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Justice from an African woman’s standpoint
by Damaris M'Mworia

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The economic and political crisis facing most of the African countries reveals that, even though there is a lot of scholarly work on the nature of justice, the majority of the people in Africa are yet to experience full human life. The faces of malnourished children in the streets of many cities in Africa, and the choking statistics of death as a result of starvation and other poverty related diseases challenge traditional definitions of justice and demand accountability. Due to the implementation of the structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, African countries’ economies have declined, which makes it difficult for the majority of them to access basic necessities such as food, water, medical facilities and education. The decline in health care services, education facilities, the growing shortage of food, and insecurity, force us to question the relevance of this global economy and who benefits from it.

Poverty combined with gender discrimination intensifies women’s suffering and limits their chances of competing for limited resources. Moreover, scarcity of resources makes it difficult for women to fulfill their traditional roles as caretakers and providers. Last year in the Kenya Daily Nation (Feb 22, 2002), Mr. Maalim Mohammed, the then medical service minister, observed that there was an increase in maternal mortality and prenatal complications in Kenya. Mr. Mohammed lamented that medical standards had fallen to an embarrassingly low level. The Kenya Daily Nation (October 17, 2003) reported the case of a woman who gave birth to four premature babies, yet it was a long time before an incubator was found for them. This mother told of her struggle to get to the hospital and her frustrations when she was sent away because there was no incubator in the hospital for the babies. She had to wait several hours before transport to the provincial hospital was available. As she waited at the police station, this mother complained of pain and hunger, yet there was no food for her. It is difficult to imagine the anguish of having no food after delivering four babies let alone waiting for hours with four babies whose lives depended upon how fast the vehicle arrived. Unfortunately, such stories are common among poor women in Africa.

The relationship between the micro and macro economic policies is very well documented, and it is becoming clear that the suffering of women is intensified within the current global economic network. Because of the scarcity of resources and the cultural factors that limit women’s access to land and other economic resources, African women’s survival is determined by endless negotiations with a male partner or relative. This kind of economic arrangement limits these women’s choices and chances of changing their situation.

“Because of the scarcity of resources and the cultural factors that limit women’s access to land and other economic resources, African women’s survival is determined by endless negotiations with a male partner or relative.”

This paper seeks to explore what justice means to African women and which values would build such a just society. I am also interested in examining what vision of justice should guide Africans in their search for meaning and fulfillment. What should be our framework as we struggle for justice? I argue that justice can only be understood through an analysis of injustice. It is in the suffering of the oppressed people that we can see injustice and formulate ways of building a just society. The suffering of the poor also provides a criterion for us to morally interrogate our economic policies with the hope of finding out if these policies sustain or destroy life. An approach to justice from the standpoint of the poor, theologically referred to as a "preferential option for the poor," helps in avoiding assumptions and myths that are often used to justify asymmetrical power relations between the sexes and among nations. I’m arguing that justice for African women demands an analysis of their day-to-day experiences and a critique of the mechanisms that shape these experiences. Justice for African women is also the ability to name and define themselves and their suffering without any fear of being further victimized. African women’s search for justice calls for them to transcend the long held social, cultural and religious beliefs that often force them to choose between "acceptance of abuse and survival."

Limitations of global feminism

Early feminist discourse emphasized the exclusion of women in the production of knowledge and the male construction of women as the inferior "other." It argued that the world as we see it is men’s construction of reality and therefore it works to promote male interests. Through socialization, religious teaching and, sometimes, coercion, women internalize the male conception of reality and take it as their own view. I use this feminist approach to argue that African women are not only considered "other" by their male counterparts, but also by western feminists, who use their own subjective experiences as a yardstick to judge what constitutes feminist discourse.

Over-simplification and over-generalization of women’s experiences have been the cause of much tension and division within the feminist movement. Euro centric feminist thought that looks at gender as the main source of oppression for women has been criticized by postmodern feminist scholars who argue that there are very many factors that influence women’s lives, such as poverty, racism and imperialism. Colonial powers succeeded in relegating Africans into inferior positions and depicting them as lazy, primitive and uncivilized people who needed to be rescued from their ignorance. Writings by the missionaries played a major role in justifying the conquest and occupation of Africa by foreign powers.

Western feminist ideas are so pervasive that they are slowly being borrowed by some African women who want to build universal sisterhood. This is often done in an effort to ignore difference and to create a global feminist movement. For example Tanzanian Gertrude Mogella, UN Secretary-General for the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, tried to compare African women’s experiences with that of the women in Europe. She said, "Women in Europe might be looking for dishwashers, while women in Africa are looking for water with which to wash dishes, but both groups are washing dishes" (Morna 1995: 59). This is a trivialization of what is happening in Africa. Women in Africa are looking for water not to do dishes but to drink and cook with. There is a great difference between a dishwasher and water. A European woman can do without a dishwasher and survive, but an African woman cannot survive without water. One question that immediately comes to my mind is "Is it true that all these women are doing dishes?" At least one woman has water and she is trying to avoid doing dishes by having a machine to do it for her, but at whose expense? Universalizing these experiences is a failure to take seriously the experiences of the poor and to separate what is basic and necessary from what is a luxury. This kind of analysis also fails to show how rich middle class women are implicated in the suffering of poor women and how their luxury takes away basic resources from other women.

“Universalizing these experiences is a failure to take seriously the experiences of the poor and to separate what is basic and necessary from what is a luxury.”

Mariana Velverde shows the conflict between the rich and the poor in her comment that "the notion of a universal sisterhood of women obscures the conflict of interest between the woman who picks coffee beans for fifty cents a day in Brazil and the white American woman who sips coffee as she writes about women in general"(Valverde 1985, 1998). Valverde’s comment is a challenge to the rich countries to examine the relationship between their policies and the suffering of the poor and their role in the impoverishment of other women. Many African women labour day and night on coffee and tea farms yet they cannot afford the tea that they produce. This is what Karl Marx (1933), called alienation of labour, when the workers are alienated from the product of their labour. For us to understand justice for African women we have to start with their experience and use that experience to define justice. In the following section I am going to discuss how we can go about defining justice and building social structures that promote justice.

Defining and promoting justice

Liberation theologians have helped to pave the way for understanding justice by pointing out that justice must take the experiences of the poor seriously. Instead of thinking about justice in theoretical terms, we need to ask what justice means for women, for girls, for the physically handicapped and for the poor. To answer this question one has to listen to the poor and seek to understand their day-to-day experiences. Identification of the factors and mechanisms that promote and produce poverty is an important step in the struggle for justice. Justice for African women, therefore, means interrogating the social economic systems that create and reproduce relations of dependency and oppression. By unearthing social and political policies that devalue women, we will be able to see the interrelationship between the private and the public and between the personal and the political and how decisions made in New York, Washington and London affect women at the village and individual level.

The other important factor to consider when thinking of justice for Africans is that justice must be rooted in history. History is important because it provides the means for us to understand the roots of the indignities we experience and it also gives us the means to express anger, pain and frustration at the present economic system. As we encounter the poor in our society, we experience the power of anger that motivates us to stand in solidarity with those who are pushed to the margins by the institutionalized power relations in our societies. Deconstructing our history also gives us a reason to celebrate our survival despite the oppression we have experienced by providing us with memories of those who fought for justice even unto death. African history has its roots in African traditional culture, colonialism and neocolonialism. We have to analyze the effects of this history on our social institutions and on our identity. Understanding our history helps us to define ourselves not as helpless victims but as survivors who are the agents of change. It gives us not only the motivation and the courage to work for change but also a vision of what kind of society we want to strive for.

Getting to our roots can help us see how we are losing the way. For example most of the African countries have constantly tried to ape the West and to reject traditional values. Western tastes are elevated to the detriment of African tastes. When I went to Kenya in the summer, I found that those people who did not have bread for breakfast felt ashamed to serve traditional foods like boiled sweet potatoes, arrowroot, and porridge. As I reflect on these attitudes, it is becoming clear to me that there is a strong connection between the economy and people’s values and attitudes. Economic domination generates mental domination. The dominant groups need not only raw materials, but also markets for their goods. Hence they strive to control peoples’ values, attitudes and appetites. Karl Marx’ explanation of the relationship between economics and production of knowledge helps us to explain why our knowledge and values are constantly being subjugated and undermined. Marx observed that those who control the means of production also control the production of knowledge. He therefore argued that the powerful of any age will not only create a thought system that justifies their power, but will also control the material resources necessary to impose this view of reality on the less powerful (Marx 1933). The powerful justify their power by declaring their way of knowing universal and normative while, on the other hand, degrading other people’s subjective experiences.

“Marx observed that those who control the means of production also control the production of knowledge... The powerful justify their power by declaring their way of knowing universal and normative while, on the other hand, degrading other people’s subjective experiences.”

Whereas I do not want to romanticize African values, because some values have to be thrown away, I maintain that rejection of our music, our language, our food, our arts and our cultural values, shows how successful the powerful nations are in imposing their subjectivity and their way of life on us. As Africans we have to scrutinize our education systems, legal systems, religious institutions and political agenda in order to determine who benefits from them. What kind of education are we offering our youth? Is it an education that reinforces colonial ideologies depicting Africa as dark and backward? Is it an education that is irrelevant and ignorant of the needs of African peoples? What kind of values are we implanting in the minds of our growing youth? Because of Western influence many of us are beginning to think that accumulation of wealth is synonymous with human dignity. The more you have the more human you are? Otherwise how can we explain the wanton destruction of life and the neglect of the poor in our societies? I’m thinking of my home science class where we had to learn how to make cakes, sew clothes, and set a five-course dinner, when the majority of the Kenyan families did not own an oven or a sewing machine. African intellectual practice must break away from Western frameworks and seek to foster African values of humanness and interrelatedness. Deconstruction of our history helps us to see how we have adopted foreign labels to define ourselves and how these labels continue to divide us and to create boundaries that breed hatred and suspicion.

Justice for Africa must also be based on our world view and spirituality. In her book Wounds of the Spirit (1999: 4), Traci West asserts that apart from a relationship with God, spirituality includes yearning and longing for connection with community, a need for meaning and purpose in life, and a desire for unconditional affirmation of one’s personhood and an appreciation of the intangible mystical wonder of being that exists in nature and humanity. Justice must acknowledge our desire and need for connection, not only with other human beings, but also with nature and the cosmos. For African people evil is the rupture of this cosmic relationship. Adopting a Western model of individualism and unlimited consumerism does not fit into our understanding of interrelatedness. An ethic that encourages respect for human life and a desire for just relationships has the potential to eliminate unfair distribution of power and opportunities in our world. It is this spirituality of interrelatedness that should challenge the unfair gender relations that impoverish African women.

“An ethic that encourages respect for human life and a desire for just relationships has the potential to eliminate unfair distribution of power and opportunities in our world. It is this spirituality of interrelatedness that should challenge the unfair gender relations that impoverish African women.”

In his book Being Human in Africa (1994: 189), Augustine C. Musopole maintains that African spirituality is cosmic and expresses itself in the total flow of life towards other beings and realities. To be an African is to be related not only to the living but also to nature as a whole. Africans saw their survival as intrinsically bound to nature and other forces in the cosmos. Security was not in the usurping of wealth but in clinging to each other. The survival of nature is intrinsically tied to the survival of humanity. Relations of domination and exploitation must be resisted and denounced because they undermine that need for connection and relation.

Finally, justice for African women means forgiveness. In our current society the word forgiveness conjures negative images of simplistic gestures of pardon and the abuse of power by the powerful. For people who have suffered oppression, forgiveness sounds like another weapon of abuse. However, my use of forgiveness here goes beyond this simplistic understanding of forgiveness. I use it to mean "righting the wrongs". Forgiveness in this case is not a way of excusing the wrong but allowing the perpetrator or oppressor to take responsibility for his/her wrongdoing. I take the words of Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz that forgiveness is a process that includes both perpetrator and the victim. Muller-Fahrenholz says, " Forgiveness is a genuine process of encounter, of healing, of the releasing of new options for the future. Forgiveness frees the future from the haunting legacies of the past." Forgiveness, according to Muller-Fahrenholz, is a process that takes a long time to reach because it is an acceptance of wrong and taking responsibility for the wrong done. He calls this a process of disarmament on the part of the perpetrator or oppressor.

Marie Fortune (1995: 201-205) argues that memories of hurt terrorize victims of oppression and limit possibilities for healing. Forgiveness is not forgetting, but putting the memory into perspective so that it ceases to dominate the victim’s life. Fortune holds that forgiveness must be the last step and must be seen from the experience of the victim not the perpetrator. It should not be used as an immediate way to relieve guilt for wrongful action. Forgiveness is not remorse or an emotional feeling, but a conscious repentance that willingly acknowledges the wrong done. For forgiveness to take place the perpetrator has to accept responsibility, repent of his/ her wrongdoing, and if need be make restitution.

“For forgiveness to take place the perpetrator has to accept responsibility, repent of his/ her wrongdoing, and if need be make restitution.”

Most African countries are experiencing turmoil as a result of civil wars. Hatred and suspicion among members of the same country often limit any possibilities for development. I think a reconstruction and application of forgiveness might help in healing both the victims and the perpetrators and freeing possibilities for the future. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa seems to have achieved some measure of success and it can offer possibilities for the reconstruction of other countries dealing with similar problems. Bishop Tutu argues that our spirituality of obunthu should guide us in the struggle for justice because there is no future without forgiveness.


This paper has briefly discussed some elements of justice for African women. I have explained that justice must seek to benefit the weak in our society and that the suffering of the weak must be the standard for judging the morality of our social, political and economic systems. I have also argued that justice must be based on our history and spirituality. Borrowing western ideologies that are often ill fitted for our countries often exacerbate the situation. Forgiveness must be preceded by the perpetrators’ acknowledgment of wrong, repentance and willingness to make restitution if the victims need it.

Damaris M’Mworia was born and raised in Kenya. Before coming to the United States in 1999, she worked as a lecturer at Moi University teaching Religion and Ethics. She is doing doctoral studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, in the United States. Her dissertation topic is "Gender, poverty and violence against women in Kenya". Her interest is in social justice and women issues. As a Christian woman, she considers it her moral obligation and an imperative to stand on the side of those who are oppressed and to unmask the taken-for-granted assumptions about women and the poor that work to reproduce unfair gender and power relations.

Works Cited

Boff, Leonardo and Virgil Elizondo, eds. 1986. Option for the poor: Challenge to the rich countries. Edinburgh: T & T.Clark.

Fortune, Marie M. 1995. "Forgiveness the Last Step". In Violence against women and children, ed. by Carol J Adams and Marie M. Fortune. New York: Continuum.

Hollenbach, David. 1990. Justice, peace and human rights . New York: Crossroad.

em>Kenya Daily Nation , February 22, 2002 and October 17, 2003.

Lebacqz, Karen. 1987. Justice in an unjust world. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing.

Marx, Karl. Wage labor and capital. (1933). 1988. New York: International Publishers.

Mohanty, Chandra T. 1991. "Under Western Eyes". In Third World women and the politics of feminism, ed. Chandra Tapolde Mohanty et al. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Morna, Colleen Lowe. 1995. Africa Report 40 (January- February): 55-59.

Muller-Fahrenholz.1997. The art of forgiveness: Theological reflection on healing and Reconciliation, Geneva: WCC Publication.

Musope, C. Augustine. 1994. Being human in Africa: Towards an African Christian anthropology. New York: Peter Lang.

Tutu, Desmond.1999. No future without forgiveness. New York: Doubleday.

Valverde, Mariana. 1985. Sex, power and pleasure. Toronto: Women’s Press.

West, Traci C. 1999. Wounds of the spirit: Black women, violence and resistance ethics. New York and London: New York University Press.

World Bank. 1994. Adjustment in Africa . New York: Oxford University Press.

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