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Did transatlantic slavery and colonial borders wreck West African women’s movements?

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

Africa’s parliaments are increasingly gender equal, but there is a curious heterogeneity. Southern and Eastern African legislatures have near parity, while West Africans are ruled by men. Common explanations - tradition, colonisers’ male bias, contemporary sexism, and civil war - all fail to explain why West Africa is such an outlier.

I suggest that women’s movements face insurmountable obstacles in West Africa owing to ethno-religious fragmentation, which was exacerbated by the transatlantic slave trade. Rather listen than read? Here's the podcast.

Women in African Parliaments over Time
Does West Africa have more patriarchal traditions?


West Africans used to revere women’s spiritual power and moral authority. They were respected as Creator Gods and goddesses, priestesses, oracles, deities, and queen mothers. Cosmology upheld gender complementarity.

The Asante, Igbo and Yoruba also had dual sex systems of governance. Women had independent networks and separate spheres of influence. Markets were controlled by women, who set the rules and punished wrongdoers. Banding together, women reprimanded abusive men and traversed great distances as traders. Independently wealthy women marshalled their networks, commercial acumen and linguistic skills to thrive in coastal exports. Back in the16th Century, Hausa Queen Amina was a successful military strategist, she led armies and conquered new territories.

Why were women historically important to religion, politics, and commerce in the Gulf of Guinea?

Tropical rainforests incubated parasites and pathogens. Many children died. High infant mortality combined with land abundance sustained perpetual demand for labour. Although societies in the Gulf of Guinea were often patrilineal, this specifically concerned control over the children (not inheritance). By paying bride-wealth, grooms gained control over the children. This reverence for fertility may help explain why a girl’s first period was followed by initiation rituals celebrating female powers of fertility. So too in cosmology, women were revered as creators.

The Gulf of Guinea's tropical forests were also plagued by the tsetse fly. This parasite causes deaths in cattle. Elsewhere in Africa, nomadic pastoralism spread through male-biased migration. Pastoralists killed indigenous men, reproduced with women and institutionalised male dominance. Islam, which spread south of the Sahara via trade routes, especially among pastoralists, did not reach the regions with the cattle-killing tsetse fly.

Geographical distribution of the tsetse fly

In the Gulf of Guinea therefore, women continued to move freely and maintain autonomy through solidarity. Igbo and Bakweri women harassed men for mistreating their wives, violating market rules or harming their crops. In 19th century Congo-Brazaville, a husband would not take even ‘an egg from her chicken coop’ without permission from his wife. In the early 20th century, women in southern Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire marshalled their independent networks to mobilise en masse against imperialism.

Statue commemorating the Women's March of 1949, Cote d'Ivoire. Source Ezzoura Errami, via Sheldon
But if the Gulf of Guinea was traditionally relatively gender equal, what explains male dominance today?

Colonisers’ male bias?

Feminists fault colonisers for favouring men in agricultural extension and wage labour; promoting female domesticity; while imposing male-biased legislation, language and warrant chiefs.

All true.

But how large and long-standing were those effects?

Colonialism could have only heightened gender inequalities if most African men prospered. But colonial bureaucracies were tiny, state penetration was weak, agricultural support was meagre, and labour markets were miniscule. The vast majority of African men did not benefit from colonialism.

Colonisers also disregarded women’s village networks. But did that prohibit urban African women from organising today? Perhaps not. In Southern and Eastern Africa, a few men did gain advantage as warrant chiefs, but this has not precluded feminist activism and gender quotas. Uganda now has more female legislators than the UK.

Colonisers did neglect women, but that does not explain the West Africa outlier.

Exceptional sexism?

Women in the Gulf of Guinea do not suffer exceptional discrimination, relative to the rest of the continent. Early marriage has fallen rapidly. Female employment and entrepreneurship are high. In Ghana and Nigeria, women comprise over a third of senior managers. The gender gap in property ownership in southern Nigeria is relatively small. A third of Ghana’s supreme court justices are female. Women comprise 20% of mayors in West Africa’s capitals. From Cote d’Ivoire to Cameroon, independently wealthy ‘mama benz’ own fleets of chauffeur-driven Mercedes. In narrating their life histories, Ghanaian market women focus on their own independent businesses and commercial acumen.

Nationally representative social surveys by Afrobarometer suggest that preference for male leaders is generally no greater in West Africa than Southern or Eastern Africa (though it is exceptionally high in Niger and Nigeria).

Post-conflict transition?

Civil wars and especially post-conflict nation-building have provided opportunities for women’s movements to press for gender quotas. Eager for donor funding, authoritarians have often used quotas to strengthen international legitimacy.

Might this explain the West African outlier? Not really.

Civil wars are neither necessary nor sufficient for female representation. Liberia, Nigeria and the Republic of Congo have all been torn apart by conflicts and yet their parliaments remain 90% male. Meanwhile, Tanzania, Eswatini, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe have enforced gender quotas even though they have not recently undergone civil wars. Although many political scientists have attributed Africa’s high female leadership to civil wars and authoritarianism, I suggest this is because they are identifying the effects of one variable rather than looking at the whole continent and trying to explain heterogeneity. They are studying the effects of X rather than the causes of Y.

The spatial distribution of civil conflict (Michalopoulos and Papaioannou 2012)

The transatlantic slave trade and colonial borders

In West Africa, ethno-religious fragmentation has been an obstacle to the formation of mass women’s movements. Activists must overcome ethnic and religious divisions in order to advance their interests politically and cannot rely on an otherwise homogeneous gender-based identity. Yet women who primarily identify with their ethnicity may have little appetite for such campaigns, preferring to be governed by co-ethnics. An Igbo woman may prefer to be led by an Igbo man than a Hausa woman. Even if women privately support gender quotas, distrust may dampen willingness to invest in sustained mobilisation. Activism becomes sporadic.

All of this has been exacerbated by the historical legacies of the slave trade, colonialism, as well as the arrival of Islam and Christianity.

In the transatlantic slave trade, 12 million enslaved people were taken from Africa to the Americas. A further 6 million were exported in other trades. In the struggle to survive (to buy European weapons to protect themselves from slave-raiding), people kidnapped their neighbours, family and friends.

Intensive raiding and insecurity have long-run cultural effects - as demonstrated by Nathan Nunn and Leonardo Wantchekon. Africans who distrusted others may have been more likely to evade capture and then socialise their children to be distrustful. Today, distrust of relatives, neighbours and local government remains higher in places that suffered intensive raiding.

West Africa suffered most severely from the transatlantic slave trade and is now marred by acute ethnic divisions, stratification and distrust. Colonial borders compounded these effects: grouping multiple ethnicities into large states, imposing nationhood where there was none.

The politicisation of ethnicity also affects presidential responsiveness. Ghana’s leaders have always prioritised regional balance. Hence women are less likely to be appointed to African cabinets where ethnicity is heavily politicised.

Relationship between initial population density and slave exports (Nunn 2008)
Relationship between Slave Exports and Current Ethnic Fractionalization (Nunn 2008)


West Africa is also marred by religious divisions. Muslims comprise 43% of the population in Nigeria, 43% in Cote d’Ivoire, 30% in Togo. Sectarian violence has greatly increased over the past twenty years. Two thirds of Ghanians and Cameroonian Christians perceive Muslims as ‘violent’. This impedes nationwide feminist activism.

Muslim-majority countries also tend to express less support for gender equality. Within Africa, a country's level of development (as measured by capita GDP, human development, the size of the non-agricultural labour force, urbanisation, and mass communication) has no such influence on gender ideologies. Religion really matters.

Gender segregation persists in northern Nigeria. Muslim clerics have vehemently opposed women’s rights legislation. In Nigerian states with Sharia law, women are far less likely to undertake paid work in the public sphere and there is strong opposition to female leaders. State governance is overwhelmingly male. Northern Nigeria, Mali, Niger and Chad have persistently high rates of child marriage.

Unlike Northern Nigeria, Senegal was never subject to a Fulla Jihad. Before colonialism, clerics were merely advisors (not rulers). Senegal is also majority-Sufi, believing in a direct, personal connection with God. Religious tolerance has been iteratively institutionalised by post-colonial leaders and communities: for instance, Catholics and Muslims have rebuilt each others’ mosques and churches. In this more tolerant environment, a strong women’s movement relentlessly lobbied for a gender quota. “Let’s strengthen democracy with gender parity!”, they chorused. Like other African leaders that have amplified female leadership, President Wade’s party was electorally dominant. This enabled Wade to allocate more seats to women without forfeiting vital patronage. Senegal's parliament is now 43% female, but within West Africa it is very much the exception.


West African women once exercised authority, such as through dual sex systems of religious and political governance. Yet they have suffered a reversal of fortunes. Although women are individually entrepreneurial, national governance is overwhelmingly male.

Plausible hypotheses, such as patriarchal traditions, colonisers’ male bias, contemporary sexism, and civil wars, fail to explain the West African outlier.

West Africa has exceptionally high ethno-religious divisions and distrust. They were exacerbated by transatlantic slavery. And while feminists typically fault colonisers' male bias, colonialism's greatest impact on patriarchy may be the imposition of arbitrary borders, imposing nationhood where there was none.

History is not destiny, of course. Democratisation and women’s legislative representation improve gender parity in cabinet portfolios. Urbanisation promotes ethnic homogeneity. Ethno-religious divisions can also deteriorate, with drought-induced competition for pasture and sub-national competition for oil rents.

I suggest that without the transatlantic slave trade and colonial borders, West Africa would have stronger feminist coalitions and more gender equal governance.

This post was originally published by Brookings.

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