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The Contribution of African Women to Economic Growth and Development: Historical Perspectives and Policy Implications Part I: The Precolonial and Colonial Periods

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Bringing together history and economics, this paper in two installments presents a historical and processual understanding of women’s economic marginalization in Sub-Saharan Africa from the precolonial period to the present. It is not that women have not been economically active or productive; it is rather that they have often not been able to claim the proceeds of their labor or have it formally accounted for. The first installment of this paper focuses on the precolonial and colonial periods and outlines three major arguments. First, we discuss the historical processes through which the labor of women was increasingly appropriated even in kinship structures in precolonial Africa, utilizing the concepts of “rights in persons” and “wealth in people.

Reviewing the processes of production and reproduction, we explain why most slaves in precolonial Africa were women and discussed how slavery and slave trade intensified the exploitation of women.

Second, we analyze how the cultivation of cash crops and European missionary constructions of the individual, marriage and the family from the early decades of the 19 century sequestered female labor and made it invisible in the realm of domestic production.

Third, we discuss how colonial policies from the late 19th century reinforced the “capture” of female labor and the codification of patriarchy through the nature and operation of the colonial economy and the instrumentality of customary law. The second installment of this paper focuses on the post-colonial period. It examines the continuing relevance and impact of the historical processes we have discussed on post-colonial economies, and suggests some policy implications.

Renosi Mokate, Executive Director, World Bank

Emmanuel Akyeampong, Professor of History, Harvard University

Hippolyte Fofack. Senior Economist, PRMGE, World Bank

Blanca Moreno-Dodson, Lead Economist, PRMPS, World Bank

  • Presentation (PDF 1MG)
  • Audio recording (MP3)
  • Bios

    Photo credit:

    1. "Market Scene." Record ID: impa-M55749: Reference No: QL-30.013.0122
    2. "School girls in Aburi at their garden work.". Record ID: impa-M37113; Reference No: QD-30.012.0057.

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