A Gender Perspective on Citizenship in Africa

So far the debate has focused on citizenship as a status within the borders of certain nation states in Africa and the dire consequences of the inability to obtain such status. Yet, legal rights and identity documents that indicate citizenship is only one dimension of citizenship. If we would apply a gender lens to the debate around citizenship in Africa it exposes inequalities locked into the nature of citizenship (as status) that is linked to the inability to claim rights and participate as agents of citizenship.

Citizenship is not only predicated on the inclusion into the nation state through rights that confer upon people the status of citizens but it is also a practice (agency) that enables people to participate in the affairs of the nation state (Gouws, 2005: 3). While women may have status as citizens their agency is often determined by the divide between the public and private (household) sphere that also determines the division of labour in the household.  When the state does not enforce rights in the domain of the private where women’s (second class) citizenship is often shaped through subordination and violence women can not be equal citizens with men. The reconfiguration of the relationship between public and private (and in the case of African countries the domain of customary law that still condones traditional practices such as polygamous marriages, female genital mutilation and paying a bride price in many countries) is necessary for equal citizenship in gender terms.

It is also necessary to understand women’s connection to the private sphere in the case of forced migration. With the disintegration of states and continuous civil war migration has become a way if life for many people in Africa who may migrate between countries in Africa or further North to Europe or North America, linking them into the debate about citizenship issues regarding migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, also bringing into focus problems arising out of greater globalization. Increasing globalization has led to a new definitions of citizenship on the assumptions of greater economic integration, open borders and mobility that locates the migrant centrally on the basis of a double logic – that of belonging and that of separation (Mbembe, 2008).[1]

There has been a gender blindness to the migration debate based on the underlying assumption that men migrate and women migrate as dependents of men. More recent studies have, however, shown that women also migrate independently but for different reasons than men. Women often have to leave their countries because of pervasive gender based violence, such as the use of rape as a weapon of war, especially in Africa, or famine. While some research focuses on security – it encompasses the androcentric traditional notion of security (threats to the country’s sovereignty) rather than safety from gender based violence, food security and the erasure of unequal power relations between men and women. In entering new countries women very often become the victims of xenophobic violence from local populations where there is no recourse to help from authorities such as the police who are often deeply implicated in the violence.

Thinking of citizenship as extending across borders denies the reality of poor women within the nation state and the global order. For poor women to challenge their exclusion from citizenship or demand entry into developed countries is very difficult. Citizenship strategies become tied up in labor strategies, family household politics, a sense of community and a diasporic consciousness (Stasiulis and Bakan, 2005: 2).

As Stasiulis and Bakan (2005: 11-14) point out international migration shows up the universalistic claims of the modern nation state and the ways in which migrants are marginalized in an inequitable context. The inequitability lies in the functioning of migration policies that are highly racialized and gendered, as well as connected to regional discrimination. The nation state therefore remains the most important site for citizenship and in Southern Africa migration has strengthened borders, rather than eradicated them (unlike countries belonging to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) where it is easier to move across borders).

Under neo-liberal globalization citizenship has become ever more salient and ever more elusive as some people are included but others not. Exclusion creates the conditions of the possibility for citizenship for some (eg. those who are highly skilled) but not for others. In many African countries women have lower levels of literacy and education than men and therefore less attractive as citizens to host countries.

Globalization has not lessened the role of the nation state or the exploitation of the least developed countries (Stasiulis and Bakan, 2005: 2). Increased international mobility gives rise to larger numbers of non-citizens or foreign nationals working and staying in countries other than their own. This is surely true for Africans given the large African diaspora. Citizenship can therefore be viewed as multi-dimensional including a relationship that people have with their countries of origin.

As a consequence of people’s mobility citizenship has become transnational in character, due to the networks that are being built by migrants in their countries of origin and the host country.  States, however, also act in a transnational way – homogenizing regulations and policies on migrants and strengthening cross-border power relations. But even in the case of transnational citizenship women’s exclusion and subordination are still predicated on a specific sexual division of labour as demonstrated by the public/private divide. The division of labor in the household often puts the care burden on women. Care for children, the sick, and the elderly becomes an integral part of women’s citizenship, especially with the greater privatization of care facilities under neo-liberalism. In androcentric conceptualizations of citizenship care is never included as a dimension of citizenship (Gouws, 2005: 5). When women migrate care of children leads to adopting household strategies that will put in place care for children and elderly kin as core components of how they will negotiate their citizenship.

In Africa one of the most important markers of non-citizenship status is poverty but for women it is often also a marker of citizenship. The gendered nature of citizenship as well as migration continues women’s oppression as they end up in the most undesirable and physically draining work such as domestic work, care work or sex work (Stasiulis and Bakan, 2005: 28). Where social welfare provisioning has been outsourced due to neo-liberal policies (or structural adjustment programmes) citizenship for migrants in low paying wage work or who are unemployed becomes reduced to a dependence on the skeletal welfare provisioning (if any at all) by states in Africa. Women are the least able to claim rights when their rights have been violated because litigation is expensive and out of reach for poor women.


Gouws, Amanda (ed) (2005) (Un)Thinking Citizenship: Feminist Debates in Contemporary South Africa. UK: Ashgate.

Stasiulis, Daiva and Abigail Bakan (2005) Negotiating Citizenship: The Case of Foreign Domestic Workers in Canada. University of Toronto Press.

*Amanda Gouws is a professor of Political Science at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

[1] Mbembe, Achille, seminar presentation on “Democracy and Its Others” at the New Social Forum seminar series, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Stellenbosch, July 2008.

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4 thoughts on “A Gender Perspective on Citizenship in Africa

  1. “Women often have to leave their countries because of pervasive gender based violence, such as the use of rape as a weapon of war, especially in Africa, or famine.”

    No matter where one is in the world, rape is never acceptable. Women should always have equal rights as men, as they provide a valuable service to society in ways that a man never could.

  2. The “oppression of women” in Africa has long been happening. Sad to know that there isn’t any progress regarding its condition. Let us hope that soon this kind of discrimination will be put to an end.

  3. Sadly, the oppresion of women is present in every part of the world and has different forms, physical and mental or direct and indirect. However, not much, and often nothing is being done to resolve this.

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