Remarks by Sara Longwe


Sara Hlupekile Longwe 2003 Laureate

Women’s rights activist and immediate past chairperson of FEMNET, Zambia

Statement upon receiving the Prize

I have to thank The Hunger Project for attempting to make my life appear like a series of successful events. But to me it never seemed like that. What I mostly experienced, especially in the early days, was becoming outraged at being discriminated against, and then trying to claim my right to equal treatment, only to run into a brick wall.

Let me give an early example. As a young secondary school teacher I turned up for work one day wearing trousers, and was immediately told by the headmistress to go home and change. I refused. This instruction was on the basis of some invisible rule, written nowhere. The whole thing became a very big issue. The regional inspector of schools was called in to tell me I had to follow all instructions from my headmistress, irrespective of how unreasonable. The leader of the teachers’ union, who was supposed to defend me, instead came only to give me the same lecture. At the end of a long saga I received a letter from the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education, no less, telling me to obey the instruction. I wrote a letter back, explaining why I wouldn’t, and why I didn’t think he had any right to give any such instruction. I continued wearing trousers. In fact, I now made sure that I never wore a skirt.

This simple story, although fairly trivial, has many of the elements of women’s everyday struggles against discrimination. Suddenly, out of nowhere, I had run into a brick wall. A brick wall both visible and invisible. Visible in that it was definitely there! I had run into it! But invisible in that it was not about women’s rights! Well, certainly not in their arguments! This, they said, was all about decency, custom and tradition! And most importantly, about the disciplinary question of whether I could do as I was told!

And such invisible brick walls affect all development projects in Africa. Let me give you the example of a Hunger Project intervention in Africa, the African Women Food Farmers Initiative. This provides women farmers with increased access to resources, especially in the form of skills training and credit. But traditionally men control the money and the land. Existing credit organisations lend to men, who hold the collateral. Husbands usually control the proceeds from the sale of cash crops. Therefore such an initiative immediately raises the strategic question of whether the initiative aims to assist women within their brick wall, or whether it must assist them to move the wall! Hopefully they themselves will begin moving the wall, and then demand assistance!

Let me return to my trousers, which I shall never forget. You see, in my trouser fight, it was not merely Sara Longwe that was insulted. It was all women that were insulted. That was why I took up the fight. And similarly when you give me this prize, you do not give it to me personally. You give it to all the women of Africa, in their struggle for equal rights. This prize money is not mine. It will be used as seed money, to establish a new campaign for women’s rights in Africa.

On behalf of my sisters in the struggle, of which I am just one of many, I thank you very much.

The Hunger Project’s Policy Forum - Women’s Leadership and the Future of Africa

Statement by Sara Hlupekile Longwe, 2003 Africa Prize Laureate Introduction

This paper looks at the present lack of progress in addressing issues of structural gender equality in Africa, to identify current obstacles to progress, and to map out the sort of strategic response that is needed to overcome these obstacles.

The paper argues that despite the policies of both international development agencies and also of many African governments to address gender issues, in practice there is actually a pervasive bilateral collusion of inactivity. It needs the co-ordination of the African women’s movement, in collaboration with their sisters in the North, to take direct action on gender issues, and to galvanise development agencies to face up to their responsibilities.

The paper begins by looking at development programmes concerned with increasing women’s agricultural production, as a way of introducing the issues of gender politics which are inherent within such programmes, and which need to be addressed.

Hunger and Women’s Rights

It is now some twenty years since the general realisation that gender issues are central to agricultural development in the Third World. Gender issues are especially important in Africa, where women produce 80% of the food, especially in crops. Where men are agriculturally active, it is mainly in rearing and herding cattle.

It may seem strange now, but the realisation of women’s importance seems at the time to have been a new and startling revelation to development theorists from the more developed countries, where farmers are mostly men. But perhaps it was also an understandable mistake, since African men are very much in control of the farming, in the sense that they control such matters as land allocation and utilisation, and collecting the agricultural surplus. They are also in control of their wives. Women are farmers in the technical sense, in that they are the ones who actually do the agricultural work. But at the level of control over land, labour and capital, it is men who are the farmers. Therefore we may perhaps excuse the Western observer for seeing the man as the farmer, and the woman as his helper.

This realisation of women’s actual agricultural role had an immediate impact on the efficiency experts. They realised with horror that most of their provision of training and increased access to resources was being given to men, whereas it was women who were the actual producers who could profit from these interventions. From a technical perspective, the gender issue was simple: give the training and increased resources to the actual producers - the women!

But of course, such a gender re-orientation of agricultural assistance has immediate political implications. In a traditional African rural society, where men are in control, provision of developmental benefits to women challenges the established patriarchal order. It is men who belong to the more ‘modern’ society, who consider themselves as the ones who are supposed to go for advanced training and certification - not their wives! It is men who own the land, and who are eligible to receive credit. It is men who sell the cash crop (which their wives produced), and who decide what to do with the money.

This relatively new interest in gender issues in African agricultural development also points to a basic dichotomy which arises when this interest is pursued in practice. On the one hand there is the technical dimension, of needing to provide women with the resources for increased agricultural production, in the form of basic education, literacy training, agricultural skills, access to land and credit, and access to markets. But on the other hand there is the political dimension, that women are traditionally discriminated against in access to all of these resources. Increasing women’s access upsets the monopoly of male control over resources, and therefore by the same token upsets the pattern of male control over women.

In societies where men effectively own women, in much the same way as they own cattle (indeed, women are often exchanged for cattle) it is unthinkable that women could themselves become owners of land. This would herald the total upset of the patriarchal state!

But let us pause for thought, and put it another way. It would be an important beginning in achieving equal rights for women, to which most governments are committed in a UN Convention.

Therefore it would seem that the struggle to improve African agriculture is inextricably bound up with the struggle for women’s rights. Or is it? Is it possible that we can support women’s increased productivity without entering into the struggle for women’s rights? Is it possible to separate the technical from the political? Can we talk about the technical and the economic, without talking of liberation? It is to this question which this paper now turns.

Accommodation versus Transformation

If African women farmers are to be assisted without disturbing or challenging the present patriarchal order, then by definition we must be thinking of an accommodatory strategy, which aims to leave gender power relations as they are, and which instead works within them. Can we imagine how this might actually operate, in rural Africa? We must imagine that women are provided with agricultural training, with access to credit, with more access to land, but without upsetting the patriarchal order.

We may imagine that husbands can be persuaded that such additional resources for wives are in everybody’s interest, and for the general benefit. Therefore husbands will be expected to give their permission for their wives’ advancement, and more productive enterprise. The wife should remain a subordinate, but the whole farming enterprise will become more productive. In other words, to put the matter more bluntly, the wife will remain within her cage, but she will have a larger and more productive cage. It may even become a more comfortable cage.

But can we really separate the issues of control? If the husband is to retain control over the cash income from surplus production, is he really going to plough this back into more farm investment? In practice, a more typical pattern is that the husband uses the money for a bonanza in town, wasting money on beer and girls. He may come back from town with sexually transmitted diseases, or with a new wife bought with the additional cash. If any money remains, he will very likely have spent it on status acquisitions such as radio, clothes, or even a motor car which the farm cannot afford and which is not necessary.

This is the typical pattern to be expected where the man has control without responsibility. He is likely to use his position to demonstrate to his wife that he cannot be controlled, and can do as he likes. He may perhaps genuinely and legitimately consider that an additional wife is a good investment for further farm production. This may even be true, but it is also a formula for the further oppression of both wives, as the husband enjoys the fruits of their labour and eats away at the surplus they produce.

And even if increased productivity from such accommodation within the patriarchal system is possible, how sustainable are such programme interventions? Since we are accommodating within the existing discriminatory system, we have not increased women’s access to public resources, merely increased their access to specially provided programme resources. The banks remain discriminatory, so we have set up our own programme credit scheme. The schools remain discriminatory, so we have set up our own system of agricultural training. The land remains in the hands of men, so we have sought men’s permission for women to use the land. The woman continues to be owned, rather than to own. She cannot accumulate capital for herself, but only for her husband. When her husband dies, her husband’s relatives will come and take over everything, including probably herself. We have achieved increased productivity but ignored issues of women’s rights. But can we really do it? Is it really workable? Even if we could do it, should we do it?

Here we may note, in passing, that there is a severe limit to the prospect of increasing women’s production from within the cage. People are generally willing to work more and produce more when they can see the fruits of their labour coming back to themselves. But there is no incentive to an exploited woman when her increased production is enjoyed by her husband, his additional wives and other relatives, rather than by herself and her children. How much less is her incentive when her increased production leads to her husband’s increased wealth and enjoyment, causing him to demand even more hard work from his wife, so he may enjoy himself even more.

Slave economies have a distinct limit on increased productivity, due to the limited prospect of increasing the efficiency in the exploitation of slave labour. And always with the danger of a slave revolt!

Perhaps the best that can be said for such attempted accommodation is it has the automatic potential to provoke transformatory tendencies. This is especially so if women, when allowed to develop a bigger and better cage, begin to see the extent to which their progress is curtailed - not by their own lack of knowledge and effort, but rather by the discriminatory system which denies them access to resources in the public arena, and denies them the fruits of their own labour. This is the essential stage of conscientisation, where women are faced with the reality of the system of discrimination and oppression. This is likely to be followed by women’s realisation that their collective action is needed to establish their equal rights in access to resources, in such matters as right to bank accounts and bank loans, to schooling and agricultural training, to ownership of land, and to inheritance of marital property.

But of course the accommodatory project, by definition, attempts to confine the project to the level of ‘economic’ and ‘technical’, and deliberately stops short of the political dimension. It even parades its ‘non-political’ role as being a developmental virtue. The development agency claims it is ‘non-political’, and makes the anthropological boast that it does not intend to ‘interfere with local customs and traditions’ (i.e. women’s continued subordination).

By contrast, the route to women’s emancipation, also incidentally the route to increased agricultural production, lies in transformation. This means using the agricultural programme as the means to improving women’s access to public resources, not merely giving women protected access to agricultural resources within a wider public system of gender discrimination.

And this is where the question of women’s leadership must belatedly enter the discussion. For women will never be ‘given’ equal right of access to public resources. It is generally true that any political group can be expected to hang on to their privileges, and to the power that maintains these privileges. Power has to be taken, it is never given. It is this process of women collectively organising and mobilising to increase their access to public resources which properly deserves the term ‘women’s empowerment’. Women’s empowerment is not to be found in the individual act of gaining access to resources, let alone receiving resources. Furthermore, women’s empowerment is not one woman gaining economic advantage at the expense of her oppressed sisters. Women’s empowerment is the collective act of overcoming discrimination, in order to gain equal right to publicly available resources. And leadership is women’s catalytic role in provoking and enabling this process.

Reluctance of Development Agencies

There is scarcely a development agency that does not loudly claim to be pursuing policies of women’s empowerment, and equal rights for women. All UN and bilateral agencies are bound by the strategies of the Beijing Platform for Action, and almost all governments (but not the US government) have ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

But, in my experience, all of these agencies are - in varying degrees - fainthearted in pursuing policies of gender equality. Nowadays they all claim to have policies of ‘gender orientation’, and sometimes saying rather more explicitly that gender issues should be recognised and addressed in all of their programmes.

But in practice, gender orientation may mean one or more of the following strategic approaches:

  • Agenda Setting Programmes. In addition to mainstreaming of gender issues within all programmes, there should be ‘agenda setting’ programmes which are directed primarily at addressing particular major issues of women’s increased empowerment, political representation, and ending structural gender discrimination.
  • Strong Gender Focus. Selected programmes should use a ‘trojan horse’ strategy of using various sectoral programmes as a means towards addressing the various major gender issues which affect that sector (e.g. all agricultural projects would have to address the issue of gender discrimination in public access to credit).
  • Gender Mainstreaming in Programme Design. All programmes should recognise the gender element within the problems being addressed, and therefore have a gender component within all goals aimed at addressing these issues, to ensure that women’s position relative to men has improved by the end of project implementation.
  • Protection of Women. A preliminary situation analysis is conducted to assess the present traditional division of labour, and project interventions are designed to ensure that there is gender fairness in the division of programme responsibilities and rewards, to ensure that women are not left worse off after programme completion (as has often been the case in the past!).
  • Gender Efficiency. A preliminary situation analysis should include a gender role analysis, to make sure that all project interventions are ‘gender sensitive’, in that they respect the traditional gender division of labour, work within this, and therefore allocate programme responsibilities in an effective manner for maximum implementation efficiency. (This strategy may well involve giving a lot of the extra programme work to women, since they are traditionally the ones who do most of the work).
  • Gender Sensitive Approach. This entails leaving the programme plan in an entirely gender blind condition, without any recognition of gender issues in the situation analysis, let alone stating any intention to address gender issues. Instead this approach involves training the programme staff to work in a ‘gender sensitive way’. This approach therefore claims that gender issues can be introduced and addressed purely at the implementation stage, and often amounts, in practice, to little more than project management insisting on having some local women amongst the representatives of the management committee. (‘Unfortunately they didn’t seem to mention any gender issues. They didn’t say much at all!’)

Whereas all of the above six strategies may perhaps fall under the heading of a vaguely defined ‘gender orientation’, only Nos. 1-3 are actually concerned with recognising and addressing gender issues, and are therefore transformatory in their intention.

By contrast, Nos 3-6 are clearly accommodatory, being ‘gender sensitive’ in the sense of adapting to the present system of structural gender inequality, rather than concerned with doing anything about it.

We may also note that, as we proceed down the list, we are clearly entering the world of lip-service and window dressing, where there is an increasing amount of vocabulary and play-acting on gender issues, but no real substance. This play-acting often takes the form of ‘gender workshops’ for programme staff and co-operating partners that tend to be held separately from normal programme activities, to which they have no direct or obvious relationship. Instead, people are asked to achieve the personal transformation of becoming ‘gender sensitive’, undoubtedly a commendable state of mind, but not clearly connected to programme objectives.

Another interesting thing about this list is that the vocabulary at the development agency head office, and in written policy, is more at the level of Nos. 1 and 2. But as one travels to the country office, and even more as one steps into the field to look at project implementation, the vocabulary - and even more so the action - has slipped down the list, perhaps all the way to No. 6.

How is this pattern explained? Largely by admitting the simple but uncomfortable truth that the field staff of development agencies like to live a comfortable life in African countries. There is no way that they are going to upset their (extremely) patriarchal host government by following their own agency’s policies on gender equality. They will quickly tell you that we have to ‘respect local culture and tradition’, or that ‘this is government-to-government assistance, so we can only do what is allowable within the policies of the host government’. (This may be said notwithstanding that the host government, albeit under donor pressure, has formulated its own National Gender Policy, which may be just as strong and explicit as the agency’s own gender policy!).

Leadership for Transformation

In this situation, the first requirement of strategy is to face up to real nature of the problem, and the first job of leadership is to wake up everybody from their slumber. If we fondly imagine that international development agencies are busy in partnership with African governments in a joint venture to eliminate structural gender inequality, then clearly nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, all the evidence suggests that both sides are equally opposed to such a venture.

If there is any contradiction to this broad generalisation, it is to be found only in small corners. At the level of government, it is only perhaps the governments of Uganda and South Africa that may be saved from full condemnation, in that they have gone further than lip-service on women’s rights. For international development agencies, only the Scandinavian bilateral agencies, which are ready to put money into subverting patriarchy in Africa, provide some hope for the women’s movement in Africa. Outside of that, there are some international NGOs, such as the Hunger Project and Oxfam, which show serious signs of being willing to support programmes for women’s equal rights in Africa.

At the African level, the need is for a women’s leadership that can unite progressive African women around particular gender issues, where we can make a collective effort around common and pervasive issues, and seek support from our Northern sisters in doing so. What we need is a global campaign around one clear identifiable issue.

Perhaps a successful example of such a campaign, but outside the area of gender, was the recent campaign against landmines. But why has the women’s movement not managed to launch a campaign of such magnitude? One major reason must be that landmines was such a clear identifiable issue. By comparison, in the area of gender, there are so many issues that the list is endless. We are not up against one issue, but we are up against a patriarchal system that manufactures countless issues.

Nonetheless, if we select carefully, we can campaign around one issue that is well chosen not merely for being pervasive and serious, but also for its potential as a vehicle to attack patriarchy itself, and put it on the defensive.

Let me attempt to set out ten criteria we might use in selecting an African gender issue for a global campaign. I suggest it should be an issue which:

  • clearly has negative effects on women, which are demonstrable both in socio-economic data, and in the witness of individual women;
  • is ideologically indefensible even by patriarchal principles, so that patriarchy is attacked at its most vulnerable point. In other words, since patriarchy claims to be government by men in the best interest of women, the detrimental effects of this particular gender issue clearly cannot be justified, even in terms of patriarchal principles;
  • is indefensible in terms of human and women’s rights principles to which the various concerned governments are already signed up;
  • is clearly seen to be unfair and unjust by a large number of African women; or otherwise there is good prospect of persuading them of this injustice, notwithstanding that they have been educated to believe such injustice to be normal, ordained by God, or given as a biological inheritance;
  • is pervasive across many regions of Africa, or all Africa;
  • is an obvious and established obstacle to economic development;
  • is an issue which women of the North can understand and identify with, and on which they would be willing to support their sisters in the South;
  • is an issue which cannot be justified by religious belief, and which will not provoke inter-religious divisions on how the issue should be addressed;
  • is an issue affecting women in all walks of life, which will enable a coalition of various African women’s groups, operating in different sectors and areas of interest, to unite around the issue;
  • will enable the development of campaigning and empowering skills, and use of a variety of campaigning strategies, to be further used in tackling the next issue on the list.

Of course I shouldn’t write as if there is nothing currently happening in the way of such a campaign. The current campaign against female genital mutilation has had considerable success, and is clearly along the right lines. But it falls short on one or two of the above criteria - particularly in having no very direct connection to economic development, and therefore not putting a clear and direct onus on the powerful development agencies to take action.

Once a campaign issue has direct relevance to the development agenda, women of the North are put in a strong position to demand action from their own government’s bilateral development agency, and from the UN agencies to which their governments contribute. This therefore gives women of the North a clear case and opportunity to demand action and accountability from those development agencies which have strong gender policies which they do not implement.


Let us wake up! Strategise! Take the lead!