Zaire Table of Contents
Women in Zaire in the 1990s have not attained a position of full equality with men. Although the Mobutu regime has paid lip service to the important role of women in society and although women enjoy some legal rights (e.g., the right to own property and the right to participate in the economic and political sectors), custom and legal constraints still limit their opportunities.
The inferiority of women was embedded in the indigenous social system and reemphasized in the colonial era. The colonial-era status of African women in urban areas was low. Adult women were legitimate urban dwellers if they were wives, widows, or elderly. Otherwise they were presumed to be femmes libres (free women) and were taxed as income-earning prostitutes, whether they were or not. From 1939 to 1943, over 30 percent of adult Congolese women in Stanleyville (now Kisangani) were so registered. The taxes they paid constituted the second largest source of tax revenue for Stanleyville.
Opportunities for wage labor jobs and professional positions remained rare even after independence. For example, in Kisangani there were no women in law, medicine, or government in 1979, nineteen years after independence. Moreover, educational opportunities for girls remained constricted compared with those for boys.
By the 1990s, women had made strides in the professional world, and a growing number of women now work in the professions, government service, the military, and the universities. But they remain underrepresented in the formal work force, especially in higher-level jobs, and generally earn less than their male counterparts in the same jobs.
In addition, certain laws clearly state that women are legally subservient to men. A married woman must have her husband's permission to open a bank account, accept a job, obtain a commercial license, or rent or sell real estate. Article 45 of the civil code specifies that the husband has rights to his wife's goods, even if their marriage contract states that each spouse separately owns his or her own goods.
Adapting to this situation, urban women have exploited commercial opportunities in the informal economy, outside of men's control. They generally conduct business without bank accounts, without accounting records, and without reporting all of their commerce. Anthropologist Janet MacGaffey's study of enterprises in Kisangani showed that 28 percent of the city's large business owners not dependent on political connections were women; these women specialized in long-distance distribution and retail and semi-wholesale trade. About 21 percent of the retail stores in the commercial and administrative zone of the city were women's, and women dominated the market trade.
Rural women find fewer such strategies available. Saddled with the bulk of agricultural work, firewood gathering, water hauling, and child care, they have generally seen an increase in their labor burdens as the economy has deteriorated. In Zaire's eastern highlands, conditions have grown particularly severe. The statepromoted expansion of cash-crop hectarage for export, particularly of coffee and quinine, has reduced the amount and quality of land available for peasant household food-crop production. Plantations owned by the politico-commercial and new commercial elites have increasingly expanded onto communal lands, displacing existing food crops with cash crops. And within peasant households, men's control of the allocation of household land for export and food crops has led to greater use of land for export crops and the diminution of women's access to land and food crops.
Even when male producers turn to cultivating food crops, the household does not necessarily profit nutritionally. Food needed for household consumption is frequently sold for cash, cash needed to pay for daily necessities, clothes, school fees, taxes, and so on. Higher-priced and nutritionally superior food crops such as sorghum are frequently sold by producers who eat only their cheaper, less nutritious food crops such as cassava. Widespread malnutrition among children has resulted.
Among groups where women have more power, the situation is less severe. Among the Lemba, for example, women not only have more say in determining what is grown but also in what is consumed. In a country where the most widespread pattern is for the men to be served the best food first, with the remainder going to women and children, Lemba women traditionally set aside choice food items and sauces for their own and their children's consumption before feeding the men their food. Their nutritional status and that of their children is correspondingly better.
Rural women have arguably borne the brunt of state exactions. In some cases, women have banded together to resist the rising tolls and taxes imposed on them. Political scientist Katharine Newbury studied a group of Tembo women growers of cassava and peanuts west of Lac Kivu who successfully protested against the imposition of excessive collectivity taxes and market taxes levied on them when they went to market. The local chief was hostile. But a sympathetic local Catholic church, which provided a forum for meetings and assistance in letter writing, was helpful, as was the ethnic homogeneity of the group. Although they could not nominate a woman for election to the local council, they did succeed in voting for males friendly to their position. The newly elected councillors hastened to suspend the taxes and the tolls.
Not all women's organizations have been equally successful. In Kisangani the Association of Women Merchants (Association des Femmes Commerçantes--Afco) failed to advance the interests of the assembled women merchants. The group instead turned into a vehicle for class interests, namely those of the middle-class president. MacGaffey clearly saw the case as one of the triumph of class solidarity over gender solidarity.
A continuing challenge for women has been the limited integration of women's experience and perspectives into the development initiatives of Western development agencies. As Brooke Schoepf has documented, little effort has been made to create agricultural extension networks for women, who have continued to contribute the overwhelming bulk of agricultural labor. In addition, project production goals rarely have taken into account the effect of the withdrawal of women's time from current food production and household work to meet the goals of the new programs. Development in such a context often has meant a step backward rather than a step forward from the perspective of the women being "developed."
Data as of December 1993
Zaire Table of Contents