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Women, Church, and Sustainable Development in Africa

The brute fact that women make up more than half of the world’s population,[i] places them at the forefront in world labor markets. As a result, they constitute a critical force in worldwide economic and social development.  Given trends over last three decades, this reality is accelerating into the future. Nevertheless, women continue to be underrepresented among the world’s decision makers in areas such as voting, political, education and leadership. Power remains highly skewed towards men. Gender equality, a key factor in sustainable development continues to be a complex issue globally and particularly in Africa. What has been the role of the church and society in perpetuating this issue?

The general statistical data from the United Nations (UN) on status of women in education, labor and political participation shows that sustainable development in Africa is women dependent, as shown below:

Table 1: Percentage of educated women, women in labor, politics, and general wellbeing in African countries

Country Unskilled Labor Education Political Participation Wellbeing
Cameroon 64% 26% 31% 32%
Rwanda 68% 64% 60% 88%
Gambia 78% 48% 7.5% 28%
DRC 67% 66% 14% 48%
Malawi 75% 32% 11% 37%
Burundi 80% 43% 15% 26%
Kenya 82% 73% 42% 56%
Ethiopia 78% 51% 48% 43%

Researchers’ own analysis from UN reports on Gender 2014-2020.

The chart reveals that while women are principal resources in African countries, they are politically and educationally sidelined in most decisions making echelons that directly affect their lives.  Focusing on the final column, only Rwanda, Kenya and the DRC show a rate of women wellbeing near or above 50%.  The table also reveals that an education rate greater than 50% is connected to women’s wellbeing. Yet, it is interesting to note that generally the more women participate in politics, the higher the wellbeing level of women as established in Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda. Demonstrably, education has proved to be fundamental with far-reaching consequences for human development and the societal progress proclaimed in the Declaration for Human Rights and ratified by international, regional and national covenants. The DRC seems to be an outlier of sorts with an extremely low level of political participation, yet a relatively reasonable education and wellbeing rate.

With five of the eight countries having political participation rates of less than 32%, the table illustrates the severe underrepresentation with Gambia, DRC, Malawi and Burundi being extreme examples. Structural barriers to political decision making remain, while some gradual change can be noted. For example, there are now 16 female parliamentary speakers in Africa out of 75 legislative bodies (UN 2019). Rwanda with its 60% participation rate is recognized in its passage of gender sensitive laws and development of related policies. As a result, development is improving and womens’ wellbeing is higher.

But what are the issues that support gender gaps marginalizing women’s role in sustainable development? Foremost are patriarchal and cultural structures. Patriarchy-a social theory that defines ‘cultural reality’ is deeply ingrained in Africa. This patriarchal reasoning is illustrated daily in different social contexts, with men occupying leadership and influential positions and taking charge over what women have to say or do. This cultural logic has placed embargoes on women’s access to human rights and produced a degree of underdevelopment.

This cultural attitude extends into African Christian beliefs as well. The church-“the conscience of the society” in Africa, seem to desire that women remain in their “normal” or “proper” cultural roles. This silence could suggest that the Church is happiest with women who are supportive, domestic, uncritical, submissive regarding important issues, docile and good followers. As such, the exclusion of women from ministerial and other practices is done under the guise of preserving “tradition”. This is reflected in the gender roles that are clearly demarcated in the Catholic Church where men serve as priests and women serve as Sisters, and where women may hold senior positions as Abbess, but not Bishop, Patriarch or Pope. While this remains true, it is fascinating to oppose it to the fact that both men and women are honored as saints within the various Christian traditions. Among the women considered saints, there are contemporaries of Jesus, theologians, abbesses, mystics, doctors of the Church, founders of religious orders, military leaders, monarchs and martyrs. This seems to be sufficient evidence for the expansion of roles played by women within the life of Christianity and society. Therefore, I suggest that it is the patriarchal structures and their power to define how women are treated which intertwine compatibly with the political, economic and legal systems of a country, in turn, overriding religious history.

This paper suggests as a solution, a wide range of community-based programs and structures that would rethink the aims and goals of education, to include regional networking, formation of women-oriented organizations, development of cultural awareness and entrepreneurship programs.

Education for Sustainable Development aims to help people develop attitudes, skills and knowledge to make informed decisions. From table 1 above, Rwanda has a percentage of 64% educated women, 60% parliamentarians and 88% wellbeing of women, attaining a relative balance between these factors. Viewed against the others it is clear that denying women equal rights in education, African nations will be crippled in development and isolate the deep potential residing in at least half of their populations.

Capacities must be created to initiate and develop women’s organizations. Women need more power to advocate, even demand for their rights to create a culture that empowers them to fully contribute to development.  If women embark on informed strategies that challenge both the social and government structures of patriarchy to more gender sensitive structures, this can be achieved as reflected in the Rwandan case above. Among these, Entrepreneurship Programs for women in the informal economy is an important form of capacity building. The main goal being to help women earn a living for themselves and their families, severing their dependency on men as providers and empowering them economically. More government and Church supported vocational centers could be set up to address entrepreneurial capacities for unskilled women.

Cultural awareness programs could be put in place helping people to become aware of cultural practices that promote gender discrimination, thereby shaping a new consciousness highlighting the needs of and potential new roles for African women.

Exclusion and discrimination against women in education acts contrary to their acknowledged roles as promoters of the fullness of life intended by God. The reluctance on the part of the Church in Africa to educate women theologically is contra-productive. Veronica Rop attributes this reluctance to the Church’s linkage of theological education and the ordained male ministry, assigning lesser positions to women theologians.[ii] Anne Nasimiyu characterizes this as contributing to “The Missing Voices of Women” within the Church.[iii] Yet scripture clearly teaches that Christian women have been actively involved in the local Church as well as in civil life. Mary Magdalene, “the apostle to the apostles”, Mary the sister of Lazarus, Lydia who supported Paul among others helped grow the Church as members, “for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:16).

What would be a theological response to gender inequality? The gospels are an explicitly open doorway where women experience justice, healing, and freedom. In building His Church, Jesus chose only men as apostles. He was constrained by the societal structures, culture, and religious outlook of His times. Nevertheless, He included women in His ministry. His approach and challenge to the food regulations of the day; ceremonial washing before a meal; the taboo on talking with women, His attitude to teaching men and women as equals, are all an invitation to women to minister alongside men, exercising their talents and gifts. By so doing, Jesus makes the reign of God present, addressing the needs of women of his time as crucial to make the reign of God present.

Yet this leaves many African women questioning, how can African women be understood in relation to Jesus of Nazareth? The message of the Second Synod of the Bishops of Africa urges local churches “to go beyond the general statement of Ecclesia in Africa, and put in place concrete structures to ensure real participation of women “at appropriate levels” in the life of the Church”. This is a realization by the Synod toward treating women with dignity and justice as we read in 1 Corinthians 11:5 where St Paul recognizes the role of women as praying and prophesying. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 12, God’s gifts of ministry are distributed to all members of the people of God, without regard to gender. Being aware of such gifts in its members requires the Church and society to be more inclusive. This is why Teresa Okure urges that we “become like the Church of the New Testament”.[iv]

In conclusion, the call is for a Church that both collaborates with and, in some cases, advocates independently from African governments, at the same time, one that always seeks hungrily to empower women.

[i] https://www.unfpa.org/data/world-population-dashboard

[ii] Rop, Veronica. “Giving a Voice to African Women through Education,” in “Hogan and Orobator, Feminist Catholic Theological Ethics, N.Y.: Orbis Books 2014:48

[iii] Nasimiyu, Anne, “The Missing Voices of Women”, in Keenan, ed., Catholic Theological Ethics: Past, Present and Future: Trento. Orbis Books, 2011:107 N.Y.:Orbis Books.  2011:107

[iv] Okure, Teresa. “Becoming the Church of the New Testament,” in Orobator ed., The Church We Want. Orbis Books, 2016:95