The effect of colonlialism on African women

Well, now that we have an idea of the general status of African women before colonialism…let’s take a look at the economic and socio-political effects of colonialism on African women…remember, the idea is not to blame colonialists and get stuck in the rut of forever blaming others…the aim is to share knowledge and information and give us all some historical perspective as we look at our current state of affairs and as we make plans to positively mould our future.

Economic Impact
Firstly, women were affected by the alienation of land experienced by most Africans. However, women appear to have been more personally affected by this land alienation. This is because, ‘As women lost access and control of land they became more economically dependent on men. This led to an intensification of domestic patriarchy, reinforced by colonial social institutions.’ Among the Kikuyu of Kenya women were the major food producers and thus not only had ready access to land but also authority over how land was to be cultivated. Speaking about African women in general, Seenarine, in quoting Sacks explains that, ‘the value of women’s productive labor, in producing and processing food …established and maintained their rights in domestic and other spheres – economic, cultural, religious, social, political, etc.’

The advent of the British colonialism and the settler economy negatively impacted Kikuyu women because the loss of land meant a loss of access to and authority over land. Kikuyu women found that they no longer had the variety of soils needed to grow indigenous foodstuffs. Traditionally, certain pieces of land were associated with the growth of certain crops. Thus the variety of soils was required to ensure food security . Moreover, land loss meant women were restricted to smaller tracts of land for cultivation. Continuous cultivation of these areas of land led to soil exhaustion and nutrient depletion which ultimately adversely affected crop yields. Land alienation reduced the economic independence enjoyed by women by compromising their economic productivity. As colonialism continue to entrench itself in African soil, the perceived importance of women’s agricultural contribution to the household was reduced as their vital role in food production was overshadowed by the more lucrative male-controlled cash crop cultivation.

Secondly, colonialism negatively impacted women by introducing wage labour.
Women were directly affected because they were required, by law in some cases, to provide wage labour for the European plantation economies. The Northey Circular in Kenya (1919) commanded district officers and African chiefs to procure wo
men and juvenile labourers for private and public works. Women were deeply affected by such directives because it drew them away form their usual economic activities. In come cases European labour demands were most intense during the peak labour requirements for their own agricultural activities. As Mbilinyi explains, ‘ Women and children were the major source of casual labour during labour peaks in the Rungwe tea industry and Mbosi coffee industry.’ This produced a conflict in women as they were forced to leave their duties to work for Europeans. Keep in mind that this forced labour was accompanied by acts of physical and sexual abuse which were often committed by African men against their own women. Therefore, working on the plantations further compromised women’s well being and ability to be as productive as they previously had been in past.

Thirdly, the introduction of wage labour affected women through its denial of African women to African male labour. The colonial economy forced men to seek employment in European economic ventures and took them away from the labour responsibilities they used to have in the traditional African economy. As Mbilinyi explains, ‘The withdrawal of male labour from peasant production intensified female labour, and led to a drop in cultivated acreage.’ Women found that not only did they have to fulfil their traditional duties as women, the loss of male labour forced them to take on the duties previously carried out by men.

Fourthly, this loss of male labour was often in the form of male migrant labour where men left rural areas to seek employment in urban areas. This led to both social and economic impacts on women. The focus in this section will be on the economic repercussions of male migrant labour.

Due to male migrant movement, women found that they had to hire labour to substitute for absent male household members. In Tanganyika, hired labour cost, ‘ (T)wo Tanganykinan shillings (Tshs 22) per month with food ration.’ This cost added to the economic strain already being felt by the African woman.

Problems posed by male migrant labour were exacerbated by changes in bridewealth arrangements. In many areas bridewealth had evolved from being a payment made in livestock to a cash exchange. As a result bridewealth was inflated and became a way of putting monetary value on the bride’s wealth. Thus, instead of the bridewealth process being one that affirmed the woman’s worth, it became one that judged the woman’s worth. This inflation in bridewealth meant that most young men were unable to pay it and thus had to go to urban areas in order to earn enough to make the payment. Now women lost their husband’s economic (and other) support at the onset of marriage thereby putting them in a disempowered economic state from the beginning of marriage.

Fourthly, taxes were introduced by the colonial economy. In most cases taxes were to be paid by men to the colonial authority. In some cases, however, taxes were also imposed on women. For example, among the Egba of Nigeria, the British colonial authority used African males to impose taxes on women. Women could be taxed from the age of fifteen! This tax was seen as a nuisance for women who not had enough economic responsibilities of sustaining the household in the absence of males.
Taxes also indirectly affected women by affecting bridewealth exchange as exemplified by the situation in colonial Zimbabwe. By the 1930s, African patriarchs in particular had become extremely preoccupied with controlling bridewealth. As Barnes explains, ‘(F)athers and guardians had come to regard this payment- once only a symbolic exchange of gifts between families- as a fair means of accumulation cash to pay taxes and meet other financial obligations. This change represented the commdification of a woman’s value to her family.’ In the past, African women in some societies had retained a measure of control over their bridewealth which economically empowered her. Sadly, with the new financial constraints experienced by males, especially in the form of heavy taxation, bridewealth became a source of income that males sought to control. Thus, once more, women were excluded from traditional provisions that had previously given women some measure of economic independence.

A fifth way in which colonisation negatively impacted women was through the introduction of the cash crop economy.
Initially, Africans were not allowed to grow cash crops because the settlers feared that the ‘primitive’ African agricultural practices would spread crop disease and contamination to their plantations. But eventually the colonialists permitted Africans to grow cash crops. In Kenya this took place between 1950-1963.Given the mandate to grow cash crops, many Africans chose to take the opportunity and in doing so women were adversely affected.

First, men intended to control the cash crops and their proceeds. Women were to continue with subsistence farming except in the cases where subsistence crop became cash crops with a market value. In this case males swiftly took control of the crop’s proceeds although the women continued to do all the work around its cultivation.

Secondly, as the cash crop economy grew, the colonial government imposed the new cash crops (cocoa, coffee, cotton etc) on men and because of their market value, men accepted to cultivate them. So although women were expected to grow foodstuffs, their labour was also required in the growth of cash crops. This doubled the agricultural load on women.

Moreover, the introduction of new technology, especially the plough actually had a negative impact on women. Firstly, the plough enabled men to cultivate more land. But men left the backbreaking, labour intensive work of sowing and weeding to women. Thus the women’s load was increased. Secondly, the plough made men more directly involved in crop cultivation thereby increasing the men’s right over proceeds earned from the cash crop. To many men, this meant they could dispense with the money earned without consulting the women who did most of the work in earning the money. Hence, women, once although women were working more, their economic dependence on men was increasing.

Finally colonialism led to the complete loss of access to land by women. The colonialists brought with them the idea of private ownership of land. Women were completely excluded from this ownership. Berger explains that in Kenya, the Swynnerton Plan of 1954 began a process of, ‘registering and consolidation land and granting titles to individuals, almost all of whom have been men.’ This policy weakened rural women’s autonomy in the economy.

It is clear that colonials had devastating economic impacts on women. As the colonial government entrenched itself into the African nations, women found their labour being increasingly exploited, their autonomy decreased and their levels of dependence on males increasing.

Socio- Political impact
The first socio-political effect of colonialism was the concept of the Victorian woman which the colonisers brought with them. The colonialists came with the belief that women were to remain creatures of the private domain. Women were to preoccupy themselves with domestic issues and leave the ‘real work’ of ruling and running the nation in terms of politics and economics in particular to the men. The role and position of the pre-colonial African women did not conform to this concept of a women. Hence, the implementation of policies seated in this myopic perception of women led to the erosion of women’s position in society.

Secondly, male migration profoundly affected women especially in rural areas. In Tanganyika, male migrancy nearly halved the male population such that there were nearly twice as many women than men. The removal of males form African society le to the destruction of the African family. Household no longer had father, brother, uncles and nephews thus leaving a void where the male used to reside. Male participation in their traditional roles in ceremonies, rites and rituals was distorted. The responsibility older males had of guiding and steering young males was abandoned as many went to urban areas. Women could not rely on the social support and protection men offered them and in many cases became the de facto heads of household. The problem is that the increase in women’s social responsibilities did not lead to a rise in their status, if anything it led to an erosion of their status.

Thirdly, as colonialism progressed, African patriarch’s, and the colonial government to a certain extent, attempted to restrict movement of women in a bid to control their sexuality. As Parpart explains, ‘Colonial policy pushed men into migrant labour leaving women stranded in the rural areas with an increasingly onerous workload. As rural conditions deteriorated, the cities beckoned. While women had little chance of waged employment in town, their opportunities to earn money existed.’ As a result, more women migrated to urban areas but were met with stiff opposition in the form of disapproval of African patriarchs in particular. Both they and colonial officials disliked female migration because they felt it led to moral decline and female indiscipline. African patriarchs were particularly concerned with controlling women’s movement and thus sexuality for a number of reasons. Firstly, they wanted to retain the purity of their clan. When women moved away form home, the patriarchs had less control over whom the women married or cohabited with. Thus, African males wanted to keep women under their noses so as to ensure endogamous marriage by the women. Secondly, African patriarchs discovered that if women left home and got married in her new area of residence, the groom often did not pay the bridewealth. Since there was no social pressure on couples in urban areas to pay bride wealth, African patriarchs began losing a great deal of income in the form of unpaid bride wealth.
Therefore, African patriarchs become preoccupied with controlling female mobility. The colonial administration also become concerned because some African men left their employment early due to domestic problems that arose in the form of accusations of adultery and wives leaving them for other men. This caused the colonial administration to assist the African patriarchs out of (initial) mutual benefit. In Zimbabwe, the administration passed Ordinances and Laws such as the 1926 adultery ordinance which applied to married women and the 1929 Native Affairs Act, which applied to prostitutes, in an attempt to, ‘assist the kraal native to control their women’. However, it must be noted that the colonial administration was not very serious in their attempts to control the movement of women due to the observation that the men were more productive when he had his wife or a female companion around.

Nonetheless, rural women’s mobility was constrained thus limiting the social freedom they used to enjoy. In the past women had participated in activities that required quite a bit of movement. Fro example, among the Kikuyu since trading was carried out by women they enjoyed freedom of movement in order to dispense of their duties effectively. Colonialism caused some women to lose the freedom they once enjoyed.

Fourthly, due to the Victorian concept of women held by the colonialist and embraced by the African male, women were excluded from the new political and administrative system. In the past, most African societies had a dual sex political system which allowed for substantial female representation and involvement in governance and administration. The position of Queen mother seen across Africa in Ghana among the Akan, Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda but to name a few, gave women prominent and visible political authority in running the nation.
However, the chauvinist and misogynistic colonial officials made no provisions in the initial administrative design. It is often only with women protests as was the case of the Aba women’s war and the actions of Mekatilili was Menza, that a meagre number of woman’s positions were created in the colonial set up.
This marginalisation of women led to an erosion in the position and influence of women in society. As this new status quo was maintained, African men actually began to believe that women were incapable of leading the nations. This erroneous opinion is still held by many Africans to this day and is reflected in the meagre number of appointments women receive to parliament and ministerial positions.

The discussion on the socio-political effects of colonialism on women is not exhaustive by any means. However, it is designed to give the reader a good impression of how foreign colonial domination truly led to deterioration in the status of women across Africa.

The African women’s response

African women did not appreciate the new form of foreign and local patriarchal domination that was being meted out to them due to colonialism. They thus voiced their concerns in numerous acts of protest an defiance in an attempt to not only vocalise their anger and frustration and the new state of affairs, but to also improve their situation. Therefore, although colonialism led to detrimental effects in the economic and socio-political spheres, African women used these challenges to empower themselves and move forward. Colonialism increased the levels of awareness in women about their situation, their rights and the ability they themselves had to alter their environment. As Parpart explains, women used the court system in colonial Zambia to their advantage, ‘They (women) learnt the value of protest and the need to frame arguments in certain ways.’ Thus, women adapted to their new realties and gleaned methods of self-empowerment in the process.

This resilience and ingenuity of African women is seen in the acts such as the Aba women’s war (1929) where women came together in protest of certain colonial policies. Queen Sarraounia (1899) of Azna defended her nation from French invaders while Mekatilili wa Mennza mobilised her community to protest against the British. Women formed associations and unions as a statement of their unity as well as to contribute to the push toward independence. Fro example, Oyikan Abayomi founded the British West African Ladies Club in 1929 with a member ship of 500-200 women. This organisation was anti-colonial and brought women’s voices together as a powerful against colonialism.

It is evident that colonialism led to a definite decline in women economic independence as well as their socio-political status in society. Colonialism managed to instil in African men a strange feeling of superiority over women despite the fact that for centuries prior to colonialism, this unfounded feeling of superiority was generally absent in non-Islamised African states. It is evident that even today, in modern Africa, women still have to live with continued subjugation and abuse because they are women. However, it is with great joy that once more, we are witnessing a rise in women consciousness and self- confidence as women say NO to continued social scorn and disrespect. Women today, just as they had during the colonial era, refuse to accept the injustices meted out to them by men of whatever race.

May we as Africans strive to restore African women to a position of respect and dignity that even exceed that which she enjoyed in the past. For it is only when a nation respects women and treats them with dignity that true development can occur. Women are at the frontlines of humanity as mothers and primary caregivers. Therefore, in nurturing and building them, we are building the whole nation and continent.

For the Restoration of Afrika and all Her peoples at home and abroad.

Previous comments on this post said…
Sooner or later somebody should write on the effect of women on men, irrelevant of skin color. gdc
2:45 PM
africanmessiah said…
Hello African eye……first of all i would like to say that i love your blog….we are on the same theme so much respect and more support !!Second, you may be right with the effect of colonialism to african women………but as you said we should not blame the past……..look at Afghan women……….they had their problems up to the 90s and after being liberated from their Taliban fashist leaders……they even play football now!!…..and this has been done within less than 5 years since the Americans touched the Afghan land !!……….then why African’s women still undermined?!!……..i believe the women themselves have not done enough to change the situation…… can someboy help if you do not say that you need help?!……..see my blog if you have time, i have the same topic as yours and i believe solutions can be found to this………i am trying to bring as much awareness to the people and how to solve the problems!!Last question, what is your solution to the effect caused by colonialists to african women?
8:08 PM
Anonymous said…
I find your writing interesting and thought provoking and I was wondering if you would be interested in contributing articles to (aGN)
aGN a division of

~ by Afrikan Eye on March 8, 2007.

16 Responses to “The effect of colonlialism on African women”

  1. Hi, I am with POA Magazine (People Of Africa Magazine) I love this article and I need to talk to you about entering it into our next Issue, I need to give this education to the world through POA Magazine Because not too many people get the opportunity to read good and powerful staff like this. So I would like to bring it to them through our Magazine. Please Reply

  2. I, Regina, have a question about an image on your blog. If you could please email me so that i may ask you about it privately.

  3. We are 2 african american women that are going to make our own soaps and candles. We would like to know if by chance we could use your image of the 4 women together on our label. We absolutely love the image and it would stand for what we believe in…women standing togethter. Maybe somehow with the sale of the products we can give back to the women of africa! Please email us back with the details on the use of the image…thank you ! Linda Small

  4. I got these images from a range of different sites…check out for some lovely artwork…If any of you are artists of the works on this page and would rather I didn’t use the image then please let me know and I’ll remove it.

  5. Great blog! I really would like posters of some of your images. Could you direct me to the site that I can find them. I checked but I did not find the art works on this blog. I really would appreciate your help. Thank you! Jen Kwami

  6. I really love the artwork that you use in your posts, it is so beautiful.

  7. Can we publish this article at our network KINGDOM WOMEN MINISTRY.

    We have an african american communty that will be blessed be this writing.

    • Yeah sure you can. Sorry for taking so long to respond. I have been out of the loop for a while.
      With thanks,

  8. I am looking for the source of the painting of the woman holding the ball (orb?) -third one down from the top. Can you help me?

  9. Great info!

  10. Thanks for making the discipline less androcentric.

  11. Hi please put the full author, date, location etc.. of this article to make it possible for academic use. I would love to reference it but important references are missing 😦

  12. the european activity in afric,has a diverstating influence on every sector that contributes to its development there by making all african state struggle with development especially in the aspect of equal right of women with men

  13. Can you tell me where you got all this information from? Thankyou!

  14. the content have really help me, despite the fact that it speaks very little about women education during colonial period.This is what I am interested in.

  15. the content is worth to read but needs more elaborate examples in different African countries.

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