Implications of urbanization for the women of East Africa

by Loren B. Landau

[topics] [YWD Main Index]

"When distinct economic, social, and cultural systems are involved, ... migration is co-terminus with social change" (See Tienda and Booth, 51).

The complexity of these changes can be seen as Kenya and Tanzania 'modernize' their economic and political systems, and thousands of women move to the cities and away from the rural lands they have long occupied, a contributing factor to the doubling of the urban population in both countries since 1970 (African Statistical Yearbook). Such massive shifts, coupled with the rapid economic and cultural changes at their root, have left women in a unique position.

Despite legal equality, urban women continue to face discrimination including restrictions on the opportunities to own land, receive an adequate education, obtain credit, find waged jobs, and participate in politics. While many obstacles persist, the socio-cultural realignment spawned by urbanization presents a unique opportunity to incorporate women into the formal socio- political spectrum. Unless women are treated as individuals, and not as male accessories, they will remain peripheralized as Kenya and Tanzania stabilize their social and political dynamics. The Kenya and Tanzania governments must take advantage of this opportunity and the international community must encourage them to do so.

By outlining some of the key factors that dictate gender relationships, I hope to delineate the foundations for a more sophisticated analysis of urbanization.

The remaining legal limitations on women's economic and political participation must be abolished as a first step toward achieving equal status. Although the abrogation of these restrictive measures alone does not ensure equality, their removal does set a standard of opportunity that women require to establish themselves as independent actors. With legal systems in both countries ensuring the fundamental rights all citizens, the challenge remains to empower women to the degree necessary so that they may realize the rights reserved for them.

Despite claims to the contrary from revisionist historians (see Stamp), rural pre-colonial and colonial women were rarely, if ever, able to achieve status other than through their husbands, brothers, or fathers. Urban culture is relatively new to East Africa and with this urban expansion, new social and economic opportunities for both women and men are emerging. As the 'traditional' family enforcing women's secondary position fades and women urbanize, they become separated from their rural history and culture. This allows women to reinvent themselves and their relationships with men and with the state. In this way, rapid urbanization, even with its disadvantages, may serve as a catalyst for equality. (Footnote: 1)

In colonial urbanization one finds the origins of women's Socio-economic empowerment. Although perhaps not palatable today, or ideal in any time, the prostitutes of colonial Nairobi were the first to discover the power of work in the informal sector (See The Comforts of Home by Luise White, particularly her discussion of the Malaya form of prostitution) (Footnote 2). Faced with little or no access to waged jobs, few educational opportunities, a capitalist restructuring of the agricultural system, an absolute exclusion from politics and fragmentation of the family structure (that almost eliminated women's ability to survive on a man's wage while requiring them to singularly bear the burden of child care), women sought and found cooperation and an independent identity through economic activities. Despite colonial administration policies preventing Africans from permanently settling in the cities, the Malaya prostitutes were able to purchase almost 80% of all available land in certain districts (White, 123) Such a base enabled women to establish a solidarity and self-sustaining subculture. In today's East African cities, women confront many of these same hindrances (see Meena, Bujra, Riddell, Rau, Mukurasi, and Schmidt) and can still achieve status through work in the informal sector.

Although changing, the overwhelming majority of women remain employed in agriculture or the informal sector and very few have any real political power (see Meena, p.17). Although data is scarce, it appears that women of the slums and squatter settlements continue to use the informal sector, unregulated by the state and relatively free of male interference, to support themselves and their families. Women seem to be organizing into cooperative groups, and rotating credit associations, some of which may even be participating in larger community umbrella organizations (e.g., Jua Kali in Dar es Salaam). These groups not only allow these women to survive but facilitate voluntary cooperation between ethnic groups; an achievement that the governments of Kenya and Tanzania would be surely proud to claim as an accomplishment. From such cooperation comes a new identity, one based on independence and self reliance. From this identity and unity can emerge economic, social, and political power.

Dr. Wangari Maathai, founder and director of Kenya's Greenbelt Movement, warns that financial support from major donors (e.g., Multi-Lateral Organizations, Foreign NGOs and Governments) to indigenous groups will often corrupt and destroy the positive elements that these benefactors seek to foster. If this admonition is true, how then can those with wealth truly hope to assist? The two official women's organizations in Kenya and Tanzania, have long been co-opted by state political interests (See Wipper), so governmental support of more programs is surely not an option. Although not a full remedy, I suggest that foreign observers, activists, and development policy makers must include the following within their agenda:

If newly urbanized women establish their independence through both economic and social means, they will be able to control sectors and industries that are essential to the smooth functioning of the state. With this independence, they will have the political power to work toward more equitable conditions for all women. Conversely, if urban women continue to be discriminated against, they will not gain the power to influence state politics and will remain marginalized. Urbanization is intrinsic to the contemporary East Africa, a reality which must be addressed in current and future policies. It is in the best interest of all parties to work toward a state with an economically productive and diversified population. To do this, the needs and welfare of newly urbanized women must be seriously considered.


  1. While women in pre-colonial cultures may have been able to achieve higher social positions through hard work and ingenuity, historical accounts of even the most egalitarian peoples (e.g., Koponen, Wembah-Rasnid, Robertson and Berger), demonstrate that status could only really be earned through men and that (men, husbands, fathers and sons), benefited more directly from women's creativity and cooperation than did the women themselves.)
  2. It should be noted that prostitution was not necessarily purely sexual. It included, along with or instead of sex, sewing, conversation, cooking, errand running and the like. Activities that White terms the 'Reproduction of Labor.' Today, many women continue to pursue these activities professionally.


[topics] [YWD Main Index]
© 1995/96 Young Women and Democracy /