Sara Hlupekile Longwe

This paper looks at how the process of migration can, with appropriate social interventions, provide immigrant women with an opportunity for increased empowerment, and equal access to their human rights. In order to examine this situation more closely, the paper takes a close look at Congolese women within a refugee camp in Zambia, considering especially issues of personal security and the control and distribution of food and family income. This micro example of a refugee camp may have relevance to women's rights in all immigrant communities. Sarah Longwe is a former Chairperson of the Women's Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) in Lusaka, Zambia.

Education for Women's Empowerment: The Example of a Refugee Camp in Zambia


To varying degrees, in all parts of the world, women are educated to accept a subordinate status in society. The male position of head of household is reflected in the political domain, which is dominated by men. The gender division of labour is unfair, with women doing most of the work, and men receiving most of the rewards. Women have less access than men to their human rights because of the gender discrimination implicit in social customs, in government administrative practice, and sometimes even in law.

Feminism arises from the process of women's empowerment, in which women recognise their subordination, and commit themselves to action for gender equality. Such recognition of subordination is difficult, because women have been educated to believe that their position in gender relations is normal and natural, part of the given world, even given by God. Through such unexamined and unquestioned socialisation, the majority of women tend to acquiesce, even collaborate, in their own subordination.

For this reason, instances of gender discrimination are easier to recognise when stepping into another culture. Or, within one culture, gender discrimination is easier to recognise when there is the cultural shock of some social dislocation, which shifts the pattern of gender relations.

Such dislocation in gender relations is particularly likely to be found within a migrating community which has to grapple with a new culture, involving new social relations and new production relations. Here, women may be provoked into outrage by their deteriorating status, or men may be similarly provoked into outrage by the advancing status of women.

In this paper we take the example of women in a refugee camp called Mwaba in northern Zambia, where many from the Lububa tribe have fled across the border from the Congo to escape the internecine fighting between the militias of various warlords. 1 We look at how migration has contributed to women's increased subordination, but also at the prospect of education for women's increased empowerment.

Gender Relations in the Country of Origin

In examining the traditional gender relations of the Lububa people in their home country of the Congo, we shall here look primarily at the gender division of labour in the production, distribution and control of food. Here the pattern of gender relations can be summarised quite briefly, and it is typical of the central and southern Africa region. In looking at gender relations, we are especially interested in the gender division of labour.

The wife is traditionally responsible for all domestic duties, including not only cooking, but also production of subsistence food such as vegetables, groundnuts, chickens, and cassava. The husband, who may be polygamous, produces food from hunting and fishing, and in some cases a cash income from trading. The husband is also responsible for selling any cash crop, even though his wife and children may have contributed much of the work in producing the cash crop.

The husband is the head of the household, being therefore the person responsible for economic decisions in the household. Any surplus, sold for cash, is in the control of the husband. If the husband goes to the nearby market town to sell game meat or cassava, it is his decision how he spends the money. He may buy agricultural implements.

Source: dgvn Informationsdienst Bevölkerung und Entwicklung Nr. 61, November

Source: dgvn Informationsdienst Bevölkerung und Entwicklung Nr. 61, November 2006, p. 2 

Or he may waste the money on beer and girlfriends. He may even come back with an additional wife, who can be "bought" with the bride price of lobola.

In short, therefore, a woman is very subjugated in patriarchal Lububa society, sexually, socially and economically. But, for all that, she does have a degree of economic independence within the household. She is in charge of the domestic subsistence economy, responsible for feeding the family, and for the distribution of food within the family. A wife's pot is her sphere of influence. Not even the most dominant of husbands can interfere with his wife's pot.

Where a husband has several wives, each with her homestead and little farm, each polygamous wife, and especially the senior wife, may achieve an increased degree of economic independence. Within the confines of a patriarchal system, she may even achieve some control over, or at least manipulation of, a potentially wayward husband.

The Pattern of Gender Relations in the Host Country

It is more common, in other parts of the world, that groups migrate into a host society where gender relations are very different - often more equitable. In such a situation, strains develop around the question of whether a "ghetto culture" of the original society can maintain the traditional patterns of women's subordination, even in the face of women's different or higher social and legal status in the surrounding host society.

But the particular usefulness of the intriguing Lububa example is that the pattern of gender relations to the north of the border, in the Congo, is very similar to the pattern south of the border in Zambia, where the refugee camp of Mwaba is established.

In the refugee camp in Zambia, the increased strain on gender relations is not imposed by the different traditions of the host society, nor by discrimination against migrants by a hostile host society. Instead, the increased strain on gender relations arises from two factors: firstly, from living in a fairly urbanised camp situation by comparison with living in the forest in the Congo; secondly, from the situation of becoming dependent on food handouts from the World Food Programme, rather than producing food by hunting, fishing and small scale subsistence farming.

How Gender Relations Changed after Migration

It is the woman's loss of position as producer of subsistence food which underlies the dislocation in gender relations in the Mwaba refugee camp. Instead she has now become dependent on handouts - a weekly family ration of salt, cooking oil, beans and maize grain. By becoming dependent on rations from the World Food Programme, a wife has now become more dependent on her husband. She has become more under the control of her husband, and he is now more out of her control.

The woman's increased subordination came about in several ways. On the surface, her increased subordination seems to arise primarily from a decision by the camp administration that food rations should be collected by the head of household, i.e. the husband (except for widows and single mothers, who are female heads of households). This decision was made not only because of the patriarchal orientation of Westerners who take the main decisions over camp administration, but also because of their incomplete understanding of the role of a male Lububa head of household. Now, at a stroke, the husband had control over all food. He could now decide how to distribute food between his different wives, and how food might be distributed within the household. At a stroke, the "wife's pot" was destroyed.

However, there is a further complication. The food ration not only provides subsistence food, but also includes a surplus which may be sold off in the surrounding Zambian community in order to provide other essential commodities such as sugar, soap and clothes. In addition, much of the maize grain has to be sold or bartered in order to provide the Lububa with cassava, which is their normal staple food. The sale of surplus food was traditionally the role of the husband, but in this new situation, there was no longer a clear distinction between subsistence and surplus food. In so far as there was a distinction, it was decided by the husband. This lack of a clear dividing line between subsistence and surplus meant, in practice, that a delinquent husband was now in a position to sell off the entire food ration, which he was able to squander on beer, luxury items and girlfriends while his family was left to beg or starve.

Realising this upset in gender relations, and the consequent increased subordination of women, and therefore the increased food insecurity of women and children, the camp administration changed the rules. In future, the food ration was to be collected by women, who would be given the food ration cards instead of men. But this did not do much to give women increased control because it did not disturb the underlying problem that the ill-defined line between subsistence and surplus food was no longer rooted in different spheres of gender control, and different spheres of food production. Irrespective of who collected the food, the husband remained in as strong a position to decide on the dividing line, and to sell off the surplus. In short, he could take a bag of salt out of the food cupboard, saying that it was "his" salt, and sell it to buy beer for himself.

In addition, giving ration cards to women entailed a bigger burden of labour upon women in collecting food, which in some cases had to be carried as far as three kilometres. In going to fetch the food, women were also vulnerable to violence, theft of the food, and even rape.

In this changed situation, we see how the dislocation in gender relations, caused by changes in the system of food supply and distribution, served to tilt power away from women towards men. In principle, in such a dislocation, the balance of power might have tilted in either direction. But within a patriarchal tradition, the males were in a strong position to take advantage of any power vacuum, and to make sure male privileges were quickly extended to fill the vacuum.

How could women have taken better advantage of the situation? Could they have retained their traditional control over the woman's pot? Could they have used the dislocation of migration to gain control over food surplus and cash income? Having lost out initially, could they retaliate and organise to bring back the balance of power? These are the questions to which we now turn as we look more closely at women's education, for subordination or for empowerment.

Conservative Education for Women's Subordination

By education, we do not here refer to schooling. Lububa women, even more than men, have little experience of formal schooling. The women, if they are ever enrolled in government or missionary primary schools, leave early before completing the fourth grade. Very often they leave because they are already pregnant, or have already been sold off as wives in arranged marriages. Of course there are a few girls who complete primary school and go on to secondary school, but they never come back to live in the village. They have been schooled into city life, where they go to look for jobs, and perhaps for rich husbands.

The multicultural choir "Colors of Cologne" on the Conference
Source: Hans Pollinger

In any case, the school does not provide an education for gender equality, or an environment of equal rights for women. On the contrary, the gender relations of the school reflect the gender relations of the village, with boys being given preference in science and maths, boys in co-ed schools having power over girls, female teachers being subordinated to male teachers, and so on. Just as the male is the head of the household, so the headmaster is the head of the school. The gender relations of the household are faithfully reflected in the gender relations of the school.

But most of the education in traditional gender relations, meaning the accepted local form of the subordination of women, is the business of the family, of traditional dances and ceremonies, and even of the Christian church. Women's education into their subordination is an implicit and unquestioned facet of all aspects of everyday life. Like every aspect of conservative education, education means socialisation into the existing customs, beliefs and norms. Women's subordination is therefore an unquestioned component of the socialisation into adulthood. Conservative socialisation serves to reproduce the existing, historical pattern of gender relations, as it also serves to reproduce all social and productive relations between the generations.

Radical Education for Women's Empowerment

It is especially when there is some great social disruption that the traditions of conservative education are upset. Just as conservative education serves to reproduce a static society, so radical education is designed for a changing society, even as a means to change society. The purpose of radical education is to produce a new generation that is different from, and better than, the previous generation. Equally, the purpose of radical education is to question all tradition and stability, and to educate the next generation to adapt to change, and to be able to initiate change.

But the Lububa women in Mwaba refugee camp have experienced only conservative education, in which they were taught to know their place in an unchanging world. Now, in Mwaba, all they can see is that they have lost their traditional sphere of gender influence, and that their position, relative to men, has drastically worsened. They are now more impoverished, and less able to look after their children. This is not merely because they are in a refugee camp, but especially because they have lost a large degree of control over their husbands, and over the equitable distribution of food.

But these refugee women do have the basis for radical re-education of themselves. They have a grievance, and a sense of injustice. They have, at last, discovered gender discrimination. Of course, in their traditional Congolese society, they had endured various forms of gender discrimination, but they had been socialised into it. We may perhaps assume that they accepted it. If they did not accept it, there was little they could do about it, for such traditional discrimination was part of everyday life as it was lived, as it had always been lived, apparently as real as the forest itself.

But now, in the Mwaba refugee camp, a new situation has arisen. There are new forms of discrimination which are not part of the old tradition, and which cause outrage amongst the women. Moreover, in the dislocation of the refugee camp, many aspects of life are suddenly revealed as changed and changeable. Just as the men took advantage of the social dislocation to advance their position, so women may realise the prospect for the same manoeuvre. Even those brought up in the most conservative traditions can suddenly realise the need to understand and react to the forces of sudden social change, as they find themselves in a very different social environment, with different forms of governance and different values.

Suddenly a more activist and awkward woman may gather her sisters around her, and say,

"Enough is enough. We cannot accept these new powers of men, and their new misbehaviours. We must collectively recognise this problem, and deal with it. We must gain more control over this new male delinquency."

But such a form of re-education, which I shall call women's empowerment, cannot be instantaneous, for it is difficult, and contradicts previous gender norms. It is difficult because it needs a feminist perception of the problem. It is difficult because it demands a collective perception of the problem. It is difficult because this collective perception is of little use unless it is followed by collective action. But, if successful, the collective move to action is marvellously empowering, because it shows women that they can take collective action and win, as they move to end discrimination against them.

Education for empowerment is therefore a radical, activist, and collective form of self-education. It is the opposite of conventional and conservative education. Women's education for empowerment is their rebellion against their previous education. Instead of being educated to accept our place in the world, we educate ourselves to change our place in the world. Women's empowerment, therefore, is intrinsic to the fight for women's rights.

During my brief visit to Mwaba, I learned of the recent formation of Women's Committees, which were beginning to raise questions about discrimination. Women were demanding total control of all relief food, and disciplinary action against husbands who over-rode the woman's control of household food, and who used violence to do so. By this means, there were prospects that women would, by collective action, not merely get more control over food in their own homes, but also get more control over the government of the camp.

Conclusion: Lessons from the Refugee Camp

Our refugee camp example is especially interesting because it does not involve the frequent problems arising from resistance and discrimination against migrants on the part of the host society. Because of this simplified situation, it is easier to examine the problems arising purely from a need to adjust to a different social environment, involving different social relations, production relations and gender relations.

In this refugee example we can clearly see that the ensuing dislocation in gender relations can, in principle, go either way, to give more control to men or women. But if the traditional dominance of men goes unchallenged, then men are likely to take advantage of this period of dislocation to establish more vicious forms of patriarchal domination. By the same token, women's education for empowerment, as a counter to traditional education, can enable them to take advantage of the dislocation to demand a more equitable position within the home, and within the wider society.

Participants during the closing ceremony
Source: Hans Pollinger 

In looking at such a period of dislocation in gender relations, we can see parallels with social groups migrating into Western countries. Where migrant communities have been ghetto-ised, women are likely to be more subjugated and more isolated in the home than they were in the original societies from which they came. In reaction to the "danger" of the outside influence and freedom of the host society, women may be more dominated by husbands and male relatives, and more isolated than migrant men from contact with the host society.

By comparison with their society of origin, migrant women may be more subject to arranged and forced marriages, and more vulnerable to "honour killings" (i.e. murder). New forms of women's subjugation may arise that were never known in the originating society. A woman may even achieve more freedom by escaping from the migrant ghetto, back to her society of origin. Her other option is escape into the host society, in the hope of assimilation within it, or "playing white" . Neither solution is healthy for the long term development of a migrant community.

From a human rights perspective, it is the duty of feminists in the host society to reach out to their sisters in migrant communities, and work with them in collectively recognising and addressing issues of gender discrimination and women's subjugation. This inter-cultural project of the women's movement serves to educate women in both communities on the nature of gender discrimination, and the need for collective action to gain equal rights for women.

And women on both sides - in the host society and in the migrant community - can gain from this collective experience, for patriarchy and gender discrimination are pervasive on both sides of the divide. Recognising gender discrimination in a different culture can make women more aware of discrimination in their own culture, which they have been socialised to accept rather than to rebel against. And so, inter-cultural collaboration reinforces education for empowerment.

1 I have changed the names of both the refugee camp in Zambia, and the Congolese tribe, so that the situation I describe cannot be construed as criticism of the various agencies responsible for administering the camp. Such criticism, if implied, is not the purpose of this paper. I gained knowledge of the situation in the camp while engaged as a consultant to provide advice on how the camp administration might better recognise and address gender issues. 

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