Rethinking gender

– Gender relations should be investigated, not assumed. Policies not corresponding with people´s lives are unlikely to succeed, says former NAI researcher Signe Arnfred.

Signe Arnfred´s book ´Sexuality and Gender Politics in Mozambique` won the Danish KRAKA-award for its contribution to research on gender, culture and kin in Africa.

Her research shows that despite tremendous political changes in Mozambique over the last 50 years – from colonial rule and liberation struggle, through socialist regime and civil war to the contemporary neo-liberal market economy – political views on gender haven´t changed much at all.

– Naturally, the often traumatic transitions are reflected in Mozambican society as a whole. But regarding gender politics there has been more continuity than change, says Signe Arnfred.

Furthermore, the gender politics of the ruling political party since independence, Frelimo, is rooted in the patrilineal culture of southern Mozambique. In the northern parts of the country matrilineal systems dominate, resulting in very different gender relations compared to the south. Women from the north of Mozambique are in stronger positions both in decision-making and the household economy.

– There, the man moves to the wife´s family after marriage and not the other way around, and the children belong to the mother’s lineage. The male authority in relation to the children is their maternal uncle (mothers´ brother), not their father, who belongs to a different lineage. This also means that marriages are less important, and that women are sisters rather than wives. All of this makes a big difference to the women, says Signe Arnfred.

For this reason women from northern Mozambique were and are reluctant to abandon their culture in favor of Frelimos’ family and gender modernization project.   It is also true that researchers and development agencies have failed to understand specific gender relations in these parts of Mozambique.

– This is why l subtitled the book Rethinking Gender. Our pre-conceptions about gender relations rooted in Western realities often limit our ability to understand the lives of women in Africa, says Signe Arnfred.

Today, Mozambique is seen as a frontrunner on gender issues in Africa, mainly because of the number of women in parliament and serving as ministers in government. Signe Arnfred is not very impressed by this fact.

– It’s a kind of window dressing. It is not the number of women in parliament that determines the gender politics in a country. For women in parliament to have influence on gender politics they must be supported by women´s movements in civil society outside parliament, says Signe Arnfred.

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