Special Session - Nordic Africa Days

Domestic Labour in Africa, 1900 - 2015: Housework, Commodification and ‘Mother Africa'

Friday 23 September, Room 12:228, Blåsenhus (House 12, floor 2), at 16:00 - 18:00

Deborah Fahy Bryceson

Deborah Fahy Bryceson

Extraordinary Professor & Affiliated Senior Researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala. Honorary Fellow at the Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh and Deputy Director of the International Gender Studies, Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford.

Pekka Peltola, Nordic Africa Institute, Associate

Philippe Marcadent, Chief of the Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch (INWORK), International Labour Organization

Isabel Casimiro, Centre of African Studies, Eduardo Mondlane University, Mozambique


Throughout African history, domestic labour time, directed at meeting the basic consumption needs of family members, dwarfs any other labour time allocation. Yet, it has received scant historical documentation because of its diffuse home-based nature and the repetitive work of daily basic need provisioning - all readily observable in the here and now but defying analytical attention over time and space. Domestic labour , otherwise termed ‘housework’, is usually conflated with ‘women’s work’. It encompasses childcare, cooking, washing, cleaning, and general household maintenance and is perceived as a jumble of multi-tasking activity dominating women’s daily lives, motivated by love, duty, care and concern for family and lineage rather than monetary gain.

The changing content and form of African domestic labour since 1900 reflects transformation of African household membership and fertility patterns as well as transitions from coerced to paid labour, from agricultural to service sector work and from formal to informal employment. The evolution of domestic labour relations reveals the interplay of forced, obligatory and volitional labour within African households. During colonialism, rural women were cast in the role of ‘Mother Africa’, serving as de facto female heads of households in many countries, capable of independently caring for their offspring, provisioning their basic needs for water, energy and food. This session traces how and why this pattern has altered.

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