Women play an integral role in societies, both modern and ancient. They are responsible for the upkeep of the household, agriculture, reproduction and the rearing and discipline of the children. Therefore, women have consistently shaped the cultures and societies in which they live for hundreds, and even thousands, of years. To examine the effects of various cultural, religious and political movements on the women of the society provides a unique insight into the overall effectiveness or damage caused by such trends.
African women in the past (and even, to a significant extent, the present) were and are responsible for finding water, sowing seeds, tilling, harvesting, caring for the animals, keeping the home in order, feeding the family, caring for the children and so on.
When colonialists moved into the area from Europe, they claimed the land that had been cared for and cultivated by these women. The women were suddenly alienated from what had, for so long, defined them and their role in society. This had huge impacts on their economic situation as well as their access to food. However, more than this, it also made these women more dependent on the men in their society, which led to a sense of male supremacy and dominance (social, physical and emotional), and a loss of the female identity, to some extent.
The colonial control of the land meant a limited access to available terrain, which implied that women had less diversity in terms of the types of soils available and the crops that could be cultivated. The amount of land made available to them was drastically less than before, limiting their agricultural yield significantly.
Another major effect of colonialism on women was caused by the introduction of wage labour. This meant that the women (and children) of a village or community were forced to leave their daily duties in order to work for European farmers, particularly during the peak seasons. In addition to robbing these women of their established identity within their society, this forced labour was also often accompanied by physical and sexual abuse. Such abuse was inflicted, in part, by the Europeans, but also, in many cases, by their own husbands, who saw their renewed roles as an indication of their worthlessness, and resented them for neglecting their homely duties.
Although women were working hard for the colonisers, the men did not take over their domestic duties, which led to a massive decrease in their personal productivity. As they were no longer cultivating their own fields and caring for their own homes, their economic situation became critical, forcing them to become more and more dependent on the European colonialists for their very survival. The African males began to leave their homelands, going to the cities and towns in search of more formal employment. Migrant labour had its own added set of implications, many of which left wives, children and families in the unpleasant position of being left alone, worried about the men of their society. As men lived in cities and towns alone, they engaged in sexual relationships with other women. This weakened the genetic code of the children that resulted (as their fathers were unknown to them) and also introduced foreign diseases to the wives of the men, who awaited their return home.
Another major trend introduced by the colonialists was their rather closed-minded view of women and their position in everyday life. Victorian women were required to perform duties, but not to have much of a personality or presence. The African women soon felt their position and influence in society being snatched away from under them, despite their crucial role in establishing the homes and raising the children of their men.
There is no doubt that colonialism presented African women with a variety of challenges and negative effects. However, as a display of their resilience, these women responded, in many cases, by learning to protest and stand up for their rights. They adapted as they needed to, and were determined to preserve their identities. An example of taking such initiative to regain their ‘voice’ is the British West African Ladies Club, established in 1929 in Nigeria. This organisation was designed to encourage women to express themselves and to give them a platform upon which to do so. Such responses to colonialism demonstrate the resilience and determination that continues to identify African women.