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Compare and contrast gender roles in African states and the West? Help?

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Alec Cranford eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Largely, this depends on which African state you are referring to, and which level of society. Africa is, after all, a very diverse place. Issues involving gender roles in Africa have attracted world attention in a negative way, including the infamous examples of stoning women for adultery in Nigeria. Some tribal societies in Africa (like some Native American tribes) still maintain some aspects of their original matrilineality, which confers considerable political and social influence on women.

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winnie-silva | Student

Traditional African gender norms have been significantly altered by the historical forces of colonialism and Christianity. In this era of globalization, the ongoing transformation has escalated. From political structures, economic infrastructure and educational curricula to everyday encounters with music, movies, television shows, social media, merchandise and the like from around the world, African traditions are being whittled away.

In a technology and market driven global society, socioeconomic status is surpassing the power of local traditions in shaping gender roles and experiences. A migrant woman who generates income selling food on the streets of Johannesburg, South Africa may have less in common with a woman legislator in the South African government, than she does with a woman thousands of miles away in Phenom Penh, Cambodia, who makes a living selling home-made food on the streets. A woman legislator in South Africa has a standard of life comparable to that of her western counterpart in the United States, and likely has as much decision making power in her household. Similarly, the gender experiences of women in the West overall, and within the US in particular are infinitely diverse. A Moslem woman in Los Angeles, USA, may live in a household where she is expected to wear the Burqa and may have less autonomy than a single woman who migrates from a rural village and lives in a shantytown in urban Namibia. In both Africa and in the west single mothers and married women become, or are expected to become ‘Superwomen’ when, in the evenings, they start their second job caring for their household and children. These realities render the differences among women in African countries greater than those between them and western women. Parpart and Marchand write: “More and more there is talk about the Third World within the First World (…). Increased differentiation in the South, is casting doubt on the myth of the North/South divide.” (p. 17).

Advocates of gender equality see globalization as a potential force for development and greater gender equality (World Development Report, p. 254). African nations are motivated to make the necessary gender policy changes to qualify for development funding (GRSD.com). The following excerpt from a World Bank article in 2011 makes this point:

Several factors associated with a more global world strengthen the incentives for action toward greater gender equality:

  • Gender inequality is more costly in an integrated world because it diminishes a country’s ability to compete internationally—particularly if the country specializes in female-intensive goods and services.
  • International peer pressure has also led more countries than ever to ratify treaties against discrimination.
  • Growing media exposure and consumers’ demands for better treatment of workers has pushed multinationals toward fairer wages and better working conditions for women. (GRSD.com).

Globalization is shifting gender roles and norms:

  • Increased access to information, primarily through television and the Internet, allows countries to learn about social mores in other places, which can change perceptions and promote the adoption of more egalitarian attitudes.
  • Economic empowerment for women reinforces this process by promoting changes in gender roles and allowing women to influence time allocation, shift relative power within the household and exercise agency more broadly. (GRSD.com):

Rural-urban migration has escalated in this era of globalization and is an outcome of some development initiatives that target women. However these development processes have contradictory effects and the goal of gender equality is not viewed as desirable by some African women. Some mothers who struggle to support their families in urban centers in Africa, and women left in rural areas by younger members of their families do not necessarily perceive their greater autonomy in a positive light. Dugbazah writes about a rural Ghanaian woman who experienced the impact of migration on her family: ‘I feel like I’m carrying all the burden of the family on my shoulders. Now I am the woman as well as the man in the house’ (p. 70).

Wanzala quotes the opinion of a migrant Namibian woman who was struggling to support her five children in an urban shantytown in the late 1990s:

“I begin to hear this thing about gender equality between women and men. I don’t know -- I try to go to some workshops – but what happened to me is a big confusion. I don’t really understand this thing about equality – because for me a man is a man and a woman is a woman. Now a husband and wife go out and work and the children come back from school and they are alone and hungry. The world, it is upside down,” she continued with a deep frown, “a woman must live and work like a man – but men still get the jobs and business more easily than a woman. It’s all big confusion – a big problem.” (Doctoral thesis, 2001).

There is so much more that can be shared on this important issue, however, the above should give you food for thought. I encourage you to explore this issue further and broaden your understanding about gender roles and the impact of gender equality initiatives on women around the world.

Works Cited:

Dugbazah, Justin. Gender, Livelihoods and Migration in Africa, United Kingdom: Xlibris, 2012.

Globalization’s Impact on Gender Equality: What’s happened and what’s needed? World Bank 2011, GRSD.com.


Parpart, Jane L./ Marianne H Marchand (eds,). Feminism, Postmodernism, Development, London / New York: Routledge, 1995.

Wanzala, Winnifred, Female Economy in Urban Namibia: ‘Another Namibia within itself?” University of Bielefeld Doctoral Thesis, Germany, 2001.

wanderista | Student

You would need to specify which area or state of Africa you are referring to, as Post 2 outlines. This is due to the different cultures, traditions and laws each state has that affects the daily lifestyle of people living there. Also, some states are in drought, flood etc. and require less or more from the people living there.

But generally speaking, the role of African women is somewhat similar to Western people pre-1500's. Many African women are sent to collect water, and usually this water is kilometres away from their home and tends to be dirty. African women also tend to care for the children until they reach a certain age; around 6. At that age, they can contribute to the operation of the household and work and support the family.

Women in the western world today seem to have more freedom and choice in their decisions and lifestyle opportunities, unlike pre-1500 where they were expected to work in the kitchen and care for the children. Pre-1500, women were rarely seen in high working positions, couldn't vote and were forbidden to work upon marriage. Now, these practises are considered immoral and unfair (which they certainly are) and women are given more respect, opportunity and freedom.

To sum this all up, the majority of women in developing countries such as Uganda, tend not to have the same rights and opportunities women do in developed countries, such as the United States.