Redefining Feminism and Feminist Activism in West Africa

Redefining Feminism and Feminist Activism in West Africa

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For decades, feminism has been a keyword that has influenced national and international agendas across the globe. The scope and specificities of its practice arouse prolonged arguments as to what feminism is. Often perpetrated or perceived to be promoted by women, feminism has over the years raised controversies within the West African society. This is mainly because the values perpetuated by feminists could sharply stand in contrast to the patriarchal values of the West African society. Despite this, a key element that provokes the perceived tensions around feminism is the overwhelming misunderstanding of feminism in a society that is deeply rooted in cultural values.

What is feminism? 
It is one of the most controversial and misunderstood words in the world today. Feminism was the “word of the year” or the most looked-up word in the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017. It is defined in the dictionary as the “theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes or organised activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests”.

A more human-centred perspective on feminism considers it to be the belief that men and women deserve equality in all opportunities, treatment, respect, and social rights. In general, feminists are people who acknowledge that social inequalities are based on gender discrimination and make efforts to eliminate these inequalities.

There are many myths and realities that underlie the understanding and practice of feminism across the world. For example, feminists have demonstrated that in most cultures throughout history, men have received more opportunities than women.

In a bid to understand feminism, one must first recognise that all feminists cannot be grouped as one or described in the same manner. This usually creates misconceptions. There is a general stereotype towards feminists. There is an overarching misconception that feminists are angry or bitter women who only want to subjugate men. However, this is not true.

Major types of feminism 
Over the years, different kinds of feminism have emerged, and the concept means different things to different people. There are generally four main kinds of feminism; radical, socialist, cultural, and liberal feminism.

Radical feminism is a movement that believes sexism (which is the discrimination against women based on sex) is so deeply rooted in society that the only cure is to eliminate the concept of gender completely. The reason this group gets the “radical” label is that they view the oppression of women as the most fundamental form of oppression and one that cuts across boundaries of race, culture, and economic class.

Socialist feminism is a movement that calls for an end to capitalism through a socialist reformation of our economy. Basically, socialist feminism argues that capitalism strengthens and supports the sexist status quo because of the inherent power of patriarchy.

Cultural feminism is a movement that points out how modern society is hurt by encouraging masculinity, but society would benefit by encouraging feminine behaviour instead. Cultural feminism believes that society needs a female ‘essence’ or a female ‘nature’ that should be celebrated and infused with the male-dominated world to provide the right balance to the working of society.

Liberal feminism is the variety of feminism that works within the structure of mainstream society to integrate women into that structure. It asserts the equality of men and women through political and legal reform. It also seeks to abolish political, legal and other forms of discrimination of women to allow them the same opportunities as men as well as alter the structure of society to ensure the equal treatment of women.

Gains of Feminism in West Africa 
In West Africa, feminism has long existed in these diverse forms. Feminist activism predates colonialism and has achieved a lot in the region. One can cite the example of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa who fought against British colonial conquest in the Asante kingdom (in present-day Ghana) from March 1900 to January 1902. Yaa Asantewaa inspired courage in the men of the Asante kingdom and led them to fight in the War of the Golden Stool, also known as The Yaa Asantewaa War.

Another example is the Aba Riots or Women’s War, among the Igbos of Nigeria. The riots demonstrated women’s ability to use their networks/associations to protest colonial or community decisions that clashed with women’s interests. The revolt occurred in November 1929 when thousands of Igbo women from the Bende District, Umuahia and other places in eastern Nigeria travelled to the town of Oloko to protest against the imposition of taxes on market women and curb the power of Warrant Chiefs, who were appointed by the colonial governor. The protest is regarded as one of the first major challenges of British colonial rule in Nigeria.

In modern times, in West, East and Southern Africa, women are stepping up their campaign against sexism and exploitation. African feminists have opposed such practices as early marriage, female genital mutilation, women’s exposure to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) through unsafe sex practices, and various forms of medical neglect. In Ghana, for example, a remarkable achievement after years of agitation was the promulgation of the Domestic Violence Act in 2007 and the introduction of a Gender Policy in 2015. There is also an ongoing advocacy campaign for the passage of an Affirmative Action/Gender Equality Bill in the country.

Challenges faced by feminists and feminist movements 
Feminists encounter several challenges in championing the causes they are most passionate about.

They face stereotypes, they are stigmatised and sometimes perceived as outliers within their communities. This is largely due to the fact that African feminists pursue an agenda that gives more value to women and such perspectives are frowned upon within a patriarchal society as ours. Our traditional practices tend to uphold patriarchy and feminism is often viewed as a western concept and thus, not widely accepted in West Africa.

Feminists are also subjected to stringent discrimination in communities that are deeply rooted in certain religious norms and extremist perspectives and practices that do not provide opportunities and equal space for women to engage in their communities. These norms and practices tend to limit women and prohibit them from driving their agendas. For example, the expansion of Shari’a law in twelve states in Northern Nigeria between 1999 and 2001 sent a wave of anxiety through human rights activists worldwide and stoked inter-religious conflicts in the region. Critics argue that women are the most negatively affected by expanded Islamic laws, restricted by patriarchal values and given unequal rights and representation within the legal system.

Another problem affecting feminist activists is insufficient and or poorly directed funding to carry out their activities. This was raised during a West African Women’s dialogue organised by the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI) with support from the Commonwealth Foundation. The conference brought together feminists from five countries in the sub-region. The over 40 participants argued that over-dependence of feminist organisations and associations on donors and international organisations in the region affect their advocacy activities and has a negative impact on their development. This, they said, is because the donors determine the agenda(s) to be pursued by these activists or movements and some of these may not align with the priorities of the feminists nor the contextual needs. The issue of the lack of a common definition of feminism to which all feminists can identify with was also identified as a challenge.

The way forward 
Ideally, it would be best for the feminist movement in West Africa to push for a common regional agenda.  This would allow for consistent efforts to address the present challenges of gender inequality. The richness of the feminist movement lies in the capacity of each feminist to self-define their feminism and promote a feminist agenda they are passionate about. Instead of attempting to find a universal definition of the concept, it is ideal to establish the tenets and principles that underline the concept; one of them being the fight for equal opportunities for both men and women.  Having equal opportunities will ensure increased human resources which would spur economic growth and result in increased GDP as well as a reduction in poverty levels across the globe. It would also positively affect decision-making by making it more reflective of collective interests. More resources would reach children as women would have more control over family resources and family planning decisions would be made to improve the quality of life of children.

Overcoming the stereotypes akin to feminism will require encouraging men to join in the feminist campaign. In the long run, the fight for gender equality is beneficial to everyone. An individual irrespective of their sex should unapologetically be able to identify as a feminist.


NOTE: Opinion expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the West Africa Civil Society Institute.


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Fiifi is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Communications and Information Officer at the West Africa Civil Society Institute. He joined the Institute in December 2020.


Nancy is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Programme Officer in the Knowledge Management unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute. She joined the Institute in January 2021.


Agnes is a Ghanaian and currently serves as Head of the Administration unit in the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in October 2021.


Doris holds a Bachelor of Arts in Social sciences (Economics and Sociology) from the University of Cape Coast. She is passionate about impacting young lives hence co-founded Impart Foundation. A non-profit organization which seeks to empower young lives through education, technology and entrepreneurship.


Prince Akowuah is a Ghanaian and currently the Programme Assistant in the Translation Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


Maxwell Apenteng is a Ghanaian and joined WACSI in September 2010. He provides gardening and janitorial services at the Institute.


George Adu-Mintah is a Ghanaian and currently the Protocol Assistant/Driver at the West Africa Civil Society (WACSI). He joined the Institute in October 2006.


Ibrahim Kwaku Gbadago is a Ghanaian. He joined the Institute in 2008 and provides janitorial services and assisting the institute's errands. Before joining the Institute, he worked at the Palestinian embassy in Accra, Ghana.


Ruth Yakana is from Cameroon and currently the Receptionist at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


Bethel is a Ghanaian. He provides technical and IT related support to the Institute. He joined the Institute in October 2006.


Whitnay Segnonna holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Management from the University of Benin. With 2 years of experience, she has a strong knowledge of organizational and project management. Combined with her bilingualism, she is very passionate about her work. She joined WACSI as Project Assistant on Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) for the Capacity Development Unit.


Stella Yawa Wowoui holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Translation Studies. She has a perfect grasp of both French and English, as well as an intermediate level in Spanish. She is currently working as a Project Assistant on the Techsoup Project.


Kwame is an experienced IT Consultant/Software Developer. He is skilled in Web Applications Development, Digital Security, Database Management, Digital Marketing and Brand Management. He holds a Bachelor's Degree in Information Technology and is a Microsoft Programme Alumni. He is currently serving as a Marketing and IT Officer on the Techsoup Project.


Grace Akpene Ziggah is a Togolese and currently the Logistics Officer and also assists in administration duties at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in June 2009.


Lilian Dafeamekpor is a Ghanaian and currently the Assistant to the Executive Director at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in 2020.


John P. Frinjuah has expertise and interests in civil society, international development, democracy and governance, conflict, crisis, and security. He has extensive experience working with civil society and international development organizations where he supported and managed research, programmes, and provided technical assistance on a variety of themes around public policy, governance, and development. He is an alumnus of the University of Ghana and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy - Tufts University in the United States, with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from two institutions respectively. John speaks English, French and several Ghanaian and regional West Africa languages.


Gervin has extensive international development experience, including 5 years of policy advocacy and capacity building of grass root organisations. He has implemented over the years a combination of agriculture value chain, livelihood, food security and governance and rights programmes.
Prior to joining WACSI, Gervin worked on two USAID projects focusing on agriculture value chain development and governance in northern Ghana
Gervin holds a master’s degree in development & Governance from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany as well as a Masters in Global Studies from the Universities of Vienna (Austria), Leipzig (Germany) and California (Santa Barbara), USA. He is passionate social justice and inclusion.


Leandre Banon, Beninese, joined WACSI in September 2014 as Capacity Development Programme Assistant. Since then, he has worked in various units within the Institute to support operational and institutional capacity strengthening programmes for civil society in the region. Currently serving as Capacity Development Programme Officer at WACSI, his main responsibilities involve designing, planning, implementing and monitoring capacity development programmes for civil society constituents and grouping across the West Africa. Leandre is a certified Change the Game Academy Programme Trainer. His background lies in the areas of economics and development planning.


Samuel Appiah is a Ghanaian and currently the Programme Officer in the Finance and Administrative Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). He joined the Institute in May, 2016.


Jimm Chick Fomunjong, Cameroonian, joined WACSI in May 2018 as the Head of the Knowledge Management and Communication Units of the Institute. He has over ten years’ experience as a journalist and a development communications expert. He has a vast experience in supporting African organisations to strengthen their internal and external communications, building and sustaining relationships with the media and, leveraging on the power of social media to promote their mission. He is also excellent at supporting organisations to set up and operationalise functional communications and knowledge management systems. He has a deep passion and expertise in supporting Africans and African civil society organisations to document their praxis, share and learn from experiences documented from the African civil society sector.


Franck Sombo is a development practitioner with the drive to lead self and others to influence productivity and efficiency. His work involves supporting organisations to develop strategic plans, design monitoring and evaluation systems, develop and use relevant performance measurement tools to track progress, assess organizational growth and institutionalise learning. Franck has eight years of experience working with WACSI where he currently serves as the Head, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning. His academic qualifications include Masters in Organisations’ and Projects’ Management, and in Business Sciences and a High National Diploma in Finance and Accounting.

Franck is a Fellow of the International Program for Development Evaluation Training (IPDET) and a graduate of the Graduate Training Institute (GTI) - Ghana with specialization in Strategic Management and Corporate Leadership. He has a rich experience in Project Management, Capacity Development, Strategic planning, Data Analytics, Monitoring and Evaluation, Training and Facilitation, Mentoring and Coaching among others.


Omolara is a development practitioner and advocacy strategist with over 15 years of progressive experience in development programming targeted at strengthening civil society in West Africa.

She joined WACSI in November 2009 as a Regional Advocacy Consultant and later became the first Policy Advocacy Officer of the Institute in 2010.

She was promoted to Head of the Policy Influencing and Advocacy (PIA) Unit in 2015. As the Head of the PIA unit, Omolara offers strategic direction to the Institutes’ ambitions to connect and convene groups of organised and organic civil society actors; and influence regional and global discourses on crosscutting policy issues including—civil society regulations, sustainable development goals, civic space and enabling environment, aid effectiveness, gender equality, and civil society accountability.

Previously, Omolara served as a Programmes Associate with the Women in Peace and Security Network-Africa (WIPSEN-Africa), where she worked with her team to design and implement pan-African programmes on—multidimensional peace support operations and gender mainstreaming in security sector reform in Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

She also served as a Service Development Marshal at TVQ Consulting Group, a customer service firm focused on designing strategic customer relationship and business growth plans for private and public financial institutions in Nigeria.

Omolara is a social justice advocate, a network weaver, and a convener. She has a postgraduate degree in Peace and Conflict Studies; a degree in International Relations and History, from the University of Ibadan and Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria respectively.

She also holds executive certificates in Behavioral Science in Public Policy from Harvard University Executive Education in Cambridge and in Citizen Advocacy from the Coady International Institute, St Francis Xavier University in Canada.


Kwabena Kroduah is a Ghanaian and currently heads the Finance Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). He joined the Institute in January 2008.


Charles currently serves as the Head of the Capacity Development Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). Charles has over 10 years of experience working in international development and social justice issues in Africa. Charles has expertise in strengthening civil society and public agencies including the design and implementation of governance and leadership programmes, development of knowledge pieces and policy advice. Charles was the founding Board Chair of Innovation for Change (i4C)-Hub Afrique, as well as the founding member of the International Consortium on Closing Civic Space (iCon), an initiative of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. Charles currently serves as the Member of the Governing Board (Coordination Collective) of Africans Rising. He is a Member of the Development Studies Association, United Kingdom. Charles is a 2017 Stanford University Fellow for Nonprofit Leaders and a certified Change the Game Resource Mobilisation Trainer.


Nana Afadzinu is a Ghanaian and currently serves as the Executive Director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). She joined the Institute in October 2010.