#TA10 Blog Series

Looking back, Looking ahead: African Philanthropy for Socio-Economic and Political Justice in the 21st Century

Women’s Rights in Africa’s Changing Development Space

Women’s Rights in Africa’s Changing Development Space

The post-Beijing consensus on women’s rights and the need to continue engaging in related struggles continues across the continent, and is no longer subterranean Instead it has become one of the central aspects of the struggle for emancipation. Indeed, Thomas Sankara, one of Africa’s finest sons had, prior to Beijing already declared that:

“Inequality can be done away with only by establishing a new society, where men and women will enjoy equal rights…Thus, the status of women will improve only with the elimination of the system that exploits them”[1].


The African Union’s 2016 theme of human rights with a focus on women, gives us a unique opportunity in this our 10th anniversary milestone, to reflect on the progress made with regards to promoting gender equality across the continent. It is also a moment to reflect on some of the initiatives we have embarked on as part of a wider attempt to support the struggle for women’s empowerment across the continent. In Africa, women make up slightly over 55% of the population, thus it is only logical that a commitment to gender equality and women’s rights would promote inclusive development and democratic governance in Africa. Inequality on the basis of gender, is one of the biggest challenges facing the continent today, and a major deterrent to progress. We therefore, commend the AU for elevating this issue. 

Over the last 70 years, we have seen a significant growth in the feminist movement, with significant – though often uneven – transformations in policy and practice regarding gender justice. Despite all the witnessed efforts and progress, we still find many challenges in dealing with entrenched patriarchal systems and structures that continue to restrict women, intersecting with oppressions of class, ethnicity, religion, national status and differing abilities amongst others.  At our founding in 2006, TrustAfricaestablished its roots in an Africa that was struggling to find her voice. Many were speaking on her behalf, most of whom were themselves non-Africans, but speaking all the same. The Economist, for example spoke of a “hopeless continent”. Like many others whose voices were heard at that time, they were on the outside of Africa’s economic, human and social reality, thus the need to promote ‘African agency’ could not have been more apparent. In response, we quickly set to work on enhancing the contribution of African civil society to make the continent more equitable by leveraging African and global resources to address key political, economic and social challenges. For TrustAfrica, developing African agency also meant cultivating women’s agency, and therefore our programing has always emphasised mainstreaming gender in all our initiatives.

The link between poverty and human rights, more specifically women’s rights, in line with the theme of the AU Summit, is not lost on us. Beginning in 2009 we launched our MDG3 project in partnership with Government of Netherland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to support women’s empowerment. Our initiative was implemented in 7 countries, namely Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Niger, and Senegal, focussing on reducing gender based violence and increasing women’s participation in political processes. The abuse and discrimination of women is a well-documented developmental challenge, but we celebrate the fact that we have contributed towards the strengthening of women focused organisations and also helped to sharpen their advocacy capacities for policy changes and to defend women’s rights in multiple ways.

Furthermore, between 2012 and 2014, TrustAfrica under the Zimbabwe Alliance initiative supported initiatives to strengthen women’s rights and gender equality in Zimbabwe’s struggle for democracy targeting specifically the constitutional reform process and the historic 2013 general elections. ZimAlliance engaged the services of a Constitutional Law and Gender expert to support the advocacy efforts around gender based constitutional reform. TrustAfrica’s interventions were underpinned by a realization that the character and context of the democratic deficit in Zimbabwe was not defined merely by the state’s failure to accord due democratic rights and freedoms to citizens in general, but also specifically by acute shortcomings on gender equality and suppression of women’s rights. Where the rights of women are undermined by the State, how can they even begin to fight to overcome poverty? 

Beginning in 2009, TrustAfrica has run programs on agriculture advocacy, strengthening the focus on women’s rights and gender equality in the development of agriculture policy, working in seven (7) countries – namely, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, Uganda, Nigeria and Kenya. In our analysis, though women make up the bulk of Africa’s smallholder farmers, little has been done to improve conditions for women smallholder farmers in terms of their access to inputs, extension services and markets. In Ghana for instance, we found that women smallholders often face challenges in accessing extension services from male extension officers, limiting their ability to improve their productivity by gaining new information and skills. Our broad goal is to create a movement that not only advocates for African governments to honour their pledge,committing at least 10% of their annual budget towards agriculture but to further contribute to ensuring the allocation is utilised efficiently. Whilst the CAADP agreement forms the basis of engagement, TrustAfrica supports its partners and feminist groups to lobby their respective states to factor in gender into their budgeting and policy implementation. We also, alongside others, provided support for the two most recent Africa Feminist Forums held in Dakar and Harare and also the Zimbabwe chapter of the Africa Feminist Forum.

These initiatives and the related organisations that we supported are a part of the ecosystem we have helped to nurture to support the African woman on the continent. Admittedly it could all be seen by others as a drop in the ocean especially if measured by the amount of expended philanthropy dollars. We saw the need to be more catalytic in our approach in terms of supporting ongoing networking and providing opportunities for reflecting and learning; and most of these initiatives still exist outside of the scope of the projects we funded. The TrustAfrica approach, that centres African agency provides space for organisations to innovate, and design the projects that address the needs of the grantee’s constituency, as opposed to a top down grant making process. As one of our grantees once put it, “I wonder if funding and funders like TrustAfrica can come in earlier and give women-led organizations a good amount of time and resources to design with their communities, across their organizations, to innovate, plot and plan together”.

As already mentioned, our approach has been to mainstream gender in all our programming and in the process we have tried to ensure that women are engaged and supported across all the sectors of developmental efforts. With this work TrustAfrica has contributed to reshaping the development and philanthropy landscape in Africa to be more representative of all of the African voices, including those of women. In addition, the emergence of dedicated women’s rights funds hopefully also means more resources flowing towards ending the historical marginalization of women’s rights issues. The African Women’s Development Fund, for example, is now playing a key leadership role in shaping the understanding and practice of African philanthropy.

However, the paradox is that while the need for advocacy is evident, the space for civil society is shrinking. The recent AU decision to ban civil society from the June summit is sadly reflective of a new trend of restrictive national laws. At the same time, we have also observed that African philanthropy is gaining prominence and becoming more active in Africa’s development agenda than ever before. As the continent produces more African millionaires and high net worth individuals, a new source of funds is becoming available to advance Africa’s development. This opens up a space that previously did not exist for an engaged citizenry to promote a culture of responsible participation that demands improved performance by public officials. The 2013/15 Ebola response is one such example: it demonstrated the unprecedented collective power of Africans – individuals, corporations and diaspora standing as one to take the lead in the face of a humanitarian crisis. It was and is a testament of the power and purpose of African agency.

 In looking back, we see the opportunities that are available to improve our work, and our impact as a grant making organisation. Despite the current contestations and seemingly shrinking CSO space, we still see great opportunities for transformation and increased participation by Africans in the Philanthropy sector. As we look to the next 10years, we plan to continue working with the feminist movement in our efforts to fight oppression and provide sustainable solutions for African Development. Our hope is not only to partner with these organisations, but also to create a strong network across the continent of organisations that collaborate, and support each other. As Akwasi Aidoo, TrustAfrica’s founding executive director stated, TrustAfrica is in “the business of making a forest out of trees and building a dense ecosystem of organizations, communities, and borderless fields”.



[1]Quoted from ‘The revolution cannot triumph without the emancipation of women’ speech, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, International Women’s Day commemoration,  March 8, 1987.

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