In 1985, African women tried to warn us about a world in crisis. Did we listen?
Today the world is in crisis. Thus begins the Nairobi Manifesto, a manifesto written not today, but in 1985. Yet despite the distance of almost three decades, there are similarities between then and now – or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the crises that were still only emerging in the past have taken on an explosive, terrifying form in the present.
The Nairobi Manifesto was a byproduct of the third meeting of the United Nations Decade for Women, held in Nairobi, Kenya, in July, 1985. The conference brought sixteen thousand women to Kenya to discuss and assess the UN’s advocacy for women’s rights and development. At the end of the conference, they produced an official document, a long, academic policy statement awkwardly-titled the “Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women.”
Meanwhile, concurrent with the official events of the conference, African women participated in a series of workshops and gatherings focusing on their specific challenges, conditions, and predicaments. Led by members of the organizations such as the Association of African Women for Research and Development, Women in Nigeria, and Zambia Association for Research and Development, they initiated a discussion on, for, and by African women. They identified a number of critical concerns, urgent issues that not only impeded the economic development and political autonomy of African women, but that also threatened Africa – and the planet – as a whole. The concerns included the crisis of Apartheid in South Africa and colonialism in Namibia; the crisis of food, water, and capitalist agriculture gripping the entire continent; the crisis of financial exploitation and structural adjustment, of fundamentalism, and of population displacement and migration. All of these concerns were codified in the powerful, collectively-written Nairobi Manifesto. Reproduced below, the Nairobi Manifesto is a testament to the truism that Black women tried to warn us. And yet today, the world is in crisis.
THE NAIROBI MANIFESTO
Today the world is in crisis. The impact of this crisis on the countries and people of the Third World has been very severe. In this context, Africa is the most affected continent as this economic crisis is aggravated by natural disasters such as drought in many parts of the continent. However, the major problems faced by Africa are external domination and the misplaced priorities of existing development strategies resulting in internal mismanagement. We note the disproportionate bias of the national budget in favor of military expenditure at the expense of basic human needs and services. Past experience has shown that the total emancipation of women and their full participation in the governance of their societies depend largely on the socio-economic and political conditions in which they live. It is this realization and the need to express our deep concern about the present crisis and to propose an alternative vision that moves us, African Women at the Non-Governmental Forum, Nairobi 85, unanimously to issue the following manifesto.
The UN Decade for Women: 1975-1985
As the Decade comes to an end, we affirm that the United Nations Decade for Women, with its bold themes: Development, Peace and Equality, has brought some gains to women and has sharpened our understanding of the multiplicity of issues that still need to be addressed in order to reach these objectives. More concretely, the decade has drawn world attention to the fact that gender hierarchy is as grave a stumbling block as the questions of class, race and ethnicity, on the road to the emancipation of humanity.
Thus a decade can only highlight the complexity of the problems and is by far too short to solve these problems. We recognize the steps taken by African governments to promote women's advancement, such as the creation of national machineries and other projects. These steps have not been adequate to liberate women in Africa. In opposition to efforts to relegate the concerns of women to isolated projects and to limit them to the arena of social welfare, we assert that issues of concern to women are inextricably political.
The apartheid policies in South Africa, the illegal occupation of Namibia and the aggression against the frontline states are totally unacceptable to all African people, particularly to the mothers and daughters of Africa. African people can, and will, fight and struggle for the liberation of all of Africa until all of Africa is free from apartheid, imperialism, economic exploitation and settler colonialism. African women have borne the brunt of the exploitative relationships resulting from apartheid and have been in the fore front of the struggle, and have borne new generations to continue that struggle.
We appreciate the world outcry against apartheid and aggression in Southern Africa. However, our sisters and brothers, friends and supporters around the world must be prepared to move beyond mere condemnation of the immoral, exploitative and genocidal policies and practices of apartheid ~ which cannot be justified by any sane, rational person. They must be prepared to give material and concrete support to this struggle for self-determination.
We therefore urge all conscious, progressive, freedom loving people to join in the call for mandatory economic, military, and technological sanctions against the government of South Africa within their own countries as one concrete measure of support. We recognize, however, that even this is not enough. They must also be prepared to provide material support both to the freedom fighters in this struggle for self-determination and to the frontline states so that they can continue to stand firm against the aggression of South Africa. Within this struggle women's organizations should play a leading role in the implementation of these sanctions and act in consistent solidarity with the specific struggle of women within the liberation movement. We affirm the need to address the emancipation of women and national liberation as simultaneous issues.
We consider the time ripe to stop fruitless dialogue on the South Africa/ Namibia issues. We, as Africans, have to realize that no amount of constructive disengagement can free our people from aggression and human degradation in Southern Africa. However, the inability of African leaders o go beyond dialogue on apartheid in South Africa is understood to be largely due to the fact that the economies of most African countries are tied to the apron strings of the multinational corporations which fuel apartheid policies in South Africa. In this light, we consider the IMF as representing a further mortgage of political and economic independence which would guarantee the self-determination of the future of Africa by African people themselves.
We, African women gathered in Nairobi 85, recognize the detrimental impact of apartheid on women and children and commend the women's roles in their bid to free humanity from the shackles of oppression. We consider the women's noble roles exemplary: a source of inspiration for large-scale participation by women in activities affecting the societies in which they live. We declare our unalloyed commitment to the cause for which they are fighting. Finally, we recognize the connection between the struggles against settler colonialism in Palestine, those of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and the struggle for national sovereignty of the people in Nicaragua and the rest of Central and South America.
Exploitative Monetary Policies
In the rest of Africa, the colonial and neo-colonial experience - the major feature of which was external orientation – has mostly benefited the countries of the North at the expense of those of the South. In addition, development strategies which depend on external finance, technology and advice have contributed to such current economic and social crises in Africa as the food crisis, unemployment, massive displacement of populations, political and religious fundamentalism, and very damaging adjustment policies as a result of loan conditionality clauses. We call particular attention to the current restrictive monetary policies that are being imposed on African countries by international financial and aid donor agencies.
These policies include higher school costs, cuts in social services, retrenchments in employment, removal of almost all state subsidies, higher cost of food, etc. These measures affect the majority of the population, especially the poor. However, given gender hierarchies within the household which result in unequal distribution of resources, work and income, women bear the brunt of these policies.
Lower education enrollment and higher costs of schooling mean even less access to education for girls and women. Cuts in social services mean more work and longer hours for women who have to care for the sick and the old. Rising unemployment means both that women lose jobs first and that because of the lack of employment and other income generating activities women are forced into low paying jobs
or prostitution in order to ensure family survival, as evidenced by the fact that in all African countries, women form the majority of the so-called "informal sector". Higher food prices require women to labor even more for income generation and in family maintenance activities. In managing to ensure their own and their families' survival under these conditions, women have demonstrated their resourcefulness, and underlined their importance to national survival.
Agriculture and the Food Crisis
Today most of Africa suffers from one of the worst agricultural and food crises in recorded history. The main feature of this crisis is the lack of adequate food, water and fuel, all of which are vital concerns in women's lives and responsibilities. This crisis is a result of both colonial and postcolonial export-oriented agricultural policies which failed to address the issue of national and regional food self-sufficiency.
A concrete result of this policy is the total neglect of local methods of production and food crops that are mostly produced by women. Of equal significance is unequal access to factors of production for the majority of agricultural producers, particularly women. Similarly, the lack of innovation in areas of food processing, storage and marketing, renders women's tasks extremely arduous and time-consuming. Thus, we emphasize that women and children remain victims of food shortage, famine and drought.
However, we strongly deplore the current western media-created image of the famine and especially its use to portray Africa as a continent unable to feed itself or to devise its own development strategy. This imagery, in addition to aggravating Africa's dependence on external food and technological inputs, underestimates the continent's achievement in agricultural production, especially women's capacity to feed the population.
We further deplore the selective attribution of famine and the overall food crisis to population growth for which women are blamed, and subsequent efforts to control their fertility. We affirm the right of African women to exercise their reproductive functions.
Finally, we emphasize the fact that the solution of the food crisis will not be achieved through the receipt of external handouts but through the adoption of a development strategy that gives priority of national food self-sufficiency and equitable distribution of food to all sectors of society. Such a strategy must recognize the central role played by women in food production, processing, distribution and marketing.
Displacement of Populations
The world-wide economic recession which has disrupted the economies of Africa has triggered internal and external political unrest and wars resulting in the massive displacement of populations as refugees. Women and children are the most affected by the consequent immense hardships in foreign environments as they often lack the requisite skills. Repressive immigration policies have cropped up to deal with this massive refugee problem. Equally unsatisfactory are the short-term relief measures in the form of food aid and refugee camp settlements. Most urgently needed is the identification and elimination of the factors contributing to the massive displacement of people, with a view to seeking long-term solutions.
Last, but not the least, is the denial of citizenship rights to men and women married to non-nationals. Therefore a call is made to review all such discriminatory immigration laws imposed on displaced and immigrant populations with respect to rights of travel, residence, employment and other civil liberties. Measures should also be taken to counteract potential conflict and aggression between refugees and their host communities.
In most Third World countries today, there is resurgence of religious, cultural and political fundamentalism which is in part due to the economic crisis they are experiencing and also to the failure of the governments of these countries to establish democratic regimes that allow people to participate in the building of an egalitarian society. Fundamentalism expresses itself in alarming reinforcement of ancient and conservative socio-cultural religious mores which are antithetical to the progress and development of the people, particularly women. Fundamentalism is retrogressive in that it lays the foundations for the establishment of an authoritarian and militaristic society. For women it is particularly dangerous because it questions the rights women have acquired during this decade. In the same vein, fundamentalism scapegoats women for any infringement or decline of traditional society, even though these transformations are often inherent in the very process of change.
It is widely recognized that Africa is in need of an alternative development as exemplified by the declaration of the Lagos "Plan of Action.” However, despite its unanimous adoption by the Organization of African Unity, the Plan has not been implemented. A major stumbling block has been the imposition of development strategies by external forces to whom Africa's self-reliant development would be inimical. Africans should insist on their right to define and implement an autonomous development strategy. We recognize that such an alternative development strategy requires certain preconditions. In the first place, we call for the cancellation of debt payments as these have not benefited the majority of Africa's peoples, least of all women. We note that it is unrealistic to expect viable development to be initiated while the burdens of IMF and World Bank loans are weighing on the daily lives of the poor, especially the women. Similarly, we deplore the internal misallocation of resources and the concentration of benefits in the hands of a few, while the majority, most of whom are women, suffer from absolute poverty.
Women, as the group most adversely affected by the existing development strategies, will have to be in the forefront of the definition of a new self-reliant and people-centered development. This strategy will have to recognize and build on their creative potential and render women equal and active participants. Because women have been victims of multi-faceted oppression, the fundamental principle informing women's vision is the establishment of a democratic society free of all forms of exploitation and oppression.
“The Nairobi Manifesto,” AAWORD in Nairobi '85: The Crisis in Africa and Its Impact on Women AAWORD Occasional Papers Series No. 3 (Dakar, Senegal: Association of African Women for Research and Development, 1986).
All images from Janet Golden, UN Women’s Conference – Nairobi, 1985.