Context of gender in Africa

Uppsala, Sweden, 21–24 February 2002

The call for papers (below) was issued in June 2001, based on ideas developed during my trip in April/May 2001 to centres of gender studies in various countries in Africa, and also decisively inspired by the publications listed in the bibliography.

The Sexuality, Gender and Society research programme at the Nordic Africa Institute is hereby issuing a call for contributions to a book to be published as the inaugural volume of the SexGenSoc research programme. As it is stated in the programme presentation critical investigation of available conceptualizations will be an ongoing activity of the programme, along with development of new alternative approaches.
It is on this note that the call for contributions to the inaugural volume is launched. The papers requested are to be written on the basis of lived experiences and/or research work already done. The call for papers should be seen as an invitation to more sustained reflections on certain issues, predominantly in the fields of concepts and methodology, but also taking the socio-economic power relationships of gender research in Africa into consideration.

The book will be composed of three sections.

Section 1: Research, Activism, Consultancies:
Dilemmas and Challenges.

This section will focus on the actual situation of gender researchers in Africa today, often posed and pending between identities as academics and researchers on one hand, and dependence on donor funding on the other. Most African countries and/or universities don’t have their own funds for research, and generally university teachers’ salaries are not very high. Thus in order to survive, university employees take on consultancy work as a complementary activity. Furthermore - funding for field work not being available at the universities - consultancy work in donor contexts will be the only opportunity for African gender researchers to get time and money for fieldwork. The dilemma in this context is the terms of reference for the research: who decides the research agenda, the focus of the study, the lines of thinking, the concepts to be used? To make this dilemma explicit and to discuss solutions is an important task. Another dilemma, complementary to and co-existing with the first one, is the double identity – felt and experienced by many feminists – as academic researchers on one hand, and as activists for women’s issues on the other. How are these dilemmas between academic and activist concerns being worked out and solved in practice? And to which extent are feminist researchers also involved in the third dilemma of the triangle: researcher/activist/consultant – the relationship between grass-root activism and donor-driven projects, programmes and agendas?

Papers in this section should focus on the dilemmas and multiple identities of African gender researchers – either in general, or from the writer’s own lived experience, spelling out the different conditions, the problems and the possibilities.

Section 2: Conceptualizing Gender:
Reflections on Concepts and Methods of Research

Discussions regarding to which extent the Western concepts of ‘woman’, ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ – among others – are useful or not in African contexts, if and how they should be re-conceptualized etc. – have been going on for a while, in women’s studies networks in Africa, as well as among Western-based African scholars and other scholars of gender in Africa. To maintain and develop this type of discussions is an important concern of this volume, for several reasons:
a) In spite of decades of feminist critique, male-biased concepts still
abound in social science, and even in gender research.
b) The Gender and Development (GAD) agenda, backed by donor
money, is very powerful indeed – often obscuring the fact that
every seemingly simple tool and check-list of ‘gender training’ or
‘gender evaluation’ has theoretical and epistemological
underpinnings. The point in this context will be to expose and
critically discuss the taken-for-grantedness of this kind of
concepts, as well as their hidden assumptions.
c) In several aspects the African critique of Western gender concepts
have contained creative contributions to alternative
conceptualizations, inspired by different perceptions of African
gendered realities. It is a point of priority of this volume to take
stock of such contributions.

Often the best theoretical re-thinking is rooted in empirical studies. Obviously conceptualizations and empirical studies are closely interlinked: Theories and concepts (including implicit assumptions) largely determine what you see and what you overlook. Nevertheless empirical studies may be performed with more or less sensitivity for the ways in which the studied reality fits or doesn’t fit into pre-existing assumptions and theoretical frameworks. Thus explorative and qualitative studies will often provide a better basis for theoretical re-thinking.

Papers in this section could include theoretical discussions based on existing texts, such as theories and studies, works of art (novels, poems, myths and stories), GAD-material (eg. checklists and manuals) etc. Conceptual/ methodological reflections on research work performed by the writer him/ herself – or general methodological reflections of relevance to studies of gender and sexuality could also be included.

Section 3: Thinking Sexualities in Contexts of Gender.

Research on sexuality in Africa often focus on risk and danger and women’s subordination. Studies deal with the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), with female genital mutilation (FGM), with rape and sexual violence etc. – much less with sexuality as a source of pleasure, self-confidence and identity, or with other aspects of sexual life. Also in African feminist contexts, sexuality is a contested issue. Important African feminist thinkers are silent regarding sexuality, and studies by African scholars of sexuality in everyday lives are few and far between. Why? One reason may be that the male colonial fascination with African female bodies and the solid Western stereotypes regarding ‘African sexuality’ have been hard to deal with. Another reason may be that ‘sexual rights’ in global feminism tend to have connotations, which make more sense in Western as compared to African contexts. With increased donor concern for curtailing the spread of HIV/AIDS, studies of sexuality in Africa have multiplied, moving from a focus on prostitutes and truck drivers to sex in ‘normal’ heterosexual relations, where gender power inequalities in the negotiation of sexuality have to be acknowledged. Increasingly sexuality is studied as a decisive aspect of socio-cultural constructions of masculinities and femininities, and research on female and particularly on male sexualities seem to be gaining ground, especially in South Africa. Still many questions remain unasked, however, and lots of thinking has yet to be done.

In the context of this volume, conceptual reflections on male/female sexualities are called for, including reflections grounded in empirical studies. Questions for discussion are among others the following: How to deal with the legacy of ‘African sexuality’ and other stereotypes, informed by Christianity and Victorian morals? How to contextualize and conceptualize female sexual socialization, including phenomena grouped under the heading of ‘female genital mutilation’, but also taking other aspects into consideration? In the field of sexualities all conceptualizations carry heavy connotations and implications: ‘prostitution’, ‘promiscuity’ or ‘sexual transactions’ – which words should be chosen, and why?
Papers in this section should contribute to discussions regarding which questions to ask, which concepts to use, and how to think sexualities in contexts of gender.


Agenda (South African Feminist Journal), Durban,

African Gender Institute Newsletter, University of Cape Town,

Amadiume, Ifi 1997: Reinventing Africa. Matriarchy, Religion and Culture. Zed Books, London.

Imam, Ayesha, Mama, Amina and Sow, Fatou (eds) 1997: Engendering African Social Sciences. Codesria Book Series, Dakar.

Mama, Amina (ed) 1996: Setting an Agenda for Gender and Women’s Studies in Nigeria. Report of the Network for omen’s Studies in Nigeria, no 1. Tamaza Publishing Co Ltd, Zaria.

Mama, Amina 1996: Women’s Studies and Studies of Women in Africa during the 1990s. Working Paper Series 5/96, Codesria, Dakar.

Meena, Ruth 1992: Gender in Southern Africa. Conceptual and Theoretical Issues. Sapes Books, Harare.

Oyewm, Oyrnk 1997: The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourse. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Pereira, Charmaine (ed) 1997: Concepts and Methods for Women’s Studies in Nigeria. Report of the Network for Women’s Studies in Nigeria, no 2. Tamaza Publiching Co Ltd, Zaria.

Sida Studies no 3, 2001: Discussing Women’s Empowerment – Theory and Practice, Sida, Stockholm (to be ordered free of charge through at

Tsikata, Dzodzi (ed) 2001: Gender Training in Ghana. Politics, Issues and Tools. Woeli Publishing Services, Accra.

To the top