shifted activists’ attention to specialized activities and measurable outcomes, limiting the scope for independent, innovative activism aimed at achieving broad social-change goals.

However, Shaheed cautions that blanket, sweeping criticisms of NGO-ization in Pakistan and elsewhere can reflect and provoke broader opposition to feminism and human rights. Movements that reject international funding are deprived of resources that are essential to sustaining and expanding their activities. She notes that in both Pakistan and Bangladesh, many feminist NGOs that have accepted international funds have resisted donor-driven agendas. Shaheed’s observation is especially valuable because she was a founding member of the leading feminist organization in Pakistan, the Women’s Action Forum (WAF), which has always refused funding from all government and international sources as a matter of principle. Shaheed argues that although WAF’s financial autonomy enabled it to launch a radical movement against the Zia dictatorship in the late 1970s, it has been hampered by a lack of resources and effective fund-raising strategy.

Many feminist NGOs must choose the lesser of two evils. Sundstrom argues that independent activists in Russia can either join or create NGOs whose funding is meager, unreliable, and constrained, or join state-supported organizations which are more stable but completely dependent on the government. In Iran, where foreign-funded NGOs also operate under severe constraints, Tohidi notes that women’s organizations are either hindered by a lack of resources or by being branded foreign agents and thus subject to government repression.

Indeed, foreign-funded NGOs’ ability to achieve autonomy from the state has declined as many governments have restricted the funding and activities of progressive, social change-oriented NGOs. A report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace identifies fifty countries that place restrictions on overseas funding of NGOs (“Foreign Funding of NGOs: Donors Keep Out,” 2014). In Russia, for example, a law enacted in 2012 limits NGOs’ ability to receive foreign funding by requiring them to declare themselves “foreign agents” or face fines and eventual dissolution. A decade after the Beijing women’s conference in 1995, the Chinese government restricted international funding and engaged in increased monitoring and control over NGOs. In 2016 it passed a law constraining the work of over seven thousand NGOs; women’s rights NGOs figure prominently among them.

Poulomi Pal points out that foreign funding does not provide women’s rights NGOs much autonomy, given increased government regulation of NGO activities in India. The Indian government canceled the registrations of thousands of foreign-funded NGOs, supposedly for failing to file tax returns in 2015. It also temporarily put the Ford Foundation, one of the largest donors to Indian women’s organizations, under watch and froze its bank accounts.

The extent to which women’s movements can function autonomously is deeply influenced by global geo-political inequalities. Among the countries described in this volume, the US women’s movement has historically been least influenced by international forces. Benita Roth points out that with the exception of a few individuals and organizations, the US women’s movement has not been very active in transnational organizing. On the one hand, this has been costly to American women; the US has not joined other countries in promoting women’s rights through such measures as ratifying CEDAW and adopting gender quotas. On the other hand, given the wealth and power of the US, its women’s NGOs have not needed international funding and have thus avoided donor dependence.

III. The National Context

Women’s movements have arisen alongside other social movements—for independence, democracy, and socialism—for several reasons. First, like other national social movements, women’s movements emerge following the creation of modern states. As Charles Tilly (1995) argues, states constitute both the citizens who are claimants and the objects of their claims. The state’s authoritative control over resources, power, and violence makes it the target of national social movements. Second, women often become politically active as old regimes collapse and existing power structures erode, thereby temporarily loosening patriarchal control within the family and broader society. Women achieved significant political gains in Europe and the US following the first and second world wars and in large parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East during and following decolonization. Third, the close links between women’s movements and other social movements reflect the intersectional nature of women’s interests in fighting to achieve freedom both for the nation and as women.

Women were extremely active in anticolonial nationalist movements in many of the countries discussed in this book. In most of these instances, they challenged traditional gender roles both explicitly and by virtue of their activism. In Cameroon and Nigeria, Tripp notes, women became active in nationalist struggles to advance their own gender-specific and other agendas, including those related to taxation and market prices. Nationalist leaders in Guinea and Mali recruited women into independence movements by appealing to women’s concerns. But while women achieved certain political rights in the aftermath of independence, most countries failed to address deep-rooted patriarchal practices in the postcolonial era.

The Palestinian women’s movement, Jad argues, has been inextricably linked to the Palestinian movement for independence. However, although Palestine has yet to establish statehood, the women’s movement has declined. The Israeli Occupation threatens Palestine’s existence and stifles citizenship rights in the West Bank and Gaza. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority has depoliticized civil society and demobilized the women’s movement. Palestinian feminists face the nearly impossible challenge of mobilizing against Israeli Occupation while seeking rights from what is not a full-fledged state.

State repression, particularly when it transcends the political domain and permeates civil society, has often been a catalyst to women’s activism. Women played critical roles in movements against authoritarian regimes in Latin America. They have been at the forefront of struggles against state repression in post-Khomeini Iran. Women’s rights activists were deeply engaged in the Arab Spring protests in 2010–2011. In Africa, women’s activism was essential to the collapse of military dictatorships. In Kenya, for example, women were at the forefront of the democracy movement in 1992; more recently, women participated in Côte d’Ivoire’s democracy movement in 2011.

Women’s groups have been active in drafting constitutions in newly formed multiparty democracies. Thanks to feminist pressures, the Polish constitution includes an article decreeing equal rights for women and men. In South Africa, the Women’s National Coalition waged a successful struggle to ensure that the constitution guarantees equality and freedom from discrimination for all, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. The post-2000 constitutions adopted in twenty-two of the twenty-nine African countries that recognize customary law include provisions that allow statutory law to trump customary law. After the collapse of the Ben Ali government in Tunisia in January 2011, feminist groups mobilized to ensure a democratic transition that supported women’s rights. In Morocco, women’s rights organizations persuaded the government to ratify CEDAW’s Optional Protocol, which permits the CEDAW Committee to receive and consider communications from feminist groups.

However, democratization has also given rise to the emergence of conservative civil society organizations that the state is either unwilling or unable to contain. Diane Mulligan and Jude Howell note that

Civil society is a double-edged sword for feminists. It can provide a site for organizing around feminist issues, for articulating counter-hegemonic discourses, for experimenting with alternative life styles and for envisioning other less sexist and more just worlds… Yet it can also be an arena where gendered behavior, norms and practices are acted out and reproduced. (Mulligan and Howell 2005, 6)

Burgeoning civil societies have given rise to conservative, misogynist groups that claim to speak in the name of “traditional” religious and ethnic values. Such is the case in India, Palestine, Iran, and South Africa, among other countries in this volume. Jad notes that the growing power of Islamists in Palestine has weakened the secular women’s movement and its attempts to strengthen secular over religious law. In South Africa, Salo argues, rural women have been subject to extensive discrimination, particularly with respect to land ownership and inheritance. Jacob Zuma’s presidency has strengthened chiefs who exercise enormous power over traditional courts and communal land and oppose women’s inheritance rights. In India, reactionary forces have grown within both civil society and the state. Hindu nationalist organizations have policed women’s sexuality, resulting in attacks on interfaith couples and assaults on women who frequent bars. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, Pal argues, it has lent support to these organizations, crushing citizens’ democratic rights and restricting space for dissent.

The Catholic Church became the major opponent of reproductive rights once democracy was achieved in Latin America, as well as in Eastern and Central Europe. Thus, despite state support, women’s movements have been unsuccessful in securing the right to legal first-trimester abortions in Poland, Russia, and Latin America. Friedman argues that while leftist governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile have addressed socioeconomic inequality and increased women’s representation in decision-making bodies, they have been less willing to confront the Church on sexuality and abortion. In Brazil, Sardenberg and Costa describe how the Church has supported legislation prohibiting distribution of the “morning-after pill” through the public health system in several cities. The growth of Christian fundamentalism in Latin America has further threatened the rights of women and LGBT groups. In the US, the religious right has crusaded against abortion and attacked abortion clinics. Right-wing Republicans, Benita Roth points out, have sought to defund Planned Parenthood and influenced many state legislatures to limit a woman’s right to choose. A 2014 Supreme Court decision established the right of employers to make their religious beliefs grounds for limiting their employees’ access to reproductive services.

Women’s movements have responded to these conservative forces in a variety of ways. They have tried to influence policies by putting pressure on executive branch agencies and through organized mass demonstrations and petition campaigns. They have forged alliances within civil society, sometimes with religiously observant women who share some of their objectives. They have sought to legitimate their claims by using international instruments. These attempts have sometimes been successful; at other times they have provoked an even more conservative backlash.

IV. Women’s Movements and the State

Women’s movements have often directed their demands at the state because of its power over so many feminist goals: increasing women’s political representation, instituting laws that punish violence against women, curtailing discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, ensuring equal pay, making abortion accessible, expanding social welfare, and providing services like shelters for battered women.

However, when and to what extent women’s movements confront the state and their success in achieving state concessions varies. Women who have contributed to the creation of new regimes have leverage in getting them to address gender inequality. In the aftermath of anticolonial struggles, we witnessed women’s movements securing states’ prohibition of gender discrimination, as in India, and of discrimination against women and LGBT groups, as in South Africa. Women’s movements are also likely to confront the state when there are glaring gaps between official pronouncements and actual policies. Examples include states that recognize only some women’s citizenship rights, acknowledge the rights of racial or religious minorities but not those of women, accept and then retract women’s rights, and violate international conventions and constitutional guarantees prohibiting gender discrimination.

Given the extent to which women’s movements have made demands on the state, they are strikingly ambivalent about working with it. There are good reasons for this caution. The first is that the terms of collaboration are generally set by the state rather than by feminists, and activists often fear that the strength and radicalism of women’s movements will be depleted by institutionalization. For example, excessive reliance on the state to enact public measures supporting gender equality in Poland and Russia during the communist era impeded the development of autonomous women’s movements. Similarly, Silke Roth notes that Northern European social-democratic welfare states, which emphasized gender equality and integrated women into political institutions, weakened independent women’s movements. By contrast, in liberal democratic states, which pursued more conservative social and economic policies, women’s movements were stronger and more sovereign.

A second reason for feminists’ ambivalence is that working within the state highlights and exacerbates stratification within women’s movements. Educated, urban, elite women are more likely to be drawn into women’s policy machineries and run for office than poorer, less educated, minority women. In the US, as Benita Roth argues, the neoliberal, minimal welfare state has promoted liberal feminism, which has favored the interests of middle-class over poor women and hindered cross-class coalitions and alliances.

Related to this issue is a debate among feminists involving the extent to which the state’s institutionalization of feminist demands has diluted, narrowed, and undermined the goals of women’s movements. The chapters in this book suggest that the answer to this question depends on the character of the state and its relationship to women’s movements both historically and in the current period. The most productive relationships between feminists and the state exist when women’s movements and other social movements play important roles in bringing sympathetic governments to power and continuing to pressure them to improve women’s conditions.

Another key question concerns the character of state feminism and its relationship to women’s movements, both of which have changed significantly. What was termed state feminism in the past and was associated with authoritarian, modernizing regimes in Africa and the Middle East, depended on the goodwill of political leaders. Moghadam describes two important older models of state feminism, Tunisia under Habib Bourguiba (1956–1987) and Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956–1970), who circumscribed women’s rights much more than Bourguiba. In Africa, Tripp argues, the state-affiliated women’s organizations that most African countries created from 1975 to 1985 were designed to generate support for ruling parties. As single parties lost their grip and multiparty competition grew in the 1990s, autonomous women’s groups displaced these state- and party-affiliated women’s organizations.

In the contemporary period, we see several different patterns of state feminism. One pattern, which Jad describes, is for the state to appoint femocrats—because of their patronage ties and not their feminist commitments—to pursue the state’s agenda. Another pattern, which Salo describes, is a declining role for progressive femocrats in South Africa in the years after Jacob Zuma came to power. She argues that the African National Congress Women’s League (ANCWL) jettisoned feminism and became wholly aligned with President Zuma’s personal agenda. A third pattern, which Wang Zheng identifies, is for state-affiliated women’s organizations to work surreptitiously to support feminist goals that exceed state dictates. She argues that Western feminists mistakenly fault the All-China Democratic Women’s Federation (ACDWF), which is officially linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), for submissively toeing the party line. In fact, she argues, the ACDWF has maneuvered behind the scenes to achieve feminist goals. Feminist NGOs have relied heavily on the ACDWF’s funding, organizational networks, institutional legitimacy, and administrative reach. One of their most important joint achievements was the passage of China’s first law against domestic violence in December 2015, after two decades of persistent feminist struggle.

The most effective forms of state feminism entail close and open links between femocrats and strong and independent women’s organizations. According to Sardenberg and Costa, this is the case in Brazil, where state feminism emerged because of pressure by women’s movements from below. The election to national office of the progressive Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), which was committed to participatory forms of governance, provided further support for feminist demands. Sardenberg and Costa recognize, however, that many rights, including sexual and reproductive rights, have yet to be achieved in Brazil. Friedman makes a similar argument about Latin America more broadly and anticipates that feminist and LGBT rights are likely to experience a setback amidst the ascendency of the political Right, which has strong ties to the Catholic Church. Further damage stems from austerity measures that disproportionately affect poor women and transgender people.

Political Representation

One of the most important gains that women have made since the mid-1990s is increased political representation in national legislatures. As Dahlerup notes, “The quota system shifts the burden of recruitment from individual women to those who control the recruitment process” (Dahlerup ed., 2006). Women parliamentarians worldwide grew from 13 percent of all parliamentarians in 1998 to 21 percent in 2013. Thirty-seven countries achieved the UN mandate of having women constitute at least 30 percent in their lower houses of parliament. In the past decade alone, women’s legislative representation has increased by at least five percent, with especially marked increases in Arab states. Much of this increase is due to the implementation of gender quotas by approximately 128 countries.

Quotas are not confined to any particular region of the world but they are more or less likely in certain political contexts. They are uncommon in former communist countries. Sundstrom suggests that women’s political representation in post-communist Russia declined following the abolition of Soviet-era legislative quotas. Governments have introduced constitutional quotas after attaining political independence, as in in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Governments in countries that have experienced democracy movements, like Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, have introduced quotas in response to feminist demands. Regional influences play a significant role. For example, after Argentina revised its electoral laws in 1991 to require that all political parties nominate at least 30 percent women to run for office, other Latin American countries followed suit.

International factors, like the UN Women’s Conferences and CEDAW, have encouraged some governments to adopt quotas. Countries that have experienced civil war and extreme conflict, like Nepal, Afghanistan, Liberia, and Rwanda, introduced quotas as a result of international influences, notably UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (adopted in 2000), which promotes women’s participation in decision making on peace and security issues.

However, international pressures cannot ensure quotas’ success. Countries with strong women’s movements are sometimes resistant to quotas (Hughes et al, 2015). One possible explanation is that strong women’s movements may be unenthusiastic about quotas. There is some evidence for this in the Indian context. Although on balance the Indian women’s movement supports quotas, it is not without ambivalence. Indian feminists have worried that quotas could create a ceiling rather than a floor, and that male politicians would field pliable wives and daughters as proxies. Further, feminists have criticized quotas for treating women as a homogeneous group and ignoring the deterrents to the candidacies of poor, low-caste women. Low-caste parties have similarly opposed women’s quotas on grounds that they would be filled primarily by upper-caste women. As a result of this combination of opposition and ambivalence, reservations for women as yet exist only in the panchayats, local elected bodies. A bill mandating 33 percent reserved seats in state and national legislatures still awaits parliamentary approval. The higher the political office, the greater the challenges women confront. Thus, women in Russia, Brazil, the US, and India have achieved greater electoral success in local than in national elections.

Countries that adopt quotas do not always implement them, fully or at all. When, as is often the case, only small political parties adopt voluntary party quotas, this has relatively little impact on women’s political representation. Voluntary quotas have been much more successful when adopted by dominant parties, for example the ANC in South Africa. Some countries have adopted party quotas for elections decided by proportional representation drawn from a party’s list of candidates, but do not specify the list’s rank ordering. Parties may place women candidates at the bottom of the list, putting them at a severe disadvantage. In many countries there are no sanctions for noncompliance with party quotas and little financial support for female candidates’ election campaigns. In this respect, constitutional or legal quotas that regulate the activities of all political parties and are more effective than voluntary party quotas.

In general, quotas have reduced but not removed the innumerable barriers impeding women’s electoral success. Furthermore, some countries with legislative quotas for women otherwise have poor records on women’s rights. Although women’s increased political representation is valuable in and of itself, clearly it is insufficient to address the structural bases of gender inequality. And women’s movements have been much less successful in addressing poverty and class inequality because states, political parties, and the most powerful international actors are generally less receptive to these demands.

Economic Justice and Neo-liberalism

In the past, welfare states in the global North and South adopted social welfare policies that provided a safety net for women in poverty. Most states today fail to do so. Reconfigured states (Banaszak et al. 2003, 6–7) have downloaded power and responsibilities to lower rungs of the state, uploaded power and responsibility to higher branches of the state, laterally delegated responsibility to non-elected state bodies, and off-loaded responsibilities to non-state actors. Encroachment on states’ authority by institutions like the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization, and World Bank and many bilateral and multi-lateral treaties have reduced national states’ accountability to women’s movements. By off-loading responsibilities, states have shifted social welfare responsibilities to NGOs that cannot or do not seek to address the macro-level causes of poverty and inequality.

In some countries and regions, women have engaged in mass resistance against austerity measures. Silke Roth describes coalitions that have emerged in Turkey and the UK to protest public sector cuts. Sundstrom analyzes widespread protests in Russia, that began in 2002 and grew during the financial crisis of 2008–2010, to oppose employers’ failures to pay government-provided parental leave benefits.

With the exception of a minority of countries in which left-of-center governments occupy power, most governments are unsympathetic or hostile to demands for economic justice. As Wang Zheng notes, although urban female workers in China bore the brunt of economic reforms, and were the last to be hired and the first to be fired, Chinese feminists could not rival the state’s power to privatize public assets and regulate labor relations. The same could be said of other countries in which even the strongest women’s movements cannot change states’ macroeconomic policies.

Still, most women’s movements have not prioritized questions of poverty and inequality. Rights-based approaches that women’s movements have fruitfully employed to address violence against women are primarily concerned with civil rights and liberties—even though some proponents of the women’s human rights approach have sought to address economic rights. A chasm has sometimes emerged between middle-class feminist organizations that focus on social and political issues, and labor unions, peasant organizations, and social justice movements that focus on poverty and class inequality. Benita Roth argues that in the US, while liberal feminists have addressed equal pay largely for the middle-class, women-of-color organizations have addressed problems of black and Hispanic women on welfare. In other contexts, like Iran and Palestine, the climate of political repression has narrowed the agendas of women’s movements to confronting overt physical violence rather than systemic or structural violence.

V. Burning Issues

Violence Against Women

From the “Stop Stoning Forever Campaign” opposing the stoning of women who are accused of adultery in Iran, to the One in Nine Campaign against rape in South Africa, to protests against femicide in Brazil, violence against women has been a central concern of women’s movements. Feminists have expanded definitions of rape and sexual harassment and revealed the entanglement of violence against women with other forms of domination and power. Women’s movements have proposed multiple levels of intervention, from legislation and public policies to assistance for individual women. They have advocated the creation of shelters, family courts, walk-in assistance, and counseling centers for battered women. They have engaged psychologists, social workers, lawyers, and doctors to work with survivors. They have developed education and job-creation programs so that women do not have to return to abusive situations. Movements combating violence against women have scored some important achievements among the police, judges, medical professionals, and other government officials and professionals who interact with survivors. An indication of movement effectiveness is the increasing involvement of municipal governments in founding and supporting crisis centers that NGOs have formed. European Union members and candidate states have adopted a variety of policies to address gender violence (Montoya 2013).

International forces, from the UN women’s conferences to international treaties to internationally funded NGOs, to transnational advocacy networks, have encouraged women’s movements to confront sexual violence. In Pakistan, Shaheed observes, activists only started using the internationally recognized term violence against women in the early 1990s, when they engaged with global forces. In Russia, Sundstrom notes, many of the terms concerning violence against women are of English origin.

However, the extent to which transnational forces initiate movements concerning violence against women varies. They have been important in situations in which the state is repressive and the possibilities for women’s activism are constrained. They have been less influential in countries that have strong civil societies and somewhat responsive states (Basu, 2000). In India, for example, the women’s movement has been organizing campaigns since the 1970s against the rape of women in police custody and “dowry deaths,” that is, the murder of newly married women following their being tortured and abused by their husbands and in laws on grounds that the dowry at the time of marriage was insufficient. Men who murder their wives often remarry and receive another dowry from the families of their new wives.

Struggles addressing violence against women have deepened and grown when the state has vacillated in its commitments and demonstrated biases in addressing violence against women. In both Brazil and South Africa, women’s movements have allied with LGBT groups to confront the state’s shortcomings and address gender violence in a more inclusive manner. As Pal shows, in 2012 the Indian government, under pressure from women’s groups and other civil society organizations, established a committee to address reforms of laws and public policies relating to rape, trafficking, and sexual harassment. The committee strengthened women’s organizations by involving them in the consultative process. Feminists and LGBT groups demanded, among other things, that laws should define sexual harassment and rape more broadly, decriminalize homosexuality, criminalize marital rape, redefine the age of consent, consider violence against dalit (Scheduled Caste or untouchable) and tribal women aggravated sexual assault, employ gender-neutral terms to refer to victims/survivors, and hold senior public officials and members of the armed forces accountable for rape. They achieved some of these demands.

South Africa offers a particularly important instance of how the movement to stop violence against women has evolved and grown. Salo shows how the One in Nine Campaign (named to emphasize that only one out of nine rape survivors reports the attack to the police) emerged to support a woman who charged Jacob Zuma, then deputy president of South Africa, with rape. After a court acquitted Zuma in 2006, the campaign extended its support to other women who had filed rape charges in the courts. Over the next few years, it protested homophobic rapes and murders targeting black lesbians. A catalyst for the sustained struggle was the fact that the South African Parliament enacted a law in 2007 that criminalizes marital rape, expands the definition of sexual assault to include all forms of non-consensual sex, and includes men and children as potential victims of sexual assault.

However, the depressing reality is that, despite sustained activism by the women’s movements and LGBT activists, India and South Africa still suffer among the highest rates of sexual violence in the world. Salo notes that sexual violence against women living in urban informal settlements and the rural periphery is especially extensive. Government measures have not addressed major underlying causes: the cultural and material bases of gender oppression; links among gender violence, poverty, and class inequality; and the growth of conservative, patriarchal ethnic and religious nationalisms.

Sexual Rights

Our authors were asked to address the conditions and struggles of sexual minorities because the oppression of LGBT groups, as of the poor and racial and ethnic minorities, is central to a broadly conceived feminist agenda. Furthermore, there are many similarities between the conditions under which feminist and LGBT struggles succeed or fail.

As is true of women’s rights, there is enormous cross-national variation in the rights of LGBT communities. Many states have pursued homophobic policies. Homosexuality is illegal in seventy-three countries, including Iran, Pakistan, India, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and thirty-four African countries. The Palestinian Authority has not passed legislation on homosexuality but male homosexuality is illegal in Gaza under an old British criminal ordinance code. Homosexuality is subject to the death penalty in Iran and Pakistan. Even in the absence of clear laws on the subject, the Chinese state has engaged in harsh treatment of homosexuals. In India, the Delhi High Court in 2009, struck down Section 377 of the Penal Code, a colonial law that deems certain sexual acts “unnatural” and punishable by law, but four years later the Supreme Court overturned the High Court judgment. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, there are no laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The city of Moscow banned gay rights parades in 2011, and a national law bans gay propaganda.

By contrast, LGBT groups have achieved important legal gains in the US, Latin America and Europe. Same-sex marriage is now legal in the US, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay South Africa, and many EU member nations. As Friedman describes, Argentina has been a regional and global leader with respect to LGBT rights. It legalized same-sex marriage in 2010 and soon after passed a progressive gender identity law. Venezuela has promoted equality regardless of sexual orientation in banking, housing, policing, and employment. The new Bolivian constitution is progressive on transgender rights but does not recognize same-sex unions. The Chilean government has legally recognized same-sex unions, but executive attempts to prevent discrimination against LGBT groups have not won legislative approval.

Like women’s movements, LGBT activism has been greatest when states are sympathetic to their demands and/or vulnerable to their opposition, and when activists have formed alliances with other social movements, or organized within a broader human rights framework. The South African constitution provides far-reaching protections to gays and lesbians, including legalizing same-sex relations and banning anti-gay discrimination, and has thereby catalyzed the growth of activist organizations like the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which has been at the forefront of AIDS activism. TAC has advocated better access to health care for gay and straight men and women. Its allies include the Social Justice Coalition, the Anti Eviction Campaign and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign have lobbied for marriage equality in the US. In Latin America, Friedman argues, LGBT activists have, like feminists, been most successful where they have been able to use constitutional reform openings and the executive branch has supported their demands. By contrast, when states have repressed LGBT groups, activists have organized in an underground, defensive manner. Such is the case in Russia, Tunisia, and China.

The very gains of LGBT movements, as of women’s movements, have often increased homophobic hate crimes. Relatively few countries have adopted laws prohibiting incitement to hatred based on sexual orientation. The June 2016 massacre of forty-nine people in a gay bar in Florida raised public awareness of homophobic violence. An article in the New York Times revealed that there are far more hate crimes against the LGBT community than against any ethnic or racial minority in the US (Park and Mykhyalyshyn 2016).

In most of the world, LGBT groups continue to face discrimination in employment, housing, education, health care, religious practice, and adoption of children. Like feminists, LGBT activists have debated the extent to which they should intensify struggles to expand their legal rights. Some activists worry that legal struggles divert energies from grassroots movements and the attempt to change cultural values and economic structures. The question surfaced in the US after the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage; some prominent LGBT activists cautioned that the decision should be seen not as an end in itself but a step towards eradicating systemic biases against the most vulnerable LGBT groups, including trans communities, people of color, immigrants and sex workers. For these groups, as for many women’s movements, one important priority is to forge alliances with other oppressed groups and another is to address substantive rather than simply legal inequalities (Vaid, 2013).


The chapters in this volume chart the immense challenges women’s movements confront, their response to these challenges and the tasks ahead. A crucial question is how women’s movements can address the multiple inequalities that women, especially subaltern women, experience. Women’s identities are determined by myriad social cleavages and for poor women from racial, ethnic, and religious minorities, the compounding of inequalities mitigates against single-issue campaigns and claiming singular identities. As a result, there are few issues that concern all women across social divides. One important exception is sexual violence which affects all women. Not surprisingly, most women’s movements and many transnational and regional networks have addressed this issue. Most governments are at least in principle committed to stopping violence against women and international organizations, particularly the UN, have taken a lead in doing so. However even violence against women has different consequences for women from different social backgrounds and calls for intersectional approaches.

A bigger challenge concerns the efforts and effectiveness of women’s movements in addressing poverty and class inequality, which is often overlaid with racial and ethnic inequality. Rights-based liberal feminism can be quite radical in highly repressive contexts, as Tohidi observes, but is ill-equipped to address structural inequalities, particularly in the current neo-liberal era.

For women’s movements to effectively address homophobia, minority rights, and race and class inequalities necessitates forming sustained alliances with movements of other oppressed groups. Women’s movements have often grown out of broader political struggles: the civil rights and antiwar movements in the US; nationalist movements in Palestine, South Africa, and India; and movements against authoritarianism in Latin America. Links between the women’s movement and other popular democratic struggles have broadened the social base of women’s movements. The chapters in this book record the productive linkages women’s movements have increasingly forged with AIDS activists, health, labor, human rights and civil liberties groups. Indeed, women’s movements are more committed to inclusivity and coalitional politics than most other social movements.

Another challenge is generational. Pal, writing on India, and Shaheed, on Pakistan, call for older feminists to listen to younger women and to appreciate their distinctive modes of activism and demands. Drawing younger women into women’s movements requires greater use of social media, which played a key role in the Arab Spring, the World Social Forums, the Occupy movement and Black Lives Matter. In Pakistan, an Open Forum on WhatsApp preceded the highly successful WAF national convention, which was held in 2016 after a ten-year hiatus and brought together different generations of feminists. In Europe, Silke Roth notes, “interactive communication repertoires” have given rise to new forms of online activism and transformed women’s networks. Tohidi describes how new communication technology in Iran has enabled Iranian feminists to interact with diasporic and other transnational groups. Sundstrom states that feminists relied on social networking sites to stage recent pro-choice demonstrations in Russia. Some of the most exciting developments in this regard have occurred in China, where young feminists have found the Internet a powerful medium for organizing. As Wang Zheng shows, they have used the Internet to make visible commonly unseen violations of women’s rights, and WeChat to challenge heterosexual normativity and to forge links with women worker organizations.

Women’s movements face formidable challenges that emanate from the global political and economic environment. As external challenges have become more daunting, they sometimes widen class, ideological, and other differences within women’s movements. Some issues like the growth of militarization, the religious right and economic austerity, are simply too daunting for women’s movements or any social movements to change. It is a credit to women’s movements that they have tackled these issues at all.

The chapters in this book identify the dynamism of women’s movements in enduring, evolving, and adapting to changing circumstances. Activists who were principally committed to a single set of issues and a single set of strategies have broadened their agendas and adopted new modes of organizing. Secular feminists have formed alliances with religious groups. Feminists have forged alliances with LGBT activists. Many activists who were exclusively concerned with gender inequality have increasingly addressed racism and indigenous rights. Movements have altered their strategies of working with the state and international donors in response to changing political conditions. While cognizant of enormous challenges, the authors in this volume illuminate the resilience and power of feminism and women’s movements then, now, and in the years to come.


[1] I am grateful to Elisabeth Jay Friedman, Kate Hartford, and Mark Kesselman for detailed and very helpful comments on a previous draft of this chapter.
[2] I use the term “feminist” to describe ideas, discourses and practices supporting gender equality and discuss the concept and its relationship to women’s movements below.
[3] Although I use the short hand term LGBT for convenience, it does not capture the varied forms of gender and sexual self-identification within and across nations.
[4] The Comparative State Feminism series, for example, focuses on women’s movements in democratic, advanced industrial societies in order to develop testable hypotheses about their achievements.
[5] Friends of the Family includes: Belarus, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Turkmenistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe.

Chapter 1

1: Women’s Movements in Africa

Aili Mari Tripp


Contemporary women’s movements in Africa can trace their antecedents to women’s mobilization within movements for independence and in the women’s organizations established early in the one-party era. Today’s movements emerged during struggles for democratization and in the context of peace movements during civil war. The new political space that opened up with democratization in the 1990s and in postwar contexts after 1990, but especially after 2000, has allowed for new forms of autonomous women’s mobilization. Women’s activism was also inspired by changing international norms regarding women’s rights, highlighted in the 1985 UN Conference on Women in Nairobi and the 1995 UN Conference on Women in Beijing. It was further buoyed by foreign donors’ new interest in supporting women’s mobilization, even if these funding trends were not always sustained.

As a result of such influences, the women’s organizations that emerged after the 1990s were characterized by their independence from national states and ruling parties. The organizations that formed in this period selected their own leaders and had their own sources of funding, which allowed them to chart their own agendas independent of the state and dominant party and enabled them to engage in greater policy advocacy, a marked shift from earlier mobilizations.

This chapter provides a historically framed overview of the development of contemporary African women’s movements. It first looks at the roots of contemporary women’s mobilization in sub-Saharan Africa in the struggles for independence and during the years of one-party rule (1960s through 1980s). It shows women occupying important roles in democratization movements from the early 1990s on, gains that influenced later mobilization. It examines how the decline of conflict in at least sixteen countries opened up new possibilities for mobilization, when women had been engaged in peace movements during war. The chapter explores the factors leading to the rise of autonomous women’s movements after the 1990s and their impact on women’s rights reforms. It describes the key issues that have engaged women activists and the characteristics of women’s mobilization, illustrating the more general points with a closer look at Uganda as a case study.

History of Mobilization

Although African women’s movements today have new agendas, strategies, and forms of leadership, they sometimes draw on older forms of protest and on experiences of women’s mobilization that were used prior to colonialism and during the struggle for independence as well as during the single-party era that ran roughly from 1960 to the early 1990s. For example, women in precolonial African societies drew on forms of action based in local cultural norms to achieve strong social impact. In Cameroon they used anlu, or naked protests, to shame misbehaving and abusive men. Later under British colonial rule, Cameroon women drew on their tradition of anlu to ridicule and shame colonial male authorities in the late 1950s (Diduk 1989). Tapping into cultural symbolism of life and death, tactics of stripping were historically used as a curse against male abuse of authority, but in the modern context they have been used against repressive police and governmental authority in colonial and postcolonial Africa. Collective naked protests, for example, were used by women in prodemocracy movements in Kenya in the 1990s, the anti-oil company and environmental movements in the Delta region of Nigeria in the early 2000s, and the land struggles in northern Uganda’s Amuru district in 2015.

Women have also drawn on traditions of protest that emerged during the independence struggles and wars of liberation. Women fought in large numbers in the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s. They participated as combatants, porters, and spies, but also in supporting roles as nurses, cooks, and launderers. In Kenya’s Mau Mau movement, women provided fighters with supplies and in some cases fought alongside men (Kanogo 1987; Likimani 1985; Presley 1991; Santilli 1977). Women also fought in the later armed liberation struggles in Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea. Women were in the leadership of the independence movement in Tanganyika during the same period: Bibi Titi rallied women, in particular, to the cause of independence, and was regarded as one of the two leading figures (along with Julius Nyerere) in that movement (Geiger 1997; Meena 1992). Women formed a women’s section of the Tanganyika African National Union to demand independence, and Bibi Titi headed up this section.

Women traders had particular grievances against colonial rule and were among the most vocal advocates of independence. They rioted and protested colonial tax policies in several Igbo provinces in Nigeria in 1929, Pare District in Tanganyika (Tanzania) in the 1940s, and Bujumbura (Burundi) in the 1950s (Hunt 1989; Ifeka-Moller 1973; Leith-Ross 1965; O’Barr 1976; Van Allen 1972, 1976). In the 1940s, the Nigerian Abeokuta Women’s Union, which represented over 100,000 women, organized demonstrations and tax boycotts and even sent a representative to London to present their demands to suspend female taxes. They were able to get female taxation suspended and in 1948 a woman gained a seat on the transition council that was the precursor to the parliament after independence (Parpart 1988:213).

Women’s particular concerns were sometimes, but not always, articulated or addressed by nationalist movements, even when women were important participants. In some cases, as in Algeria, they were actively sidelined after independence, much to the disappointment of women activists. In other cases, such as Mozambique, women’s rights issues were articulated by the liberation movement leadership, but were postponed, to be taken up after liberation. In Guinea and Mali, women’s demands were seen as integral to the process of independence, and leaders of the struggle made concerted efforts to recruit women into the movement by appealing to women’s concerns. Finally, in some contexts such as in Cameroon and Nigeria, women got involved in nationalist movements to advance their own gender-specific and other agendas, such as those related to taxation and market prices. For example, at least 1,000 of the 6,000 recorded petitions from Cameroon sent to the United Nations Trusteeship Council came from women nationalists. These petitions were one of the first forays of African women into advocacy within the international arena (Terretta 2007).

Post-Independence Mobilization, 1960–1990

During the first thirty years after independence, one-party systems like Tanganyika African Union and Kenya African National Union dominated the political scene in Africa. After the 1970s several governments were also led by military rulers such as Jerry Rawlings in Ghana (1979, 1981–2001), President Shehu Shagari (1979–1983) and Major General Mohammadu Buhari (1984–1985) in Nigeria, and Idi Amin in Uganda (1971–79). During this period, often the ruling party and the state controlled women’s mobilization through patronage politics. The leaders of the women’s organizations were often relatives of those in power and benefited from their positions in the form of salaries, cars, trips abroad, and other such perks.

Women’s organizations were depoliticized, tending to focus on religious, domestic, cultural, and social welfare concerns, or on income­generating activities, including handicrafts. Domestic concerns involved cooking, hygiene, and how to manage a household. Some organizations were engaged in agricultural production and microcredit. Many adopted a “developmental” approach while attempting to keep women depoliticized. They focused on bringing women into development through agricultural production and informal sector activities and through microcredit and input schemes (Ngugi circa 2001). There were some legislative reforms in this period that carried benefits for women, but only if supported or initiated by the ruling party, and if posing no challenge to its priorities. Women’s organizations carried out “gender sensitization” or “conscientization” (consciousness raising), but in general eschewed political advocacy, particularly if that would put them at odds with the party or government (Geisler 1995:546). At the local level their primary political role was ensuring votes for the party in power, populating political rallies in support of party leaders, and providing food and entertainment for visiting dignitaries. In some countries, like Zambia, the Women’s League included among its activities a focus on women’s morality and preventing women from having affairs. A similar program was adopted by the Union des Femmes du Niger (UFN), the women’s wing of Parti Progressiste Nigérien (PPN), the leading party of the pre-independence period and the only legal party in the first Republic (1960–74). They demanded that women be educated and allowed entry into judicial, social, and political careers, and be supported as wives and mothers: this was a way to liberate women and uphold them as wives and mothers, and a way to stamp out and prevent urban sexual immorality and prostitution (Cooper 1995).

Some of the organizations during the first decades of independence were women’s wings of the ruling party. Others were mass organizations that fulfilled essentially the same functions. For example, Development of Women (Maendeleo ya Wanawake or MYW), the largest membership organization in Kenya during one-party rule, limited its concerns to those of child rearing, care of the household, literacy, and handicrafts, with a primary goal of supporting the ruling party, Kenya African National Union (Wipper 1975:100). As noted above, these organizations generally operated along patronage lines and their leaders came from the families of men high in government. Ghanaian first lady Nana Ageman Rawlings chaired the 31st December Women’s Movement in Ghana (31DWM); Nigerian first lady Maryam Babangida was president of the Better Life for Rural Women in Nigeria; and Sophia Kawawa, wife of Tanzania’s former prime minister Rachidi Kawawa, was chairperson of the Union of Women of Tanzania (Umoja wa Wanawake wa Tanzania, also known as UWT). The tradition continued into the multiparty era as first ladies were associated with their own nongovernmental organizations (NGOs): In Tanzania, Wanawake na Maendeleo Foundation (WAMA) was run by Salma Kikwete and Anna Mkapa was the chief patron of the Equal Opportunities for All Trust Fund (EOTF). Uganda’s first lady Janet Museveni was a patron of the popular Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO). Not surprisingly these types of NGOs have been used for explicitly political purposes. For example, the Zambian former president’s wife, Vera Chiluba, used her Hope Foundation to attack the political opposition.

It is worth noting, in addition to the party-related associations, there were some Christian organizations, such as the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Girl Guides, and Mothers’ Union, which were formed during the colonial era. There were also a handful of professional organizations, but the dominant organizations were the party-led unions and leagues.

Generally, the ruling party or government or both controlled the leadership of the party-affiliated women’s organizations as well as their financing and agendas. This basically kept them from challenging the status quo. Some policy measures were adopted from time to time as a result of pressure from these organizations, but for the most part, they did not tackle the difficult issues such as marital rape, land rights, inheritance, and so on. For example, the National Council of Women’s Societies in Nigeria lobbied the Government in 1986 to amend its discriminatory family planning policies that targeted only women and not polygamous men. It also got the state Commission for Women upgraded into a full-fledged Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, but it did little beyond these types of measures. The close ties between the Ghanaian government/ruling party and the 31DWM, which absorbed many of the independent women’s organizations, limited the extent to which the women’s organizations could press for change (Dei 1994; Mikell 1984).

Many governments relied on governmental women’s policy agencies rather than on women’s organizations to shape policy affecting women. In Ghana, for example, the National Council on Women and Development (NCWD) was formed through a parliamentary act (NRCD 322) in 1975 as an advisory body to the government on all issues affecting the full participation of women in national development, particularly in the areas of income generation, education, and vocational training. They also sought to eradicate prejudices against women. Their target groups included rural women, the urban poor, school dropouts, and working women. Under the Jerry Rawlings government in Ghana (1981–2000), the NCWD was able to get the inheritance laws reformed and degrading widowhood rites banned. However, the relationship between women’s groups and the regime was “maintained at the expense of the women’s struggle….In so doing women’s issues have been shelved; or at best, they have received very casual attention” (Tsikata 1989:89).

Thus, state-affiliated women’s organizations became a mechanism through which the ruling party and government depoliticized women. Although they claimed to represent the interests of all women within their countries’ borders, particularly rural women, the organizations were primarily a means of generating votes and support for the party and for dancing, singing, and cooking for visiting officials. Women were further marginalized by being relegated to party women’s wings, rather than integrated in a meaningful way into the party machinery, which would have afforded them more input into the party policies and candidate selection processes.

Between 1975 and 1985 most African countries established women’s policy agencies or “national machineries,” as they are referred to in Africa, to coordinate gender policy. Many were formed after a 1975 UN Resolution called on member states to establish such machineries to promote women in development. Some countries formed these as ministries; others established women’s bureaus or departments. These machineries were also created to serve as a link between the government and the domestic women’s organizations and international institutions. However, they were often under-resourced and lacked the capacity to engage women’s organizations effectively. Their commitment to women’s concerns came into question in countries like Zambia and Ghana because of their weak ties to the women’s movement, their weak leadership role in advancing legislative reforms, and the use of their leadership appointments for patronage purposes (Mama 2005; Phiri 2006; Tsikata 1989). In Uganda, Idi Amin created the National Council of Women in Uganda in 1978 and situated it inside the Prime Minister’s office, while at the same time banning all other women’s organizations. In many countries tensions arose between the women’s movements and the national machineries, and women’s NGOs often accused the women’s policy agencies of trying to usurp the role of their organizations and of competing with women’s NGOs for funding (Tripp 2000).

As single parties lost their grip and multiparty competition took hold in the 1990s, these institutional artifacts of the post-independence decades—mass unions, leagues, women’s wings of parties, and state-related umbrella organizations—decreased in influence. They were sidelined by independent organizations that rose in importance, partly because donors began to redirect funding toward independent NGOs. Some of the state-related organizations strove to become independent, but generally their history weighed against them.

Changes in Women’s Mobilization Starting in the 1990s

After the 1990s, new forms of mobilization proliferated around issues such as violence against women, environmental protection, land rights, inheritance rights, poverty and debt, reproductive rights, female education, peace, and many other concerns. Some of these movements gained international prominence, like the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, led by the late Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, which became an important force for political change. The peace movement during the Liberian wars (1989–96, 1999–2003) gave visibility to activist Leymah Gbowee, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 as a result of the efforts of her organization, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, in bringing about peace in that country. [1] But these are only a few better-known examples of the flourishing organizational growth that began in the 1990s. Table 1.1 shows that the number of associations founded increased rapidly after 1990, and burgeoned especially rapidly in the first half-decade of this century. The increase continued, though more slowly, after 2006, according to data from the 2011 Association of Women in Development provided to this author.

TABLE 1.1 Founding of Contemporary Women’s Advocacy Organizations in Africa

Year Founded Organizations Founded (%)
before 1990 5%
1990 – 1999 24
2000 – 2005 40
2006 – 2011 30

Source: Data provided by Angelika Arutyunova, Verónica Vidal of AWID, 2013.

Women’s Mobilization and the Opening of Political Space

The new forms of mobilization resulted from the opening of political space, which affected even the most repressive governments. Pressed by civil societies and by donors, governments began to take halting steps to liberalize, often shifting to multipartyism and electoral democracy with the aim of continuing to maintain control through more democratic means. The political opening, however incomplete, afforded women greater possibilities for mobilization. Moreover, women activists themselves were heavily involved in political liberalization processes and were often on the front lines of pressing for change. In Mali, President Moussa Traoré shot at 2,000 demonstrating women and children when they marched in front of the Ministry of Defense in 1991. The killing of women and children so incensed the public that Traoré was forced to make major concessions to the opposition before his fall in a military coup, which set in motion the political transition process. In Kenya, women were at the forefront of the democracy movement. In 1992 a group of women who had gone on a hunger strike in Uhuru Park in support of political prisoners found themselves in a violent confrontation with police. In this incident, older women stripped themselves naked to level one of the strongest curses possible against the military police who tried to break them. More recently, in March 2011 in Côte d’Ivoire, 15,000 women held a protest to demand the resignation of President Laurent Gbagbo, who had refused to cede power after losing an election to Alassane Ouattara. The protestors included 500 women who marched naked to inflict a devastating curse on the government. The naked women held brooms and leaves in their hands while others wore black, drawing on powerful female symbolism that emphasized their role as generators of life who have the power to figuratively negate life. Gbagbo’s troops opened fire on the women protesters, killing seven women and wounding 100. Gbagbo was eventually forced out of power, but only after his troops killed over 3,000 people and displaced a million.

In the 1990s we saw countries shifting from military to civilian rule and from single-party to multiparty states. We saw political opening, even if limited, with greater freedom of speech and freedom of association, and more openness to advocacy. Some countries later experienced a reversal in democratization, as has been the case with each wave of democracy historically. Some countries became hybrid regimes, neither fully democratic nor fully authoritarian, where democratic reforms were inconsistently protected and repression was unpredictable. But there has been at least some opening in most countries, allowing for women activists to mobilize. Where the lack of political opening did not allow for an autonomous civil society to flourish, as for example in Angola and Eritrea, considerably fewer improvements in women’s status were evident.

Women’s Mobilization and the Decline of Conflict

In many of the war-torn countries, women’s movements started out as peace movements. Women have mobilized for peace in the context of conflicts like those in northern Nigeria, South Sudan, eastern Congo, and Somalia. The end of conflict also had an impact on women’s mobilization, as long-standing conflicts or intense wars declined in over sixteen countries in Africa in the 1990s and 2000s. Civil wars had particular effects on women’s status because their end required a reordering of the polity, unlike proxy wars or interstate wars. This allowed for women’s rights activists to press for reforms in the context of peace talks, the rewriting of constitutions, truth and reconciliation commissions, the creation of electoral commissions, and the establishment of other such institutions. The new international and donor discourses on women’s rights after the mid-1990s combined with political opening helped foster new women’s activism, which sped up processes of women’s rights reform (See Tripp 2015 for an elaboration of these trends).

Countries affected by major conflict had experienced serious disruptions in gender relations, forcing women to play greater roles in their households and communities, and at the national level. Men and boys fled or hid to avoid conscription into militias, or they participated willingly or unwillingly in the fighting. This meant that women had to provide for their households in new ways. The involvement of some women in the fighting also challenged gendered expectations in various countries. After the war, women claimed top positions in business, politics, education, and many other sectors where they had previously not been leaders.

During the years of war in Liberia (1989–96, 1999–2003), women peace activists worked at the grassroots level and went individually to request that the various militias to lay down their arms. They organized workshops with the warlords to encourage them to stop fighting. They negotiated behind the scenes with various militia leaders to persuade them to come to an agreement. They took their pleas for peace to presidents in the region, politicians, party leaders, churches and mosques, as well as other key players. They organized women from the refugee camps to hold a sit-in at the 2003 Comprehensive Peace talks in Accra, Ghana, to press for peace, using the international media, and communicating with UN agencies, the African Union, external powers involved in the peace talks, and others. They negotiated in those same Accra peace talks to get their demands met. They also mobilized regionally with sisters from Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire, and Guinea through organizations like the Mano River Women Peace Network. Liberian women’s peace organizations worked with Africa-wide peacemaking organizations like Femmes Africa Solidarité.

This mobilization during the conflict was a precursor to mobilization after the war ended. A decline in hostilities did not always translate into a decline in violence for women, who often experienced continued and even heightened violence after the war in their homes and communities. The legislative and constitutional reforms regarding land, violence against women, and women’s representation (minimum quotas) were considerably more pronounced after major conflicts because of the gender disruptions that occurred. Thus it was no coincidence that the first woman elected president in Africa was in post-conflict Liberia. Rwanda, recovering after the orchestrated genocide in 1994 that killed 800,000 people, emerged as the country with the highest rates of legislative representation for women in the world after 2003. Because of the role of women’s movements and coalitions, post-conflict countries had considerably more extensive legislative and constitutional changes than countries that had not experienced conflict (Tripp 2015).

Historically there have been certain conditions under which war has shaken up existing power arrangements in a way that makes women’s rights reforms more likely. The presence of active women’s movements is an essential ingredient in ensuring that women’s rights are advanced, along with the diffusion of international norms regarding women’s rights. We saw these same patterns in parts of Europe and the US after World War I, after which women gained the right to vote. We have seen them in Africa after the 1990s and especially after 2000, with the end of major conflicts. These changes in Africa had not occurred after earlier conflicts when women’s movements were not actively pressing their agenda.

International Pressures for Reform

Several things had changed by the 1990s to make women’s rights mobilization and reforms more likely in Africa in the context of political reform and a decline in civil conflict. Changes in international global norms influenced gender regimes. Interest in women’s rights spread across Africa, promoted by the South African Development Community, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the African Union, in addition to UN agencies and other multilateral and bilateral donors. Many African women’s organizations attended the United Nations conferences in Nairobi in 1985 and in Beijing in 1995, which lent momentum to women’s mobilization in Africa. There was also diffusion of influences among women’s organizations across the continent, particularly among women’s rights activists within countries enduring conflict, and a diffusion of ideas around legislative and constitutional reforms pertaining to the adoption of quotas, rights of land ownership and inheritance, violence against women, gender budgeting, peacebuilding, and many other such issues.

Tackling Challenging Cultural Impediments

One of the innovations in post-2000 constitutions, particularly in post-conflict countries, was the provision that the constitution or statutory law would override customary law in the case of a conflict between the two. Customary law has been particularly challenging for women’s rights advocates in the areas of marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and family law more generally. Gradually we are seeing changes in these areas of law. Countries where customary law or sharia law traditions are strong have encountered the greatest resistance in reforming family law to accommodate women’s rights. But even among the 29 countries that recognize customary law in Africa, in 22 of them, constitutional provisions have been introduced that allow statutory law to override customary law should there be a conflict when it comes to women’s rights, e.g. in Chad, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Moreover, personal law is invalid if it violates constitutional provisions on non-discrimination or equality in 5 out of 12 countries, including Sudan and Nigeria.[2]

Cultural practices that are considered harmful to women have been another area of contestation. Sometimes these involve the maltreatment of widows or young women. For example, Ghana, Benin, and Togo still have a form of ritual servitude called trokosi, in which families or clans use young virgin girls to pay for services or as part of religious atonement for transgressions by family members. The girls work without pay—or consent—as slaves of priests, elders, and owners of a shrine. Gradually such cultural practices that are harmful to girls and women are being challenged and abandoned. As an example of inroads against one of the most widespread practices harming girls and young women, today at least 24 African countries out of the 29 where female genital cutting persists have banned the practice, most of them since 2000. The latest to ban the practice include Gambia and Nigeria.

Some cultural practices have proven to be less problematic than others. While family law reform has been especially challenging in predominantly Muslim countries, the adoption of parliamentary quotas has not been as controversial. Many of these countries—Tanzania, Senegal, Sudan, Algeria, and Tunisia among them—have been pressured by women’s movements to adopt quotas for women in the national legislatures. Today, Muslim countries in Africa, including North Africa, have on average only slightly lower rates of female legislative representation (20 percent) than non-Muslim countries (22 percent).

Senegal is a case in point. Because of weak general support for women politicians, the Senegalese women’s movement pressed for quotas. Women’s organizations and women party leaders, with the support of the UN and other donors, sought gender parity for the Senegalese legislature beginning in the mid-1990s, in efforts that lasted nearly two decades. The Senegalese Council of Women (Conseil sénégalais des femmes, or COSEF) spearheaded the parity campaign. COSEF was formed in 1994 to advocate for women’s increased political participation. It was made up of women’s associations, political parties, and NGOs. COSEF pressed the political parties to adopt quotas, and the parties pledged their commitment to do so. But after the 1998 elections it was evident that their moral commitment was insufficient, and COSEF decided it needed a legal means to bring about parity.

Fortunately, Abdoulaye Wade, who became president of Senegal in 2000, had made campaign promises regarding gender parity, and COSEF seized the moment to advance the issue. Again in Durban in 2002, when a group of African activists under the NGO Femmes Africa Solidarité (FAS) asked him to support the 30 percent quota of women representatives within the African Union, President Wade offered to advocate for a 50 percent quota, which is what the AU adopted (COSEF 2011). In 2004, still under Wade, Senegal signed the African Union Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (commonly known as the Maputo Protocol), which includes a provision about gender equality. Senegal also added the Maputo Protocol to its constitution.

In 2005, non-governmental organizations like COSEF, together with the Monitoring Committee for the Implementation of Gender, launched the campaign “Let’s consolidate democracy with gender parity!” This marked a turning point in the struggle for parity (Sane 2010). Early on, COSEF and its allies gained support from parties like the Union for Democratic Renewal (URD), the Socialist Party (PS), the And-Jëf/African Party for Democracy and Socialism, and the Rewmi Party (PR). COSEF worked with women from those parties. On March 23, 2007, almost a thousand women from all parties dressed in white and marched from the Independence Square, the symbol of national freedom, to the Palace of the Republic, the seat of political power, chanting the word “parity!” The “white march” was organized by the Ministry of Women under the direction of Minister Aida Mbodj, along with COSEF. The head of state was quick to respond to the women’s demands. Four days after the march he proposed bill No. 23/2007, known as the “parity law.” It amended the Electoral Code to provide for a proportional representation party list composed of alternating candidates of both sexes. The gender parity law was finally adopted in May 2012. A National Observatory on Gender Parity, established by presidential decree, monitored the implementation of the parity law in the elections (Bissonnette 2013).

After the law was adopted, COSEF and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Children, and Female Entrepreneurship, supported by the UN, launched a public awareness campaign in fourteen regions of Senegal and trained about three hundred women candidates on the electoral lists.[3] Thus while the impetus for the gender parity law came from women’s organizations within Senegal, external actors like UN Women played an important role in supporting the domestic actors, providing both financial and technical support. As a result of the parity law and the well-aimed support, the number of female parliamentary representatives nearly doubled with the 2012 elections, jumping from 23 percent to 43 percent of the seats.

Characteristics of New Women’s Movements


The new women’s organizations which emerged after the 1990s were largely autonomous of ruling parties and the government. As a result, they set their own agendas, controlled their own finances, and selected their own leaders. They were diverse in their objectives and forms of mobilization, in contrast to the women’s unions and leagues that were tied to the ruling party during the one-party era and that sought to encompass all women’s interests. Moreover, they took on more advocacy causes because of their autonomy. Their independence also made it easier for them to build coalitions across ethnic, religious, and other differences. A few countries, Eritrea and Angola among them, still lack associational autonomy. The case of Angola can serve to illustrate what the absence of autonomy means.

Even though Angola has multiple parties, there are few truly independent NGOs. Most are tied at some level to the dominant party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola or MPLA), which is able to rule through patronage, repression, and intimidation. The ruling elites maintain their power through their access to oil and diamond wealth and as a result are able to buy off potential opponents. Through the state they also threaten opponents with loss of opportunities such as jobs, passports, bank loans, or university enrollment; at times they also use physical intimidation, imprisonment, and worse. One sees pockets of resistance in the cultural scene, but the country’s policies have mainly served to create a quiescent population that does not challenge the status quo. Angolan women’s organizations, almost all of them at the national level, are tied to the ruling party. Even organizations that seem independent are associated in one way or another with the ruling party and government, which means that women’s organizations can only take up issues that are in accordance with the priorities of the ruling party. Although there are women in leadership positions in Angola and women constitute 37 percent of all legislators, there is little advocacy outside of the parameters set by the MPLA (Tripp 2015).

In those countries where one finds a strong and autonomous women’s movement, women’s rights have advanced more vigorously and a wider range of issues has been addressed. Having women in parliament or other positions of power and having a strong women’s parliamentary caucus is important, but it is not enough, as the Angolan case shows. Organizations need to be autonomous in order to realize major women’s rights reforms. This is borne out in the case of COSEF, which worked closely with the Ministry of Women and other governmental bodies, yet maintained its independence and hence its leverage.

Organizational Agendas

Autonomous organizations have been much bolder in challenging societal taboos. They have been more political and sometimes more confrontational in challenging government policy. Issues like domestic violence against women, marital rape, and sexual harassment only began to be addressed with the rise of independent women’s organizations, as did inheritance and land laws and customary practices like female genital cutting. A few examples help illustrate the controversial issues autonomous organizations can tackle.

  • In Morocco, every year thousands of children are abandoned and single mothers suffer severe discrimination as a result of social stigma, while the penal code criminalizes extramarital relations. The plight of single mothers in Morocco began to receive national attention starting with the formation of Solidarité Féminine in the mid-1980s, and the Institution Nationale de Solidarité avec les Femmes en Détresse (INSAF) in 1999. INSAF, for example, is involved in preventing the abandonment of children born outside of marriage. It supports the accommodation of and reintegration of single mothers into society and works toward the eradication of underage girls in domestic work. It also works as part of networks and national coalitions to defend the rights of women and children.
  • In Sierra Leone, a large percentage of maternal deaths stem from complications of unsafe abortions. Women’s organizations were able to get the Safe Abortion Act passed in 2015, allowing abortions during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy. After the twelfth week abortion is permitted only in cases of rape, incest, lack of a viable fetus, or risk to the health of the mother.
  • In Tunisia, Article 226 of the penal code rules against outrages to public decency, a catch-all law often used to target the country’s LGBT community. But the country has an active LGBT movement. It includes organizations like Shams—pour la dépénalisation de l’homosexualité en Tunisie (Sun—For the Decriminalization of Homosexuality) and Chouf (See), whose members use audiovisual and multimedia tools to promote human rights and gender equality. They seek to redefine feminism to give voice to all Tunisian LGBT women.

The rise of African feminism in the post-2000 period was another development tied to the expansion of women’s rights agendas. Feminism here is regarded as a goal or target for social change, not a movement per se. Mobilization around this goal of social change can take place in many different arenas—within women’s movements, but also within governments and many other societal institutions (Ferree 2006).

Up until the 2000s, feminism was often seen as a Western ideology of individual women fighting against men, with men as the main enemy of women. This was a stereotypical perception of feminism that was often promoted by politicians and the media in Africa. After the 2000s, African feminists became more vocal in redefining feminism in African terms and their views gained greater acceptance, particularly among younger activists.

Organizers of the first African Feminist Forum, held in Ghana in 2006, adopted a Charter of Feminist Principles that articulated some of the new thinking about feminism on the continent:

We define and name ourselves publicly as Feminists because we celebrate our feminist identities and politics. We recognize that the work of fighting for women’s rights is deeply political, and the process of naming is political too. Choosing to name ourselves Feminist places us in a clear ideological position. By naming ourselves as Feminists we politicise the struggle for women’s rights, we question the legitimacy of the structures that keep women subjugated, and we develop tools for transformatory analysis and action. We have multiple and varied identities as African Feminists. We are African women—we live here in Africa and even when we live elsewhere, our focus is on the lives of African women on the continent. Our feminist identity is not qualified with “Ifs,” “Buts,” or “Howevers.” We are Feminists. Full stop.[4]

This was a remarkable document in that it was a conscious break with the earlier ambivalence and defensiveness regarding feminism. There was a recognition of the plurality of feminist perspectives and that these differences were part of the strength of the women’s movement. At the same time the feminist forum pointed to a consensus on the need to address issues like “poverty, illiteracy, health and reproductive rights, political participation, and peace.”

Heterogeneity of Organizations

As the foregoing examples suggest, the new organizations which emerged after the 1990s were heterogeneous compared with the organizations of the single-party era. Today, the organizational landscape includes formal NGOs working on environmental issues, reproductive rights, and female leadership, health, and education; and single-issue groups that focus on female genital mutilation, land rights, HIV/AIDS, and women’s sports. Some organizations advocate for particular groups of women like the disabled, widows, single mothers, and second wives in polygamous marriages, who often experience fewer rights and privileges in marriage than first wives. There are professional associations for university women and for women judges, lawyers, media workers, engineers, doctors, and other such groups. There are development-oriented organizations that promote women’s credit and finance, trade, entrepreneurship, farming, and informal sector activities. At the local level one still finds the organizations that promote savings, farming, income-generating projects, handicrafts, sports, cultural events, and other such concerns.

Women’s organizations come together around particular policy advocacy coalitions to advance causes with a specific focus on women, such as the adoption of legislative quotas, but also around issues which affect marginalized people more generally, such as debt, land, poverty, and climate change. Women’s movements often act in concert with other civil society actors, parliamentarians, women’s ministry officials, and UN agencies. One of the key areas of concern has been politics, where there have been major efforts to increase women’s representation at all levels. Women’s organizations in many countries—Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Cameroon, and Mali, for example—are the most highly organized and strongest sector within civil society, which is why they are often represented in the leadership of key civil society networks. Finally, there are regional networks of women activists, including the Africa Regional Sexual and Gender-based Violence Network, Forum for African Women Educationalists, and the Women Peace and Security Network Africa, as well as international networks in which African women are active, like MUSAWA (which means “equality” in Arabic), Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), Global Alliance against Traffic in Women (GAATW), and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN).

Women’s organizations in Africa, according to a 2013 global survey by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID), have focused their activities on the following, in rank order: women’s economic empowerment, women’s leadership, access to education, reproductive rights and health, gender-based violence, economic and social and cultural rights, democracy and governance, political participation, microfinance, and sexual rights. They serve a wide range of populations, listing, in order of the frequency with which they were mentioned: rural women and peasants, women with HIV, grassroots women, community leaders, women human rights defenders at risk, women with disabilities, women in post-conflict contexts, indigenous women, women in politics, and businesswomen. They employed diverse approaches, as well. Asked to identify the top five strategies prioritized by their organization, about two-thirds mentioned training and capacity building and/or women’s empowerment programs; approximately half, advocacy, campaigning, and lobbying and/or awareness raising; about one-third, leadership development; and around one-quarter, communication and information, microfinance, sexuality education, and/or organizing meetings to analyze and strategize.

Independence of Funding

The same AWID study also found that women’s rights’ organizations in Africa found sources of funding independent of the state, which allowed them a measure of autonomy in delinking from state patronage networks. Several types of donors support women’s rights activities in Africa. In the AWID study, women’s organizations self-reported their major sources of funding, which included women’s funds (37%) and self-generated funds (27%), followed by significantly less funding from international NGOs (8%), national governments (7%), local governments (6%), bilateral donors (6%), religious institutions (4%), multilateral donors like the UN (3%), foundations (1%), and local NGOs (1%) like Oxfam, Novib, HIVOS, and CARE.

Women’s funds have become especially active in Africa in recent years. Focused specifically on women’s needs, they often are more attuned to the specific concerns and needs of women’s organizations than other, more generalized donors. The US-based Global Fund for Women works in twenty-seven African countries, making grants of US$13,000 on average. The UK- and Ghana-based African Women’s Development Fund, the Netherlands-based Mama Cash, the Mediterranean Women’s Fund, and the Kenya-based Action Fund for Women’s Rights are similar organizations. Nationally based women’s funds include organizations such as the Fonds pour les femmes Congolaises, Women’s Fund Tanzania, Ghana Women’s Fund, Nigeria Women Trust Fund, Pitseng Trust Women’s Fund (South Africa), and the Women’s Trust (Zimbabwe). These organizations fund a wide range of initiatives: women’s literacy classes, programs combating violence against women, training sessions for women’s leadership, and technical support in each country, with tools and information on sustainable agricultural practices.

TABLE 1.2 Comparison of Women’s Organizational Priorities, Donor Funding, and Gender Gap in Africa

Organization Priority Donor Funding Gender Gap
Women’s leadership and empowerment 51% 22% 15%
Women’s economic empowerment 55 23 66
Access to education 35 22 85
Reproductive rights and health (contraception, abortion, maternal health) 28 23 97

Source: World Economic Forum, Global Gender Index, Data provided by Angelika Arutyunova, Verónica Vidal of AWID, 2013.

Aside from its leadership role in setting the international agenda regarding women’s rights, the United Nations has also created a multi-donor fund supported by the governments of Spain, Norway, and Mexico to fast-track women’s economic and political empowerment. The goal is to strengthen partnerships between civil society and governments as well as to provide long-term funding to women’s rights organizations. The primary bilateral support to women’s organizations comes from Spain, followed by Norway, EU institutions overall, Germany, Denmark, the UK, and the Netherlands.

Foundations tend to focus on specific concerns and regions. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation focuses on gender data gaps. The Ford Foundation supports women’s rights and reproductive health in Africa; the Rockefeller Foundation, women’s education; Carnegie Corporation, university education; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, girls’ secondary education in East Africa and Nigeria.

With the growing global interest in corporate social responsibility, major corporations such as Coca-Cola, Exxon, Chevron, and Intel have in recent years become interested in supporting projects benefiting women and girls. A recent study conducted by AWID, Mama Cash, and the Dutch foreign ministry found that, among 170 corporate initiatives, a total of US$14.6 billion had been pledged for women and girls around the world from 2005 to 2020. About half those resources are to go to sub-Saharan Africa.[5] The downside? As we have seen, government funding may discourage women’s mobilization around more controversial issues; the new corporate funding focuses on economic empowerment, entrepreneurship, and women’s health and girls’ education, but very little of it targets human rights or peace or other structural issues underpinning women’s rights.

TABLE 1.3 Profile of Women’s Advocacy Associations

Africa Outside of Africa
Median income of organization $12,136 $65,134 overall
$20,000 Latin America
$24,000 South/ Southeast Asia
Received donor funding 82% 82%
Receive core support 23% 31%
Have multiyear grants 15% 25%
Give grants to other organizations or individuals 25% 13%
Have lost donors in past 10 years 25% 19%

Source: AWID 2011 Global Survey: Where Is the Money for Women’s Rights.

Diversification of funding helps, but the picture even so is far from rosy. There is a mismatch between the priorities identified by women’s organizations and those of donors. As Table 1.2 shows, the disconnect is greatest in the areas where the gender gap, according to the World Economic Forum, is the greatest: in the area of women’s political and economic empowerment (See Table 1.2). Relative to other parts of the world, African women’s organizations receive the least external support in terms of core funding (AWID 2011).

Women’s organizations also face numerous challenges because the types of funding they can obtain focus too heavily on short-term projects or on narrowly defined advocacy to produce easily measurable outcomes (vaccinations administered, women who learned to read, leadership training workshops held, etc.). The long, painstaking, and unpredictable work of changing and implementing legislation, policy, and culture is not so attractive to donors, because its success is contingent on so many other social actors and factors. Yet this is often where women’s rights activists need the most support. Thus, activists still point to the need for donors to think more long-term, and to focus on networks, movements, and processes of transformation to bring about structural changes that will have longer-term and lasting impact.

Building Unity Across Difference

One of the most striking characteristics of women’s mobilization in Africa has been its capacity for building coalitions and unity across difference, particularly in the context of conflict. In the past two decades women in sub-Saharan Africa have been increasingly engaged in peace movements, grassroots peace building activities, and peace negotiations. In virtually all peace negotiations, women assiduously worked across ethnic, clan, religious, and other differences—in part because they were excluded from official representation in formal peace negotiations. In countries like Liberia, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia, where the male negotiators (often warlords) sat at opposite ends of the table fighting over positions of power, representatives of women’s organizations sat together and worked across difference. Unity was their starting point rather than their end point. In Somalia, women from all clans came together, calling themselves the sixth clan, in order to gain recognition in the peace process, because only a feuding clan could get representation in the talks. During Liberia’s war, women joined across the Muslim-Christian divide and across ethnic and class differences to forge a united front in pressing for an end to the conflict. This type of coalition-building between Christians and Muslims has been significant in Nigeria as well, in protests against Boko Haram kidnappings and activities.

Women’s peacemaking and peacebuilding initiatives have taken a variety of forms. Women in countries as diverse as Mali, Mozambique, and Uganda organized rallies and boycotts urging small arms confiscation; they led reconciliation ceremonies, and negotiated with rebels to release abducted children and child soldiers. Women peace activists have played a role in preventing the resumption of conflict by monitoring and advocating against the sale of small arms and participating in campaigns to prevent the sale of diamonds to fund armed conflict.

Rather than seeing peace as something that had to be achieved to carry out reconstruction, women activists in post-conflict countries often regarded the process of reconstruction itself as the way to peace. Because of their involvement in more quotidian concerns, the working out of problems of access to water, food distribution, garbage disposal, and town cleanliness was the process through which peace was built in a country like Liberia. Peace was built piecemeal through the rebuilding of society. This is a radically different notion of peacemaking and departs fundamentally from the way peace negotiations are generally framed.

A Case Study: Uganda

The movement emerged at a time of change in international gender norms, and UN agencies and bilateral donors played a role in fostering women’s rights reforms in Uganda as elsewhere. As the war was winding to its end, many women activists went on their own to the 1985 UN Conference on Women in Nairobi. They returned energized to change the status of women in Uganda, which they felt had fallen behind that of other countries. The first independent women’s NGOs began to emerge. Some of the early demands of the movement included political power, an end to violence against women, microcredit, education for women, (including higher education), and broad legal reform.

Local-level gender disruptions had taken place as a result of the war. Women began to demand more access to resources and economic opportunities and began to push for more control within their communities both during and after the war. In the early 1990s, for example, as I describe in my book Women and Politics in Uganda (2000), there were a series of local-level conflicts in which women sought to control resources and were being challenged by local male leaders in doing so. For example, women fought to start and run a health clinic in Wakitaka, Jinja, against the wishes of the male local council leaders who felt that women should not take such initiatives. They sought to protect market space in Kiyembe market in the national capital, Kampala, which was being claimed by male vendors. They struggled to control the funds of the traditional birth attendants’ organization in Kamuli, which were being claimed by a man. They also sought to control the terms of a World Bank infrastructure project in Kampala which would displace numerous residents. Residents of these communities depicted all of these struggles as new ones that had emerged as a result of women’s newfound voice. In her study of survivors of sexual violence from the 1981–1986 war in Luwero, Liebling also found that the war had changed women’s sense of themselves, and that they had come to express themselves as autonomous and capable rather than vulnerable and dependent (Liebling-Kalifani 2004).

Ugandan women assumed new leadership roles in local councils and also in religious, political, business, civil society, and market institutions, both at the local and national level. New networks emerged to address problems of women’s access to land, peace in northern Uganda, education, and other concerns. Women also led coalitions concerned with land rights, hunger, debt, corruption, and poverty more generally. The older model of having an overarching women’s organization to represent all women is no longer popular. The variety of Ugandan women’s organizations today reflects the diversity in the movement, which includes women who are differentiated by religion and location, but also women who have diverse interests and occupations, including second wives, sex workers, and women athletes.

Women’s organizations were initially supportive of the NRM because Museveni appointed women to key ministerial posts and introduced an electoral quota for women. (This support diminished over time as Museveni remained in power over 30 years, tried to manipulate the women holding reserved legislative seats, and withheld support for key demands pertaining to land rights.) Ugandan women became one of the most important organized forces in the country. This was evident during the 1993 constitutional reform process, when women’s organizations submitted more memoranda to the Constitutional Commission than did any other sector of society (Bainomugisha 1999:93).

With each election, women’s coalitions issue a Women’s Manifesto, articulating the key demands of women’s organizations for the political parties. The 2016–2021 Women’s Manifesto was the product of consultations by the Women’s Democracy Group (WDG) in fifty districts. The Women’s Democracy Group, a coalition of women’s civil-society organizations (CSOs) in Uganda, was established in 2009 with an aim of strengthening women’s leadership and influencing gender responsiveness in democratic governance. It is made up of five leading national women’s associations: the Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET, which acts as the coordinator), Action for Development (ACFODE), Center for Women in Governance (CEWIGO), Forum for Women in Democracy (FOWODE), and Women’s Democracy Network–Uganda Chapter (WDN–U). In drafting the manifesto, the coalition consulted a wide range of CSOs, political party officials, local government representatives and administrators, academics, donors, and other key opinion leaders from religious, traditional, business, and other institutions as well the women’s leagues of six major political parties in Uganda. The coalition identified women’s health, land and property rights, education, economic empowerment, and political empowerment as the key areas of concern.

As a result of pressure from women’s movements, the presence of women in leadership positions in all three branches of the national government has dramatically improved. The number of women in Parliament increased from 0.8 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 1989 and 35 percent in 2015. The number of women running for parliamentary positions more than tripled from 1996 (135 candidates) to 2011 (443). Rebecca Kadaga became the first woman to serve as speaker of the Ugandan Parliament in 2011. Speciosa Kazibwe served as vice president for almost ten years from 1994 to 2003, and has been the longest serving female vice president in Africa. In 1988 there was one woman out of 33 in the cabinet; this increased to eight in 1989. Today women hold one-third of the cabinet positions. Women are often placed in “softer” ministries, as ministers of Gender, Labour and Social Affairs, Education and Sports, Tourism and Wildlife; but they have also been appointed as ministers of Defense, Internal Affairs, Trade and Industry, and Justice and Constitutional Affairs.

The expansion in female leadership extended to the judiciary as well. Of today’s eight Supreme Court justices, three are women. Out of forty-six High Court judges, twenty are women. A 2012 study showed that about one-third of the justices on the court of appeals and one-third of the chief magistrates are women, while 47 percent of those in Magistrate Grade 1 are women (Global Network of Women Peacebuilders 2012).

Not only did the women’s movement influence the number of women in leadership positions; it also effected policy changes. In Uganda, legal reforms were spearheaded by the women’s movement together with the Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA), which has allowed women to work across party lines (Wang 2013). In 2006–2011 they were instrumental in passing a steady stream of legislation affecting women with respect to land, refugee rights, maternity leave, employment, sexual harassment, equal opportunities, defilement or rape of girls under 18, disability rights, trafficking, domestic violence, female genital cutting, and many other concerns. The International Criminal Court Act (2010) criminalized sexual exploitation of women during conflict. A law passed in 2006 established the Equal Opportunities Commission, which had been mandated by the 1995 constitution to oversee the implementation of policies regarding women’s rights. In 2010, Parliament ratified the Maputo Protocol (the African Union’s treaty regarding women’s rights), overcoming powerful opposition by the Roman Catholic Church and the Uganda Joint Christian Council. There are still important gaps in legislation, particularly with respect to marriage, divorce, and land inheritance, but the legislature has continued to pass laws benefiting women. The first National Gender Policy was passed in 1997 and the second Uganda Gender Policy was launched a decade later in 2007. It sought to bring a gender perspective to all levels of planning, resource allocation, and implementation of development programs. The priority areas include improved livelihoods, promotion and protection of rights, participation in decision-making and governance, and recognition and promotion of gender in macro-economic management. A National Action Plan was also passed in response to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 requirement that countries develop policies in peacemaking and conflict resolution that address the concerns of women and girls and incorporate women into decision making processes.

The courts have also played a role in promoting women’s rights. For example, in 2007, a constitutional court struck down key provisions of the Divorce Act, the Penal Code, and the Succession Act that limited women’s right to inherit property. It also issued a ruling that decriminalized adultery for women (it had not been criminalized for men).

Uganda still has a long way to go before women enjoy equal rights with men. However, considerable progress has been made since the early 1990s. The reasons for the gains by the women’s movement are similar to the overall patterns one finds in Africa. Uganda experienced a major conflict, which eroded traditional gender relations in a way that forced women to play more public and important roles in their households, communities, and ultimately in the nation. The end of conflict made it possible for the government to take steps to open political space. Although Uganda remained a hybrid regime which was neither fully authoritarian nor democratic, enough space opened up for women’s organizations to mobilize.

Unlike in the past, when most women’s mobilization occurred under an overarching umbrella organization tied to the ruling party and state, today Ugandan women’s mobilization is autonomous, heterogeneous, mostly independent of party agendas, and has its own leadership and sources of funding. This has provided the organizations with sufficient autonomy to determine their own policy agendas and exert pressure on the country’s leadership to move ahead with further reforms. At times the government has taken regressive steps, dragged its feet, and undermined women’s demands. But the overall patterns suggest that there has been considerable progress for women, which came as a result of pressure from women’s organizations.


The 1990s marked the introduction of multipartyism and the decline of the one-party state and military rule in Africa. It saw an increase in associational freedom, freedom of the press, and political rights. The 2000s saw the end of major conflicts in Africa and a decline in the numbers of conflicts starting or reigniting. Both these trends, coupled with the changing international norms regarding women’s rights after the mid-1990s, helped give rise to autonomous women’s organizations and coalitions as well as women’s movements, which advocated for women’s rights reforms. With access to their own resources and donor funds, they began to challenge the chokehold that clientelism and state patronage had on women’s mobilization in the post-colonial period. Associational autonomy allowed women to select their own leaders, raise their own funds, and set their own agendas. It also made it possible for women to forge new alliances across ethnic, religious, clan, racial, and other divides. It meant that women’s organizations could expand their agendas, engage in advocacy, and take up political concerns rather than simply “developmental” issues that focused on income-generating and welfare concerns. They could now more easily challenge the laws, structures, and practices that constrained them. It allowed women activists to broaden their demands and many for the first time took on issues like domestic violence, female genital cutting, and rape that had been considered taboo in the past. By the early 2010s, issues of LGBT rights, abortion, and other controversial issues were gaining traction, even if haltingly.

Until the 1990s, even governments that were generally disposed in favor of women’s advancement saw the concerns of women’s rights advocates as a sideshow to the broader project of development rather than part of it. But in the 1990s we began to see substantial changes in Africa in gender policy with the adoption of quotas for legislative bodies, the adoption of gender mainstreaming practices in the development of national budgets, the closing of the gender gap in education at all levels, some improvements in health measures affecting women, and the increased availability of microcredit and finance to women. Governments began to adopt policies that addressed violence against women, sexual harassment in the workplace, family law that discriminated against women, and many other concerns women brought to the table.

Fierce cultural and political challenges remain. The weakness of civil and political liberties and the constant threat that political space will close in the many semi-authoritarian and authoritarian African states impose serious constraints on women’s mobilization. Nevertheless, women are in movement in Africa and they have set in motion important and unprecedented societal transformations that are influencing international debates on women’s rights.


[1] Co-awarded, together with President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
[2] See Accessed April 20, 2016.
[3] See Accessed April 20, 2016.
[4] See Accessed April 21, 2016.
[5] See

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