Naming (in)justice: women’s voices from the global South

by Caroline Wickens.

Walking with Micah: ever since the days of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, shared journeys have been enriched by listening to the stories of fellow-pilgrims. What stories are being told by women theologians from the global South, specifically Africa?

The Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians has produced a growing number of books reflecting on the situation of women in Africa. Many of these consider specific difficulties African women face, and offer theological reflection which challenges injustice and demands better outcomes. Kenyan theologian Philomena Mwaura identifies lack of access to and control of resources, particularly land, along with insufficient labour[1]. Direct ownership of land is important because it gives the woman security for herself and her family which cannot be threatened by her husband or his family (a particular risk if she is widowed). The story of the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27:1 – 11) is a key resource here. As Moses is creating a definitive list of the men of Israel, five sisters confront him to challenge structural injustice. Their father is dead and they have no brothers; it is unjust that they should have no place in the list and therefore no property. Moses consults the Lord, who is unequivocal in supporting the women: ‘they are right in what they are saying – you shall indeed let them possess an inheritance’. God affirms their identity and gives them the security they require to flourish.

A second Kenyan author, Ruth James, describes gender injustice in health provision[2]. Women and, crucially, growing girls sometimes receive less food than male members of the family if food is short. They are more often the subjects of violence, vulnerable either at home or outside fulfilling traditional female roles such as fetching water or collecting fuel. Constance Shisanya[3] notes that women have limited control over their sexual and reproductive lives – for example, it is not culturally acceptable for women to insist on protected sex, which leaves them very vulnerable to HIV infection. Pregnancy and childbirth are much more risky than in the global North. Pauline Otieno[4] comments that in some cultures, FGM is still a normal part of a girl’s growing up. Where health care comes at a cost, male-dominated families are less likely to opt to spend money on treatment for a woman, especially if she experiences difficulties with her mental health. Women experience danger from their bodies to a greater extent than men. In responding to this litany of woes, women theologians make particular use of Mark’s pair of stories about the woman with the flow of blood, who is healed and made safe in her community, and Jairus’ daughter, whose life is returned to her. Jesus’ focused attention to these two women enacts his concern that women should have life in all its fullness, and his words to Jairus’ daughter Talitha cum! have become a rallying-cry for African women theologians[5] – the will to arise is passionate.

Ruth James[6] also describes gendered injustice in access to education. During the colonial period it was unusual for girls or women to receive much formal education. Colonial expectations about women’s roles coincided neatly with cultural practices. Matters have improved to some extent since, but there are still marked disparities between numbers of girls in school and numbers of boys, particularly in secondary school and university where fees are payable. Parents often prefer to educate sons, who will stay in the family and repay their investment; girls are sent to work to pay for their brothers’ education. Women, made in God’s image, are thus denied the opportunity to develop their God-given abilities and find their voice. One of the most exciting Circle projects creates spaces for young women theologians to contribute to books around particular themes, such as a recent volume from Zambia, Chikamoneka: gender and empire in religion and public life.

Mercy Amba Oduyoye, mother of African women’s theologies, sums this up and sets it in a more explicitly theological perspective[7]:

Happy and responsible in my being human and female, I shall be able to live a life of doxology in the human community, glorifying God for the gifts I receive in others and for the possibility I have of giving myself freely for the wellbeing of the community while remaining responsible and responsive to God. It is only thus that I can say I am fully human.

This is the second article in a series – also see Naming (in)justice: an exploration of some conversations from the Global South

The Methodist Church is currently undertaking a two year exploration of what it means to be a justice-seeking church through the Walking with Micah project.  Theology Everywhere is working in partnership with the project to host a series of articles about justice. For more information visit

[1] Mwaura PJ, The Impact of Globalisation on Women in Africa, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:12

[2] James MR, The Impact of Cost-Sharing in Health and Education on Women’s Welfare in Kenya, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:20 – 22

[3] Shisanya CRA, The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Women in Kenya, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:61

[4] Otieno P, HIV/AIDS Awareness and Women with Disabilities in Kenya, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:66

[5] Nyambura Njoroge and Musa Dube Talitha cum! Theologies of African women Cluster Publications: Pietermaritzburg 2001

[6] James MR, The Impact of Cost-Sharing in Health and Education on Women’s Welfare in Kenya, Quests for Abundant Life in Africa, Acton:Nairobi 2002:27

[7] Oduyoye MA, Hearing and Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa Acton:Nairobi 2000:137

2 thoughts on “Naming (in)justice: women’s voices from the global South”

  1. Thank you for reminding us about this discrimination and injustice.

    It is sad that in this country one of the very few places where discrimination against women is permitted is in the church. In my local diocese a bishop has just been appointed who has declared that he will not ordain women clergy.


  2. When I experience or hear about loveless, discriminatory, exclusive, judgmental attitudes it comes to mind that this is re-crucifying Christ. It makes me angry and sad. And I suspect that God absents Himself/Herself/Itself and spends Sunday working down at the foodbank.


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