The effect of colonialism on African women

Well, now that we have an idea of the general status of African women before colonialism...let's take a look at the economic and socio-political effects of colonialism on African Women... remember, the idea is not to blame colonialists and get stuck in the rut of forever blaming others...the aim is to share knowledge and information and give us all some historical perspective as we look at our current state of affairs and as we make plans to positively mould our future.

Economic impact

Firstly, women were affected by the alienation of land experienced by most Africans. However, women appear to have been more personally affected by this Land alienation. This is because, ‘As women lost access and control of land they became more economically dependent on men. This led to an intensification of domestic patriarchy, reinforced by colonial social institutions.’ Among the Kikuyu of Kenya women were the major food producers and thus not only had ready access to land but also authority over how land was to be cultivated. Speaking about African women in general, Seenarine, in quoting Sacks explains that, ‘the value of women's productive labor, in producing and processing food …established and maintained their rights in domestic and other spheres - economic, cultural, religious, social, political, etc.’

The advent of the British colonialism and the settler economy negatively impacted Kikuyu women because the loss of land meant a loss of access to and authority over land. Kikuyu women found that they no longer had the variety of soils needed to grow indigenous foodstuffs. Traditionally, certain pieces of land were associated with the growth of certain crops. Thus the variety of soils was required to ensure food security . Moreover, land loss meant women were restricted to smaller tracts of land for cultivation. Continuous cultivation of these areas of land led to soil exhaustion and nutrient depletion which ultimately adversely affected crop yields. Land alienation reduced the economic independence enjoyed by women by compromising their economic productivity. As colonialism continue to entrench itself in African soil, the perceived importance of women’s agricultural contribution to the household was reduced as their vital role in food production was overshadowed by the more lucrative male-controlled cash crop cultivation.

Secondly, colonialism negatively impacted women by introducing wage labour.Women were directly affected because they were required, by law in some cases, to provide wage labour for the European plantation economies. The Northey Circular in Kenya (1919) commanded district officers and African chiefs to procure women and juvenile labourers for private and public works. Women were deeply affected by such directives because it drew them away form their usual economic activities. In come cases European labour demands were most intense during the peak labour requirements for their own agricultural activities. As Mbilinyi explains, ‘ Women and children were the major source of casual labour during labour peaks in the Rungwe tea industry and Mbosi coffee industry.’ This produced a conflict in women as they were forced to leave their duties to work for Europeans. Keep in mind that this forced labour was accompanied by acts of physical and sexual abuse which were often committed by African men against their own women. Therefore, working on the plantations further compromised women’s well being and ability to be as productive as they previously had been in past.

Thirdly, the introduction of wage labour affected women through its denial of African women to African male labour. The colonial economy forced men to seek employment in European economic ventures and took them away from the labour responsibilities they used to have in the traditional African economy. As Mbilinyi explains, ‘The withdrawal of male labour from peasant production intensified female labour, and led to a drop in cultivated acreage.’ Women found that not only did they have to fulfil their traditional duties as women, the loss of male labour forced them to take on the duties previously carried out by men.

Fourthly, this loss of male labour was often in the form of male migrant labour where men left rural areas to seek employment in urban areas. This led to both social and economic impacts on women. The focus in this section will be on the economic repercussions of male migrant labour.Due to male migrant movement, women found that they had to hire labour to substitute for absent male household members. In Tanganyika, hired labour cost, ‘ (T)wo Tanganykinan shillings (Tshs 22) per month with food ration.’ This cost added to the economic strain already being felt by the African woman.

Problems posed by male migrant labour were exacerbated by changes in bridewealth arrangements. In many areas bridewealth had evolved from being a payment made in livestock to a cash exchange. As a result bridewealth was inflated and became a way of putting monetary value on the bride’s wealth. Thus, instead of the bridewealth process being one that affirmed the woman’s worth, it became one that judged the woman’s worth. This inflation in bridewealth meant that most young men were unable to pay it and thus had to go to urban areas in order to earn enough to make the payment. Now women lost their husband’s economic (and other) support at the onset of marriage thereby putting them in a disempowered economic state from the beginning of marriage.

Fourthly, taxes were introduced by the colonial economy. In most cases taxes were to be paid by men to the colonial authority. In some cases, however, taxes were also imposed on women. For example, among the Egba of Nigeria, the British colonial authority used African males to impose taxes on women. Women could be taxed from the age of fifteen! This tax was seen as a nuisance for women who not had enough economic responsibilities of sustaining the household in the absence of males.Taxes also indirectly affected women by affecting bridewealth exchange as exemplified by the situation in colonial Zimbabwe. By the 1930s, African patriarchs in particular had become extremely preoccupied with controlling bridewealth. As Barnes explains, ‘(F)athers and guardians had come to regard this payment- once only a symbolic exchange of gifts between families- as a fair means of accumulation cash to pay taxes and meet other financial obligations. This change represented the commodification of a woman’s value to her family.’ In the past, African women in some societies had retained a measure of control over their bridewealth which economically empowered her. Sadly, with the new financial contraints experienced by males, especially in the form of heavy taxation, bridewealth became a source of income that males sought to control. Thus, once more, women were excluded from traditional provisions that had previously given women some measure of economic independence.

A fifth way in which colonisation negatively impacted women was through the introduction of the cash crop economy.Initially, Africans were not allowed to grow cash crops because the settlers feared that the ‘primitive’ African agricultural practices would spread crop disease and contamination to their plantations. But eventually the colonialists permitted Africans to grow cash crops. In Kenya this took place between 1950-1963.Given the mandate to grow cash crops, many Africans chose to take the opportunity and in doing so women were adversely affected.First, men intended to control the cash crops and their proceeds. Women were to continue with subsistence farming except in the cases where subsistence crop became cash crops with a market value. In this case males swiftly took control of the crop’s proceeds although the women continued to do all the work around its cultivation.Secondly, as the cash crop economy grew, the colonial government imposed the new cash crops (cocoa, coffee, cotton etc) on men and because of their market value, men accepted to cultivate them. So although women were expected to grow foodstuffs, their labour was also required in the growth of cash crops. This doubled the agricultural load on women.Moreover, the introduction of new technology, especially the plough actually had a negative impact on women. Firstly, the plough enabled men to cultivate more land. But men left the backbreaking, labour intensive work of sowing and weeding to women. Thus the women’s load was increased. Secondly, the plough made men more directly involved in crop cultivation thereby increasing the men’s right over proceeds earned from the cash crop. To many men, this meant they could dispense with the money earned without consulting the women who did most of the work in earning the money. Hence, women, once although women were working more, their economic dependence on men was increasing.

Finally colonialism led to the complete loss of access to land by women. The colonialists brought with them the idea of private ownership of land. Women were completely excluded from this ownership. Berger explains that in Kenya, the Swynnerton Plan of 1954 began a process of, ‘registering and consolidation land and granting titles to individuals, almost all of whom have been men.’ This policy weakened rural women’s autonomy in the economy.

It is clear that colonials had devastating economic impacts on women. As the colonial government entrenched itself into the African nations, women found their labour being increasingly exploited, their autonomy decreased and their levels of dependence on males increasing

Copyright © Africa Resource Center, Inc., 1999

1 Response to "The effect of colonialism on African women"

  1. ngeno Says:
    1 September 2011 at 18:55

    very informative in deed.keep up the good work. africa shall only move foward by appreciating her past

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