Changes in the Gender Roles of Women in West Africa Over Time

West African Women: Changing Roles and Responsibilities

West Africa has various societies inhabited in countries with various geographies, social customs, religions, and historical circumstances. Irrespective of these variations, it is possible to examine the ties between women in these societies while juxtaposing the changes that have belimped in their roles over a particular period of time.

The Importance of Women in Traditional West African Societies

The location of West Africa is favorable for agricultural practices and between the ages of 65 and 80 percent of West African women are engaged in agricultural activities targeted at feeding their families. Traditionally, the importance of women in these societies revolved around procreating and taking care of the family. As a result, the issue of early marriages was predominant in the West African countries as the society had high expectations on the women raising their families. The women were allowed to exercise limited leadership. They used several ways to exercise leadership—through women's organizations, as advisors of the male leaders as well as spiritual leaders (Nanda and Warms 298). On arrival of the Europeans on the West African coast, women played vital roles in solving disputes. They acted as arbiters between local societies and European traders. Additionally, women's productivity and reliability made it easy for the European to use them as their workers. As men were driven away and murdered, women were integrated into the society as slaves. The Europeans ignored the crucial roles of leadership that women had in their contemporary societies as they lost their authority on agricultural activities due to the arrival of cash crops throughout the 16th to 19th centuries. It is the spread of Christianity and civilization that further strengthened the roles of women in the societies; the involvement of women was essential in ensuring that they used their influence to spread the gospel of civilization (Dash 120). During the 20th century, the West African countries engaged in protracted wars meant to safeguard the sovereignty of the countries. The women were both actively and passively involved in the liberation struggles. These happenings acted to polish the roles of women in the society; they applied their leadership skills to plan and feed the warriors. These achievements achieved much change in the institution of women in the society (Dimandja and Engineer 9). Today, there are reversed roles where most women in West Africa can competently perform the roles that were initially thought to be a reserve for men.

Traditional Roles

The West African women have a rich history of their roles in the society (Nanda and Warms 306). The societies in the region had a lot of similarities in their structures and the sharing of tasks.

In West Africa, the newly-wedded women were mandated with the task of organizing structures that would look into the welfare of the family (Dash 92). They would govern the activities of their husbands to ensure that every interest of the family is fulfilled. The women enrolled a system that made the two parties accountable to each other leading to mutual respect.

Most of the political systems had a dual system which made it possible for women to be represented in political positions in the society. Among the Akan community of Ghana, for example, there was a position of Queen Mother (Dimandja and Engineer 34). This post allowed representation of women's interest as the Queen Mother had a say in the process of making the laws that governed the land. The post also came with privileges that enabled her to champion for the rights and protection of women and children.

Before the arrival of foreign powers, a system called bicameralism was in place. The system allowed a women's assembly where they could participate in the running of public affairs (Dash 145). The assembly was separate from the males' assembly, and the two shared power and influence. The Yoruba resistance to the invasion by foreign powers saw women contribute significantly to decision-making that laid structures to back the Yoruba people. The bicameralism is the earliest form of democracy in the West Africa region.

Modern Roles


Women have overcome numerous challenges to perform important roles in the society. They have developed to become agents of change and development. In many West African countries, women have risen to leadership positions. For example, Liberia has had a female president, and this is a perfect illustration that they have outgrown the traditional view that restricted them to giving birth and raising families (Dimandja and Engineer 49). The West African anthropology of development seems to be woman-centered. This is because of the massive entrance of women into the roles that were traditionally performed by men.

The women are considered the primary drivers of societal leadership; however, there exist political dictators that undermine the women's capability to lead. Their strength and unity have tremendously influenced the way people view them in the society.

Economic leaders

West Africa boasts of rich trading blocks and a favorable environment to perform business. There are enormous natural resources, and the weather is ideal for agricultural practices (Nanda and Warms 260). As a result, the area is an African business hub. Women and business are two inseparable entities; traditionally, the women could take their agricultural produce to the market and trade them. The business-minded women have successfully managed to improve their skills and get to higher levels in the societal trade. The Egba community of Nigeria serves as a perfect illustration of the economic organization of the women in West Africa (Dash 118). They have developed structures that have strengthened their trading ties. This has made them be identified as the economic powerhouse of the West Africa region. Additionally, they have honed their skills in setting trade rules such as the market taxes and tariffs, organizational structures, deal cutting as well as holding meetings to discuss the methods to improve their distribution and marketing structures (Nanda and Warms 223). A combination of all these skills has enabled the women to contribute to the community's economic uplift.


West Africa has in the past produced outstanding female authors and educators. The women have quickly become part of the education system after a long time of being sidelined. The girls were seen unfit to go to schools and become educated since their primary role in the society was giving birth; they were married off to older men (Nanda and Warms 336). The marriage institution was polygamous, and since the senior men were responsible for major decision making, they would forcefully marry young girls. The trend faded away with the introduction of the modern education system and schools. Today, women are allowed to pursue their educational goals to the level they desire.

Family Keepers

Despite the numerous changes that women have undergone over a period, they remain the unmatched pillar in the family institution. The West Africa has managed to maintain family structures that are widely accepted to date. The stable structures have ensured that there is sanity in the family. Women were expected to take charge of their family affairs to ensure that the family bond is maintained.

Factors that have contributed to the change

Several factors have contributed to the paradigm shift of the roles played by women in the West Africa region;


The introduction of formal education has enlightened women on their rights. They can now air their voices against practices that are oppressive to them. Unlike in the traditional society set up, today's women can make decisions independently and influence the course of their life. They can determine when to get married and the size of their families, a privilege they lacked before.


The communities in West Africa have now accepted the modern way of life. Although some cultural practices and beliefs have been maintained, most of the beliefs that were retrogressive have been eliminated (Dash 98). This has created room for freedom of association and expression; women can move freely and do tasks traditionally meant for men. This includes holding political positions, setting up businesses, among others. However, women remain the manager and caretakers of their families.


The colonization of the West Africa region by foreign powers led to the introduction of Christianity. The religion preached against various cultural practices that acted to demean the value of women (Dimandja and Engineer 22). Christianity gave women an opportunity to be spiritual leaders both at church and in their homes. As a result, the leadership skills were sharpened, and the fact that there were allowed to become local missionaries opened up their business acumen.

Rise in trade and trade routes

The West African women had a business background; they had experience trading items in the market and forming business-enabling structures. When foreign countries became partners in the West Africa trade, the women got an opportunity to showcase their potential. As a result, they developed themselves into business experts in the region, which saw tremendous transformation in the view of the society towards women.

Communities such as the Hausa, Yoruba, and the Egba produced great women business leaders whose influence was felt beyond West Africa (Dash 136). They developed structures that enabled trade among the African nations as well as overseas.


The roles played by women in the society have changed gradually over time. The West African women have managed to position themselves to undertake influential roles in the society. Traditionally, women were majorly controlled by the men in society; they did not have a voice on important matters affecting the society. In fact, the women were restricted to managing their families. Although there existed some form of democracy, it was not as elaborate as it is today. The development of women has taken shape in all spheres of life; leadership, political influence, Christianity as well as business.

A comparison of the modern woman and the women some decades ago reveals that the women's status has improved. There is a female Head of State in Liberia, indicating remarkable improvements in democracy.

Works Cited

Dash, K N. Invitation to Social and Cultural Anthropology. 2nd. Atlantic Publishers & Dist, 2004.

Dimandja, Agnes Loteta and Civil Metallurgistr Engineer. "The Role and Place of Women in Sub-Saharan African Societies." Global Action on Aging Vol 4.Issue 1 (2014): 48.

Nanda, Serena and Richard L Warms. Cultural Anthropology. Cengage Learning, 2013.

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