Building a Women’s Movement in Southern Africa


By helping lay the groundwork, we’ve seen a rise in young women leaders in southern Africa.

Southern Voices
Southern Voices

For the past few decades, the women’s movement in southern Africa has been under scrutiny for having lost its vigour. Back in the 1990s, the movement fought gender inequality in private and public spaces, and many governments listened.

International treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also known as the “international bill of rights for women,” were ratified. Governments reformed laws that discriminated by gender, such as inheritance laws. Women’s ministries and gender policies were established.

But a decade later, the power of the women’s movement seemed to be waning. While major leaders and activists were brought in by governments to lead the new formations that had been put in place, overall governance structures remained largely patriarchal. The women’s movement, now largely driven by civil society and non-governmental organizations, chose approaches that provided for women without addressing the reasons why women were lacking in the first place.

Tensions grew between old and young activists, with few young women occupying meaningful roles in the movement. Some young women viewed feminism as aggressive and uncomfortable, and did not like being called feminists even if they were involved in women’s rights work. Others reported that they were interested in being part of the movement, but there were few entry points to make a contribution.
It became clear that the movement had not sufficiently invested in the young women’s involvement. Fresh perspectives were badly needed.
In response to these developments, the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa launched the Young Women’s Voices Campaign in 2009.

The campaign raises the political consciousness of young women and promotes their voices in the women’s rights agenda at all levels. Components of the campaign include the Southern African Young Feminist Leadership Course, the Southern African Young Women’s Platform, capacity building for young women’s networks and formations, and publishing a special issue of BUWA! Journal.

The Southern African Young Feminist Leadership Course looks at the meaning of feminism and how it shapes the politics of our everyday lives. It examines why men dominate in various spheres of life and what women can do to change this. By the end of 2014, the course will have been conducted in six countries, with over 400 young women participating.

By helping lay the groundwork, we’ve seen a rise in young women leaders in southern Africa. Some course participants have gone on to create new organizations addressing gender imbalance. OSISA has been there to provide support such as seed funding and advocacy tools. We aim to build these groups’ capacities so that they can sustain themselves beyond our support.


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