Cultural Cynicisms & Market Forces-Women Empowerment Struggle In Liberia and West African Countries

By Jimmy Shilue

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

September 29, 2003

This article examines patriarchy system in West African countries by critically analysing the interplay between market institutions and traditional cultural practices.

When African countries gained their independence from former colonial bosses in the early 60’s the expectation was economic and social inequalities that characterised colonial rule would cease to exist. Men and women in liberation movements hugged each other in comradeship and shouted ‘amanda-n’kawitu’- expression of happiness after long and sometimes bloody battle for self-rule. Today many of these ex-colonies enjoy ‘Freedom’ and ‘Self rule’. However, the tentacles of inequality against women remain disturbingly evident, on the labour markets, in the household and even within educational institutions. Certainly, women are not enjoying deserving social, economic and political dividend. The burgeoning assertion that investment in women can bring about economic growth and poverty alleviation in developing societies is yet to catch political agenda in sub-Sahara Africa. Male domination and social inequality permeate the social fabric of many African countries. However, despite growing disparities between men and women, radical empowerment approaches seem to be delivering positive results. Inspired by Western feminist ideologies, some women are gaining their autonomy from male domination while others remain passive or apply ‘quite encroachment’ strategies.

In many African societies, laws and rules are made by men who often choose, deliberately or otherwise, to use women as the symbols of their beliefs and policies. The growing gap between male and female can also be attributed to the complex patriarchal labour process and gender discriminatory marketing system in traditional West African societies. Male dominated structures and disproportional power position bequeathed by former colonial masters also perpetuate women subordination. It is almost an accepted practice to not find any woman involved with decision-making issues at town, village or city meetings. My first experienced with gender discrimination was during my teenage days. Troubled by the constant absence of women participation in rural community discussions, I asked an elderly respectable statesman why only men were often invited to discuss issues concerning the welfare of the entire community. Without searching for words, his response was “that is a kind of protective mechanism and a tradition we inherited from our fathers. Historically, the town chief asserted, we were responsible to battle with invaders in time of conflicts and wars therefore our women and children remained indoors”. Though his answer sounded logical yet I did not understand the relevance of applying historical practice to today’s world. Unlike their days, every independent nation has at least police or military forces to provide defensive services. Obviously my subsequent comments were we are not fighting war today (I am talking about the early 1980’s when Liberia was arguably a war-free country) and Super power, rivalry in the form of Eastern and Western blocks, provided hegemonic stability for weak nations. The old man realising that my inquiry was implicitly directed at thraldom over which they presided and was not contemplating on relinquishing, suddenly changed the focus of the discussion.

While I respect and cherish the struggle our forefathers experienced to preserve our identity, the challenges of the 21st century makes a departure from certain historical practices extremely urgent. Nowadays men hide behind similar traditional arguments and endorse into polygamous practices. Responding to a cynical question from a local pressman who wanted to know more about the former president lust for women, President Taylor bluntly and proudly said “ this is our forefathers way of life and I am a chief therefore traditionally I am entitled to all the good things’. Not surprising that he used a metaphor ‘thing’ instead of ‘women’ for fear of not sparking of problems with feminist groups. Although polygamous practice existed in Liberia before the civil war, Charles Taylor has introduced new phenomenon by officially marrying two women: a Muslim and a Christian. One Liberian exile politician said, “If the President can openly engage into adultery and use cultural arguments to justify immorality how could you inculcate moral values in the young folks”. His assertion is just a cornucopia of the moral bankruptcy in Liberia. For example, a Liberian man who has more than one woman is said to have ‘speed’- meaning attracted to many women. Conversely, a woman with more than one partner is said to be ‘hopojo’-meaning a prostitute. Interestingly in Liberia, like many Africans countries, prostitution is not seen as job and in certain quarters it is an abomination. Being a prostitute could lead to one being ostracised or ex-communicated from the family and even the society. Ironically men are the chief patrons of the business.

Prior to the war in Liberia women were seen as the population group that should die in traffic accident. Whenever an automobile makes an abrupt stop with loud sound resulting from the friction between the tyres and flood, a common axiom was ‘kill it when it is woman’. Slogans of this kind may sound funny but reinforces the societal perception of women. Social inequalities and gender inequalities also exist within institutions of learning. In pre-war Liberia, certain schools would not admit a girl that gives birth to a child but the child’s father will easily be accepted without further scrutiny.

Women subordination does not only occur in peaceful time but also during time of war. For example during the Liberian civil war many women lost their possessions, families, witnessed indiscriminate killings, abused, tortured and even suffered gang raped. Soldiers belonging to warring factions seized women and made them housewives. Victims of these abuses and humiliations dare come forth to explain their experiences for fear of societal ridicule or as way of protesting the family image. These awful experiences caused some women to take up arms and joined various factions groups. While some women resort to the culture of violence to gain their autonomy and personal security, in some instance others use 'salient encroachment’ to gain their independence from male domination. For instance, in polygamous household, women status and possible inheritance rights are determined by their ability to remain subservient to their husband and the superior wife of the husband. Hence the anticipation of inheriting the authority of the senior woman encourages a thorough internalisation and full co-operation with patriarchal system. This is also a way to secured security and enduring loyalty in most cases Muslim household.

But today the process of industrialisation that characterise Western societies is penetrating traditional settings. The demand for labour intensive and export-led agriculture products in certain West African countries is gradually diminishing male domination. Western feminist groups are assisting in women enlightenment and conscious raising programmes. For example, in the small West African county-Gambia, irrigated land and credit were formerly available for men; even though women were traditionally responsible to grow rice. However, as women identify with cooperate schemes, (thanks to local and international feminist advocates), they soon discover that they could earn for themselves without asking their husband for money. Similarly, the Yoruba women in Nigeria negotiate the terms of their farm labour services to their husbands while equally appropriating time and energy to their personal trading activities to enable them support themselves and ultimately give up such free services for their men. Hausa women, whose observance of Islamic norms reduces the control of their husbands over them, use their relative freedom to allocate their labour to their own trade. A Liberian female refugee living in Nigeria sponsored by UNHCR to pursue vocational study said her choice for studying building construction was based on her desire to chance the pre-war perception of such vocation, which is seen as men job. Also in Sierra Leone market women and women civic groups are using their awful experiences, at the hands of male combatants during the brutal civil war, to resist male control and domination in societal institutions. An outspoken Civil Society leader, Mrs. Bangora contested the last Sierra Leonean presidential elections. While there are lots of positive and encouraging examples, enormous barriers still exist.

According to FAO agricultural productivity cannot be substantially increase nor can poverty be alleviated, unless women access to key productive resources are substantially improved. Productive resources implies among others, employment opportunities (number of women in work force), social attitude within society (perception of women in society) and existing support system (health care, social security, schooling opportunities, etc). Unfortunately series of conferences are held yearly to address poverty and agricultural productivity but noting substantial is done to tackle the real issue of women productivity. By 1991, percentage of female enrolment in secondary school in Liberia was 28%, Guinea 24%, Sierra Leone 37%, Nigeria 42% and Gambia 35% (The Global Coalition for Africa, 1994). A Liberian parent would rather invest in educating a boy child than a girl. Girl’s enrolment in school in many West African countries is lower than that of boys. The salient logic behind this preference is best explained in an African adage ‘When you educate a man, you educate an individual, but when you educate a woman, you educate a nation’. Implicit in this reasoning is an assumption that a girl child will eventually leave her parents home to marry and born more children whilst a boy will always inherit his father properties and take care of the home. These biases compounded by social and domestic pressure from parents many of whom expect their daughters to bring income lead many girls to abandon schools and become easy prey to human traffickers who exploit their vulnerability and lure them into sex industries.

The trend of women empowerment struggle in Guinea adumbrates the power of the law of supply and demand. In 1992, women ran almost eighty percent of the firms in Guinea (Forestiere) and all of them were individuated. In Guinea Women traders were relatively younger than male traders and their firms were smaller. The difference in figures is attributed to the social and economic tasks of the household, which are exclusively women's' burden. Additionally, the taxation system practised in Guinea and many West African societies are equally disempowering. In Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and almost every West African country market women are bound to pay tax on a daily basis to mostly male collectors. A study done in the Guinean city of Guekedou shows that fixed rates are levied on male shops. On the average it amounts to one percent of income. Women by contrast, pay tax everyday they sale in the marketplace amounting to about five percent of their earnings. As a result male traders in Guekedou make $3,500 per annum compared to an average of $820 for women (Pujo, 1997). Refusing to pay male tax collector could lead to one space in the market being taken away or even sent to prison.

Similarly, an analysis of the labour force participation in Liberia shows that most women are active in the informal economy. In the 1980’s fifty seven percent of women were petty traders, and five percent were either unskilled or in agricultural or fishing jobs. Only fourteen percent of male were engaged in petty trading activities. (Journal of comparative family studies, vol.xxv11,1996). A plausible reason for the high percentage of women working in the informal sector is the denial of educational opportunities which resulting into the lack of basic skills, such that many women are unable to speak and write English. Indeed, advantages enjoyed by male cannot be seen in isolation from existing social institutions and gender ideologies. Even though female traders dominate markets institutions, they operate through personalized 'network', as banks would not give them loans. Access to trading capital often comes from relatives, parents or husbands. Quite sadly, if women are successful in obtaining loans from their relatives, these loans are often smaller than those to men. Furthermore, women in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea need their husbands as guarantor to obtain loans from banking institutions. In an interview in the IS Magazine (April 2003), Filantrope Sax, a Dutch feminist who operated a macro-credit NGO (MAMA CASH), for twenty five years, to assist Third World women lamented that because many Third World women do not have ‘TRACK RECORD’, conventional lending institutions consider them not eligible for loans. Thus, MAMA CASH, she said, supports women to improve their position in terms of basis rights, land ownership, jobs, reproductive rights, healthcare, culture, etc.

Certainly colonial legacies and male-dominated instructional structures in former colonies are yet to reflect contemporary challenges. While these revelations tend throw light on West African patriarchal societies and the role of cultural and market institutions in women subordination and empowerment, it is important to remember that empowerment strategies in patriarchal societies require multifaceted and critical approaches that focus not only on the asymmetric position of women in the household but one that questions economic opportunities bequeathed to male by colonial legacy as well as unmasking one-sided social, religious and cultural practices. There are some positives changes in the last decades as many women groups become vocal and more conscious of their statures in society. To a greater extent, much of this can be attributed to feminist groups in Europe and America, which have made significant strives in setting women issues on political and legal agenda thereby giving gender equality and social justice new urgency. Male privileged control over resources, such as land, income, educational and taxation systems should not be seen within 'neutral sense'. They form the nuclear of women subordination and the basis of gender discrimination.