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Thursday, September 29, 2022

The Quiet Women Revolution in Sao Tome

The average Sao Tomean woman still faces discrimination from the wider community

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: Although living on a balmy island may conjure up images of an idyllic lifestyle, it is clear that Sao Tome and Principe are fragile. Women in Sao Tome and Principe face societal and structural obstacles to their development, just like in other developing nations, particularly in Africa.

Even though Sao Tome and Principe’s constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women in key areas like political participation, access to basic education, and business and entrepreneurial activity, the average Sao Tomean woman still faces discrimination from the wider community.

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Having descended from the white colonists and African population of the slave trade, who settled in the then uninhabited islands in the late 15th century, the minority descendants of African plantation workers from the first half of the 20th century have largely assimilated themselves into Creole culture. 

On the other hand, the Angolares, who were descendants of a maroon community of the 16th century, constitute a distinct sociocultural group.

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Their societal mores and traditional conventions drawn from their backgrounds continue to prevent many women from reporting incidents of abuse or resorting to taking legal action. 

Speaking out against injustice and discrimination within families is still largely taboo. After its independence in 1975 from Portugal, Sao Tome has not been able to establish institutions for university education, which has acted as a deterrent to women’s empowerment. 

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Numerous cultural norms from their colonial past still influence their current societal orientation. Even though Christianity makes up 80% of the population, tribal African beliefs frequently coexist with Christianity.

Under the kinship system, descent and inheritance are passed through both father and mother but are kept distinct. 

Polygamy in Sao Tome and Principe

The conventional conjugal bond is the customary union, but formal marriages are not common in Sao Tome and are only practised by the educated elite. 

Polygamy is a common practice where a man’s many wives never live together in the same residence. Local society tends to view polygyny as almost a normal condition. 

It is quite common that a legally wedded man is also romantically involved with several other women. The man ends up being financially strained and unable to take care of his own family. Consequently, one sees several households being headed by women.

The family law in Sao Tome and Principe sets the minimum legal age for becoming a major at 18 years, but still, about 20 per cent are married by the age of 15 years, mostly to men who are at least a decade older. Only half of the girl students go on for higher studies, while the rest end up in marriages, becoming mothers at an early age.

On average, a woman has five children, but it is interesting that high status is attached to women who bear children, regardless of their paternity. Co-parenting with the active participation of godparents is not uncommon. 

Though Sao Tome society is not matriarchal, mothers play a guiding role in ensuring that a parent or relative raises children during an economic crisis. 

Older men and women tend to be treated with great respect, particularly if they have many children and grandchildren. Entry into a person’s home is a privilege. Acquaintances often converse on the street or across a garden hedge rather than enter a house or yard.

After the 1990s, several government and non-governmental campaigns and liberal governmental legislation guaranteed legal equality between the sexes and officially promoted the emancipation of women. As a result, women in Sao Tome and Principe enjoy a relatively better position in society as compared to women in other parts of Africa. 

Women driving social and economic change

In the last 50 years, the female population for Sao Tome and Principe increased several folds to reach 111,585 persons (half the population of Sao Tome), which is significantly higher than in 1978, when it was just 40,000. The sex ratio of the population is almost equal.

But what has largely gone unnoticed is that women in Sao Tome are quietly driving social and economic change in Africa’s smallest nation in the last two decades. Although São Tomé and Príncipe is a male-dominated society, women are increasingly playing critical roles in all major formal and informal institutions. 

For several years after independence, the president of the National Assembly and the minister of foreign affairs were women. In 2002, Maria das Neves was appointed the country’s Prime Minister. She held the post from 7 October 2002 until 18 September 2004 and was the nation’s first female head of government. The country has also had many women occupying ministerial positions.

Maria das Neves. Photo Credit: Multiple sources

Almost 17 per cent of the total population of Sao Tome and Principe is involved in the fish business, where women are involved in several activities, such as unloading the boats, direct purchases from fishermen and fish processing. 

Women working at Sao Tome’s fishing village. Photo Credit: Twitter

More women than men are engaged in socio-economic activities like conservation, poverty alleviation or dealing with tropical diseases.

In a typical household, women manage their money independently of their husbands. Marriage to a woman with land or other property does not give the husband automatic access or control over those resources. The country has more than 30 per cent of female employment relative to the population ratio, while women represent 41% of the workforce.

Several factors contribute to this ongoing positive transformation of women’s daily lives in Sao Tome. One major reason is due to intermarriages with foreigners. They have given rise to a mixed-race generation with no single cultural heritage. This has led to liberal cultural perspectives resulting in a broader mental outlook, including toward the role of women in their society. 

The role of social media in the country has also helped to catalyze this trend. The gradual opening up of the tourism sector has witnessed more foreign visitor arrivals, which has positively impacted the local economy as well the mental makeup of the society.  

Another factor is the growing engagement and integration of Sao Tome in the global economic system, with assistance from international organizations.

A critical development is that the increased female participation in local politics has added good value to the democratization of national politics of the country.

As a result, it is heartening to see more and more women entering areas like politics, business, culture, hospitality, tourism, entrepreneurship etc.

The progressive legislation enacted by the Government of Sao Tome in July 2022 allocates a minimum of 40% of seats for women in elected bodies and the cabinet. This is a shot in the arm for the hardworking women force of Sao Tome.

Also Read: Ilhéu das Rolas: The Equator Island of Sao Tome

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