A Worker’s Day wish for African women

A human rights activist friend once commented that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is far more interesting if read backwards. And indeed if you do so then six articles in you arrive at this beauty of a legal standard:

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay. – Article 24, Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On 1 May every year the world commemorates International Worker’s Day with parades and speeches celebrating wage labourers. Interestingly, this exuberant focus on sweat and exertion eclipses the very genesis of the day itself as a date proposed by trade unionists in the late 1800s to mark the recognition of the right to an eight hour work day. Put differently, International Worker’s Day commemorates the demand and eventual victory of workers in securing the right to rest.

In the African regional context women’s labour is an obsessive focus of orthodox development and international business alike. Rather than proposing the gendered transformation of economic systems or indeed of strengthening provisions for labour rights, the target of these efforts tends to be on bolstering individual entrepreneurship and women’s income generating potential. Armed with the mantra ‘higher GDP or bust’, these instrumentalist initiatives bemoan the over-population of African women in informal economies where their contributions are hard to count, and encourage women to opt-in to formality via bank accounts and debt-based financing of their entrepreneurial efforts.

The irony of course is that work, in itself, has never been African women’s problem. In fact, as feminist economists have long argued, patriarchal exigencies see the majority of African women working multiple shifts; earning money in paid employment or self-employment, finding ways to generate additional informal income where possible, and then taking on the private sphere labour of childcare, food production, housework, and providing sexual labour to their men partners. This reality is replicated in batiks and drawings across the continent glorifying “the African woman” with a child on her back, goods for sale on her head, and food she has just harvested in baskets clutched by her hard-working hands.

There is, without a doubt, a need for radical transformation in these labour regimes. For economic justice we need to see African women’s work fairly remunerated, for African women to have unhindered rights to collective organising in all domains of work and for labour movements and trades unions to also advocate unequivocally for this. Fundamentally, economic justice for African women also requires economic policies and trade agreements that strengthen rather than hinder gendered economic equality, that advance the redistribution of economic opportunity within and between countries, that offer transformative approaches to informal economies, and that respect African women’s intellectual property and labour, and defend food sovereignty.

Still though, in all of our justified demands for economic justice our focus always lands incessantly on work. The truth is that in this calculus of work-based honour placed on African women there is no possibility for unscripted and unburdened time, for leisurely meandering, for a holiday.

This Worker’s Day my wish for African women workers everywhere is simple: the internationally recognised right to rest, to fun, and for someone else to pick up the bill for annual leave.



(East) African feminist writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary. Women’s rights strategist and advisor on bodies, movements, feminist futures @stillsherises

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Jessica Horn

(East) African feminist writer, doer, interpreter of the ordinary. Women’s rights strategist and advisor on bodies, movements, feminist futures @stillsherises