|This site maintained by: Aomar Boum. Site last updated on October, 2001.||
Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 4 (1997)
Women and Economic Power: The Role of Women in African Economic Development.
Bessie House-Midamba and Felix K. Ekechi, editors. Westport, CT: Greenwood
Press, 1995. xix, 214 pp.
Wheras women in some parts of Africa
have been involved in trade since at least the seventeenth century, in
the past 25 years African market women have become the subject of considerable
academic interest. Much of the ethnographic and sociological research
conducted in the marketplaces and streets throughout sub-Saharan Africa
has been guided by one of two major goals.
First, feminist scholars have sought
insights into fundamental questions about the relationship between capitalism
(or "economic development") and patriarchy. Historical references
to powerful market "queens" in precolonial West Africa, for
example, generated debate about whether customary exchange and property
relations gave women in general the means to accumulate wealth and status
or whether, like today, gendered access to resources limited opportunities
for all but a small minority of women. Although the frustratingly sketchy
historical record may leave this particular debate unresolved, contemporary
observations of more and more women throughout the continent turning to
petty trade out of economic desperation are beyond dispute. In the current
era of structural adjustment, economic reforms intended to "unleash"
capitalist development have not freed women from the gender norms that
grant them heavy domestic responsibilities but few resources or freedoms.
For many, then, small-time commerce represents one of the few if not only
options for survival.
A key question now has become to
understand how women working even under this bleak imperative can find
in the marketplace a measure of status, autonomy and solidarity--how,
in other words, they find in trading, if not necessarily an escape from
poverty, then perhaps the means to challenge oppressive gender norms.
Also needed is more attention to differentiation and stratification between
and within groups of traders. The many ethnographies of small-time vendors
and the relatively fewer accounts of commercial high-rollers (the "Mama
Benzes") tend not by themselves to explain what configurations of
culture and political economy are most conducive to successful women s
trading, either on an individual or community level.
The second common concern underlying
research on African market women is that of employment and food security
in rapidly growing cities. Some of the earliest studies of the so-called
informal sector, sponsored by the International Labor Organization, showed
that a much higher proportion of the urban population than previously
realized was making a living in small-scale street, market, and home-based
trades. Since then, this proportion has, if anything, increased as urban
populations continue to grow faster than formal-sector labor demand (especially
under structural adjustment mandates to "rationalize" employment
in industry and civil service). In addition to providing jobs for both
women and men, informal commerce also of course brings food to otherwise
poorly serviced neighborhoods of African cities. Except perhaps in South
Africa, supermarkets play a minor role in urban provisioning, with most
foodstuffs, especially fresh foods, moving instead through the dense and
intricate circuits of regional and local traders. These "middlemen"
(often women) are often criticized for inefficiency and sometimes prosecuted
for presumed hoarding or unfair pricing, but no government or private
corporation has succeeded in distributing such a volume and diversity
of foodstuffs as broadly or as affordably as informal traders.
Feminist researchers on African
food supply have observed that customary circuits of food commerce endure
at least in part because they are run by women who, like the classic "self-exploiting"
peasant, work long hours for very little, and for whom the bottom line
is survival. Ironically, these women traders stubborn persistence has
made them easy to neglect. Compared to development aid targeted either
to farmers (male or female) or to other kinds of informal enterprise (i.e.,
construction, small-scale industry) programs to assist women traders are
rare, and often limited to infrastructural improvements, like new plumbing
and roofing in the marketplaces. Although these help, recent research
indicates that the critical food-security issue for urban consumers is
not marketplace sanitation so much as the financial security of the traders
themselves, which has typically suffered under the austerity conditions
of structural adjustment. Not only do these women s earnings directly
feed numerous dependents, but they also buy the next day s stocks, and
allow credit for cash-poor customers. If a trader goes broke, in other
words, it is not only she who goes hungry. Unfortunately, the financial
instability common among small-scale food vendors reflects structural
conditions much harder to fix than dilapidated marketplaces.
Clearly, research on African market
women addresses issues of concern well beyond African studies. An edited
collection such as African Market Women and Economic Power therefore offers
a useful introduction to anyone not familiar with the by now quite sizeable
literature. Its 10 chapters cover both historical and contemporary material
drawn from West, East and Southern Africa. All are concerned with how
prevailing political economic conditions--whether those of colonialism
or structural adjustment--as well as gender ideologies affect market women
s work; several also emphasize the contribution women traders make to
national economic development.
The strongest articles in the collection
(by Catherine VerEcke, Claire Robertson, and Jeanne Downing) all use comparative
data, albeit in quite different ways. They are effective because they
show concretely how particular cultural or political-economic variables
(i.e., Islam, colonial urban policy) explain regional and local differences
in women s marketing activities.
Robertson s article, comparing the
strong commercial tradition of Ga women in the Ghanaian capital of Accra
with the more crisis-driven trade activity among the Kikuya of Kenya,
is particularly sophisticated. She argues that the "comparative advantage"
of the former lies in the fact that, for a variety of reasons, multiple
generations of Ga women live and work together in Accra, and consider
trade a right and custom as well as a necessity. Neither indigenous household
structure nor colonial native policies in Kenya historically facilitated
the development of intragenerational women s commercial enterprises, but
Robertson finds evidence that contemporary poverty and marital instability
are forcing women to change how and where they live and work. The result
is that although they are poorer they are also, like their Ghanaian counterparts,
more economically autonomous of men, and more committed to that autonomy.
This is precisely the kind of analysis that sheds light on the dynamic
between gender and economic change. VerEcke s chapter details a more microlevel
study of Islamic Northern Nigeria and Downing s macrolevel analysis of
Southern Africa, both with interesting new findings.
Unfortunately, some of the articles
are quite weak, and seem more interested in portraying their subjects
in a positive if not heroic light than in contributing anything to existing
knowledge. Whereas the introduction claims that all the chapters are based
on original research, a few of them make scant reference to the authors
own findings, and instead rely heavily on oftentimes inappropriate quotes
from outdated secondary sources. Others contain more evidence of fieldwork,
but no new observations; they simply remark (as did the earliest studies
in the 1970s) that the market women work hard to feed their families,
and contribute to economic development. All very true, but after several
reiterations not very useful.
The sense of redundancy is compounded by the fact that many of the articles begin by reviewing the same standard "women in development" literature; the editors could have more effectively put this material in the introduction. In addition, their range of case studies should have extended beyond anglophone Africa. In francophone West and Central Africa especially, women traders have long participated prominently in multiple forms of commerce as well as national and local politics, but against a backdrop of laws, policies and commercial structures formed under quite different colonial administrations. They deserve at least some mention in a book that claims to cover the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.