Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Gender, aging and power in sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and puzzles

  • 209 Accesses

  • 7 Citations


By 2020, the absolute numbers of elderly in Africa will increase dramatically. A majority of these will be women. While we know much about the powers and authority of male elders within formal kin- and age-based structures, we know little about the lived experience of aging in Africa today, and even less about the formal and informal roles of elderly women. These ethnographic descriptions of gendered aging experiences in seven African societies examine the following little explored topics: indigenous conceptions of gender and aging; the ambiguities in women's social positions; changing family, household and marital relationships, which affect experiences of old age; older persons' access to and control over material, human and suprahuman resources; and the interplay of indigenous and modern forces. They point to future research challenges that will include understanding indigenous notions of gender and aging, and power and personhood, as they relate to personal experiences and to the ability of older women and men to assure their security in contexts of rapid social change.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Abu-Lughod, L. 1990 The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power through Bedouin Women. American Ethnologist 17:41–55.

  2. Arens, W. and I. Karp, eds. 1989 Creativity of Power. Cosmology and Action in African Societies. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

  3. Barker, J. 1990 Between Humans and Ghosts: The Decrepit Elderly in a Polynesian Society. In The Cultural Context of Aging. Worldwide Perspectives. J. Sokolovsky, ed. Pp. 295–315. New York: Bergin & Garvey Publ.

  4. Blumberg, R.L. 1988 Gender Stratification, Economic Development, and the African Food Crisis: Paradigm and Praxis in Nigeria. In Social Structures and Human Lives. M.W. Riley, ed. Pp. 115–137. Newbury Park CA: Sage.

  5. Bourdieu, P. 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  6. Brown, J.K. 1982 Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Middle-Aged Women. Current Anthropology 23(2): 143–156.

  7. Brown, J.K. 1992 Lives of Middle-Aged Women. In In Her Prime. A New View of Middle-Aged Women. V. Kerns and J.K. Brown, eds. Pp. 17–30. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

  8. Boserup, E. 1970 Woman's Role in Economic Development. New York: St. Martin's Press.

  9. Cattell, M.G. 1989 Old Age in Rural Kenya: Gender, the Life Course and Social Change. Bryn Mawr College: Ph.D. dissertation. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms.

  10. Cohen, R. 1984 Age and Culture as Theory. In Age and Anthropological Theory. D.I. Kertzer and J. Keith, eds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  11. Foner, N. 1984 Ages in Conflict: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Inequality Between Old and Young. New York: Columbia University Press.

  12. Foner, N. 1985 Old and Frail and Everywhere Unequal. The Hastings Center Report 15(2): 27–31.

  13. Glascock, A.P. 1990 By Any Other Name, It Is Still Killing: A Comparison of the Treatment of the Elderly in America and Other Societies. In The Cultural Context of Aging. Worldwide Perspectives. J. Sokolovsky, ed. Pp. 43–57. New York: Bergin & Garvey Publ.

  14. Glascock, A.P. and S.L. Feinman 1986 Treatment of the Aged in Non-Industrial Societies. In Aging in Culture and Society: Comparative Viewpoints and Strategies. C.L. Fry, ed. Pp. 281–296. New York: J.F. Bergin.

  15. Guyer, J.I. 1984 Women in the Rural Economy: Contemporary Variations. In African Women South of the Sahara. M.J. Hay and S. Stichter, eds. Pp. 19–32. New York: Longman.

  16. Hay, M.J. 1976 Luo Women and Economic Change During the Colonial Period. In Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change. N.J. Hafkin and E.G. Bay, eds. Pp. 87–110. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

  17. Hay, M.J. and S. Stichler, eds. 1984 African Women South of the Sahara. London & New York: Longman.

  18. Håkansson, T. 1988 Bridewealth, Women and Land. Social Change among the Gusii of Kenya. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology 10. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International.

  19. Henn, J.K. 1984 Women in the Rural Economy: Past, Present, and Future. In African Women South of the Sahara. Hay, M.J. and S. Stichter, eds. Pp. 1–19. London & New York: Longman.

  20. Iliffe, J. 1987 The African Poor: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  21. Jackson, M. and I. Karp, eds. 1990 Personhood and Agency. The Experience of Self and Other in African Cultures. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology 14. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International. U.S. Distribution by Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

  22. Kilbride, P.L. 1987 Microtechnology in Rural Buganda. In Technology and Social Change. 2d ed. H.R. Bernard and P.J. Pelto, eds. Pp. 243–269. Prospect Heighis IL: Waveland.

  23. Kilbride, P.L. and J.C. Kilbride 1990 Changing Family Life in East Africa: Women and Children at Risk. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

  24. MacGaffey, J. 1988 Evading Male Control: Women in the Second Economy in Zaire. In Patriarchy and Class: African Women in the Home and the Workforce. S.B. Stichter and J.L. Parpart, eds. Pp. 161–176. Boulder, CO: Westview.

  25. Markson, E.W. 1990 Older Women in the American Family. Proceedings of the XIVth International Congress of Gerontology, Acapulco, Mexico. In Aging International 40. Washington, D.C.: International Federation on Aging.

  26. Marshall, V.W. 1985 Conclusions: Aging and Dying in Pacific Societies: Implications for Theory in Social Gerontology. In Aging and Its Transformations: Moving Toward Death in Pacific Societies. Pp. 251–274. D.A. Counts and D.R. Counts, eds. Lanham: University Press of America.

  27. Marshall, V.W. 1986 Dominant and Emerging Paradigms in the Social Psychology of Aging. In Later Life: The Social Psychology of Aging. V.W. Marshall, ed. Pp. 9–32. Beverly Hills CA: Sage.

  28. Mauss, M. 1939 Une Calegorie de l'Esprit Humaine: La Notion de la Personne, Celle de Moi. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 68: 263–282.

  29. Maxwell, R.J. and P. Silverman 1970 Information and Esteem: Cultural Considerations in the Treatment of the Aged. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 1: 361–392.

  30. Munachonga, M.L. 1989 Women and the State: Zambia's Development Policies on Women. In Women and the State in Africa. J.L. Parpart and K.A. Staudt, eds. Pp. 130–142. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

  31. Pala, A.O. 1980 Daughters of the Lakes and Rivers: Colonization and the Land Rights of Luo Women. In Women and Colonization: Anthropological Perspectives. M. Etienne and E. Leacock, eds. Pp. 186–218. Brooklyn: Praeger.

  32. Parpart, J.L. and K.A. Staudt 1989 Women and the State in Africa. In Women and the State in Africa. J.L. Parpart and K.A. Staudt, eds. Pp. 1–19. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

  33. Pelto, P. 1973 The Snowmobile Revolution. Menlo Park CA: Cummings.

  34. Poggie, J.J. and R.N. Lynch 1974 Introduction; Concluding Comments. In Rethinking Modernization: Anthropological Approaches. J.J. Poggie and R.N. Lynch, eds. Westport CT: Greenwood Press.

  35. Riesman, P. 1986 The Person and the Life Cycle in African Social Life and Thought. African Studies Review 29(2): 71–198.

  36. Robertson, C.C. 1984 Women in the Urban Economy. In African Women South of the Sahara. Hay, M.J. and S. Stichter, eds. Pp. 33–50. London & New York: Longman.

  37. Rubinstein, R.L. 1990 Nature, Culture, Gender, Age: A Critical Review. In Anthropology and Aging, R.L. Rubinstein, ed. Pp. 109–128. Dordreht: Kluwer Academic.

  38. Ryff, C.D. 1986 The Subjective Construction of Self and Society: An Agenda for Life-Span Research. In Later Life: The Social Psychology of Aging. V.W. Marshall, ed. Pp. 33–74. Beverly Hills CA: Sage.

  39. Simmons, L.W. 1945 The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society. New Haven: Yale University Press.

  40. Spencer, P. 1990 The Riddled Course: Theories of Age and Its Transformations. In Anthropology and the Riddle of the Sphinx: Paradoxes of Change in the Life Course. P. Spencer, ed. Pp. 1–34. London and New York: Routledge.

  41. Turner, V.W. 1967 The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

  42. United Nations 1991 The World's Women. Trends and Statistics. 1970–1990. New York: United Nations.

  43. United States Dept. of Commerce 1991 Global Aging: Comparative Indicators and Future Trends. (Wall Chart). Washington, D.C.: Economics and Statistics Administrations, Bureau of the Census

  44. von Mering, O. 1992 Societies in Transition: The Impact of Longevity on Generations. Educational Gerontology 18: 123–134.

  45. Wolf, E.R. 1982 Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Download references

Author information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Udvardy, M., Cattell, M. Gender, aging and power in sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and puzzles. Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology 7, 275–288 (1992). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01848695

Download citation

Key Words

  • gender
  • aging
  • power
  • personhood
  • Africa
  • intergenerational relationships
  • modernization
  • social change