Africa Today 49.2 (2002) vii-xiv
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Introduction to Women, Language, and Law in Africa II:
Gender and Relations of Power
Beverly J. Stoeltje
Women in most African societies are routinely engaged in work that provides support and sustenance for themselves and their children, yet restrictions based on the structure of power relations often limit their access to resources. Though well known to Africans generally and to Africanist scholars, these circumstances are frequently ignored by large-scale economic programs, development projects, formal education, and other modern efforts intended to enhance economic and political conditions of life in Africa. 1 The failure to consider the indigenous organization of social and economic activity, especially gender, extends to what Achille Mbembe has identified as a sphere of African contemporary life that has been neglected, involving sexuality, pleasure, and lifestyle. He argues for the study of sex and gender as important sites for the performance of identity because "sex and gender norms have historically been central to the structure of power relations and to the organization of cultural categories in Africa" (2001:7).
Despite the burden of responsibility women bear and the obstacles they encounter, they have developed strategies for coping effectively because they do understand the structure of power relations. At individual and institutional levels, African women are taking an active role in adapting to changing circumstances. Central to their efforts are legal processes and institutions, both those defined as "customary" and those of the state. In some instances, they achieve success, and in others, they encounter insurmountable obstacles. Some individuals struggle to enhance their own situation, and others are organizing to effect change in society as a whole. Everywhere, however, women encounter legal practices and institutions that embody power relations. It is this encounter that served as the focus of the conference.
Women, Language, and Law in Africa
The articles in this volume of Africa Today constitute the second special issue devoted to publication of the papers delivered to the Conference, held at Indiana University, 1 April 2000. 2 The authors take up specific legal issues, organizations, and institutions as they affect women in specific locations in Africa. Addressing questions that range from refugee status to land tenure, [End Page vii] these studies reveal how women are coping with survival and what efforts women are undertaking to exercise citizenship. The focus of the articles in the first special issue of Africa Today, vol. 49.1, was the actual performance of litigation in several different legal settings, with special attention to the role of language. In a close examination of specific cases and selected concepts of law, the articles demonstrate the complexities and ambiguities as well as the gender ideologies that characterize the actual performance of any legal case.
Rights, Refugees, Reform, and Resources
International agencies, women's organizations, and development workshops take center stage in this issue, as the authors analyze discourse, gender ideologies, and policies as they are enacted within these contexts. At times, these efforts converge with, and at other times they campaign against, customary practices, but the authors' perspectives allow for an exploration of the successes and failures of particular efforts designed to introduce change or strategies employed for survival, all concerned with legal issues. Dorothy Hodgson's paper examines the multinational organization Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), reviewing its accomplishments since 1990, when it was organized. Emphasizing that it acknowledges the specificity of cultural and socioeconomic conditions that vary from one African state to another, she argues that the organization has successfully implemented a range of concrete programs for the empowerment of women throughout Africa. Continuing to focus on a theme from the first special issue of Africa Today, Hodgson provides a useful overview of the concept of women's rights as human rights. Moreover, she discusses women's activism in Africa and explains the significance of the shift from a language of "need" to the language of "human rights" in activists' discourse. Particularly valuable is her discussion of WiLDAF's integration of regional and international activity with the appropriate efforts in specific...