Gender Roles in Africa

Africa doesn’t have any set gender roles. Gender roles have been changing over time, especially in the metropolitan areas. The diverse African cultures have their ideas of males and females; however, some women are still subordinate to men in public and family life.

Some gender dynamics in Africa are unique because women are still treated as subordinates today in some cultures. The division of labor is based on gender in some cultures. For example, hunting and gathering wild food by women during the pre-colonial periods supported many African economies. Yet, rural farming roles differed based on tools used; men mainly used the ax, and they plowed fields while the women used the hoe, plant, and harvest crops. Many cultures grew the same crop, yet men did so to sell while the women did so for food. Men benefitted more than women with the introduction of cash by the colonizers to the African economy. The colonizers conducted business with the African men and largely ignored the women. Post-colonial independence still has seen a considerable divide between men and women in literacy, education, and jobs. Many women remain farmers, domestic workers, prostitutes, and trade workers. The African family dynamic is unique because Patrilineality, matrilineality, and polygamy are three significant variations of African traditional extended family, and not everyone has to be blood-related:

While “Family” and “household” are sometimes used interchangeably, because of their close relationship to each other, in most African societies they are likely not to connote the same social unit. It is common for members of the same family (including members of the same nuclear family or a member of an extended family that functions as a close unit) to straddle more than one household. In turn, members of the same household are likely not to be of the same nuclear family. In Black South Africa, for instance, children are taken care of by an extended family who are not necessarily biological parents. (Makiwane and Kaunda, 2018, p.1)

There were some African cultures in which women played significant roles in their societies' social and economic sustenance. Among the Yoruba, in Nigeria, men were the head of the household while the women were in charge of the younger family members; the Yoruba are mainly in the Southern part of Nigeria. Before colonialism, the Yoruba were primarily a genderless society based on seniority in age and lineage; women who married could gain power by having children and adding to the family lineage. Women played a significant part in trading, and many became chiefs. Fayola (2007) wrote, “The queen mother, a powerful title among the Edo and Yoruba, could be bestowed upon the king’s mother or a free woman of considerable stature. In her own palace, the queen mother presided over meetings, with subordinate titleholders in her support.” (main page) Yet, even Nigerian women, including female chiefs, experienced inequities since the post-colonial periods with Nigerian men and leaders collaborating with European business owners. Nevertheless, Nigeria’s educational system has afforded many women the opportunities to advanced into occupations outside of being farmers, domestic workers, and so on.

Some gender and family dynamics in African societies are similarly based on colonization, economic and political changes, and different labor experiences. Okrah (2017) wrote, “Most countries in Africa have adopted universal adult suffrage and political systems of their former colonial master, which instead of uplifting the standard of women, marginalized women.” (main page) The European division of Africa into territories, land redistribution, monetization of the economy, and governmental changes saw African women subordinate to men. The commercialization of agriculture under colonialism weakened women's economic power and increased their dependency on the men and the colonizers. Missionaries used Christianity to teach Africans that gender was based on sex. However, deities were both male and female in African indigenous religions.

Pre-colonial Africa experienced many non-gender and family dynamics. The European Powers introduced inequities and marginalization, which disrupted the traditional ways of life of African people. Colonialism, Christianity, socioeconomic and political policies by the Europeans forced African women to take the backseat to their men.


Falola, T. O. (2007, November 20). The Role of Nigerian Women. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from

Makiwane, M. & Kaunda, C. (2018, May). Families and Inclusive Societies in Africa. Retrieved from

Okrah, K. A., Ph.D. (2017, December 31). The Dynamics of Gender Roles and Cultural Determinants of African Women’s Desire to Participate in Modern Politics. Retrieved from

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