“In the contemporary post-colonial history of Africa, Angola is known as the site of one of the most insidious conflicts to affect the continent,” explains Sizaltina Cutaia. The country, which gained independence from Portugal in 1975, experienced 27 years of civil war between the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA). The MPLA’s victory in 1991 ended the war in the country and, since then, that same party has remained in power.
We spoke with Sizaltina Cutaia and Maria Luiza, also known as Tchengita, who are activists working with Ondjango Feminista. Ondjango Feminista is an organization created in 2016, guided by the Charter of Feminist Principles for African Feminists. A feminism that is situated in issues that are particular to the African context. In the interview, they talked to us about women organizing in the struggle for their rights in the political context of Angola, what challenges women face in setting a collective feminist agenda, and shared their impressions and perspectives on the upcoming elections that will take place on August 24.
Since Angola’s independence in 1975, the country has been governed by the same party, and for a long time it was even governed by the same person – former president José Eduardo dos Santos, who was in power from 1979 to 2017. How does this lack of alternation and this party’s articulation to always remain in power affect the day-to-day life of Angolan people, especially women?
Siza: We will have elections on August 24th this year, and last week the President went to visit the province of Bengo as a presidential candidate. Public school teachers were instructed not to miss the visit. Whoever missed it could suffer pay cuts and other consequences. It’s 2022, it’s been 22 years since the war ended and 30 years since our first multi-party election. Even so, MPLA remains with hegemonic power, structuring almost all relationships in society. People are still afraid to say that they like another political party, because that is a party that gained its power through violence. The violence was very strong, to prevent people from really being able to organize and mobilize. Even with secret surveillance services spread across all structures, limiting the full exercise of citizenship by Angolans.
If there are elections and people can decide, how does the same party stay in power? How does the electoral process take place?
Tchenguita: People are afraid of reprisals. We are coming out of 27 years of civil war, in addition to other types of violence from 75 onwards, such as the 27th of May1 and the Bloody Friday2. All these violent events created a collective fear. We have a phrase that says “Shoosh, boy! Don’t say politics,” and we all grew up around that. This fear often causes people to vote for that party. But there is also another aspect, which is that the party uses all kinds of arbitrary and illegal means to remain in power. So, election fraud is common in this country.
I draw parallels between the current party and colonialism itself. They adapted certain colonialist tools to use on us. For example, people cannot hold public office positions if they are not members of the MPLA; this reminds me of the second- and first-class citizens of the colonial era. If you didn’t let go of your African ethnic cultural habits and assimilate, you wouldn’t succeed in life. The colonizers imposed taxes that people would not be able to pay, as they did not have access to jobs. This forced them to become assimilated with the imposed culture. That’s one thing they carried over into their politics.
Even in a political context that is this troubled and oppressive, women organize in feminist organizations and fight for their demands. We would like to understand a little of the history and current context of women’s struggle in Angola. Has there been progress in recent years?
Siza: There have been some steps forward, mainly in the regulatory sphere. A totalitarian regime needs to make some concessions to stay in power, like make-up reforms. We were able to pass certain laws in line with international standards. For example, we have a domestic violence law, but it has too many limitations to actively address the problem of violence against women. We have a national policy for gender equality with representation of women in parliament. In this year’s elections, the MPLA presented a list that includes 51% of women as candidates. This is a government made up of several women and in very important roles, but from a practical standpoint, to improve women’s social status, we still have a lot of work to do.
Adequate investment in the health sector is lacking. Almost every month there is some public health structure with millionaire investment being opened, but then it doesn’t work. The hospital that opened six months ago in Luanda had to be evacuated because it is at risk of fire. These investments are not quality investments, and they are not made to really improve the quality of people’s lives. Women continue to be harmed by the lack of clean water. If there is no drinking water, who will need stop working to carry water for the family? The women. Among other issues, we have very serious problems in Angola regarding obstetric violence, lack of medicines and sexual violence against girls and women.
The advances we do have are very few, but the struggle continues. I’m a bit older, but these girls, these young women with all that energy give us hope that at some point things might change. Many openly feminist young women are entering politics with a much more critical stance on the situation. The fact that they are becoming part this space that is still very much run by the parties’ agendas, those led by men, are cracks that are opening up. We hope that they can serve as a space to produce transformations.
In this case, how do Ondjango and other feminist organizations fight for these rights that are not guaranteed by the current government? What challenges do you face?
Tchenguita: The women’s organizations here are essentially civil society organizations that focus on much-needed issues such as women’s sexual and reproductive health, addressing sexually transmitted diseases like HIV and AIDS, and domestic violence. But they do not address key aspects and do not understand what motivates these same problems. Ondjango was born at a time when feminism was being talked about online, between 2015 and 2016. While this discussion was advancing in other countries, we were starting it here. To this day the term feminist is demonized and frowned upon.
Feminism is not accepted also because people say it is imported. “It’s a westernized concept, it has nothing to do with African culture.” This is an argument that all African feminists have to deal with. Ondjango had to conquer its space amid depreciation of the image of women who were part of the organization. But we were able to demonstrate that this is a space for political activism, and we were also able to win over women, which was our goal.
Siza: We always propose to put forward and discuss matters based on evidence. We produce our reports with information based on the reality faced by women. When we started a discussion, for example, on the issue of abortion, we went looking for information. We did some surveys on the internet for people to say what they thought, and we went to talk to those responsible for public maternity hospitals to give us statistics. One of the arguments used to defend the criminalization of abortion was that if decriminalized, girls would use abortion as a contraceptive method. We had data that indicated that most women who showed up to public hospitals for treatment in response to a botched abortion were women between the ages of 26 and 38, who were married and already had children. We promoted debates, produced opinion articles, produced information and prepared a documented letter to the national assembly. In that letter we explained why abortion is a public health issue, which had to be seen as a social justice issue. We arrived at the Assembly meeting, to which we had not even been invited, as the only ones who had a written document, and we were the first to speak, so we set the tone for the conversation.
In 2017 a new president came to power, but still from the same party, meaning there weren’t many changes. However, since 2017, the world has gone through several significant changes, including a global pandemic and increased exploitation of the global south by the north. How is the situation of Angolan women now and what is the level of participation of the feminist movement in the country at the moment?
Siza: We are a country whose economy is marked by informal labor that is based on women. It is the women that you see in the squares and doing the housework. The pandemic has affected women in a very direct manner. There have been discussions about how violence against women was increased by the pandemic. The very few battered women shelters we had were closed during lockdown periods. Also, we were facing a drought in Angola that seriously affected the populations of the southeast and south of the country. Because of this, we understand that our Department of Social Assistance needs to be reinforced by people who understand structural inequalities so that they can think of policies that respond to the specific needs of women.
Right now, there is a project developed by the Association of Social Workers of Angola to assess the social policies that exist in the country, and we have a partner from Ondjango with this group. We are trying to add a gender approach in this assessment so that we can make suggestions and recommendations for improvements in public policies.
And with the elections in August, what are the prospects for the future?
Tchenguita: We are feeling tense due to the violence and fraud that we know has been used in the past and can be used again. But if we go through the legal route, through transparency, the hope of having a change is huge. This time there was a huge change, mainly in everyone being together to remove this single party from power. The problem is that this power is not passive, and we are afraid.
Siza: I think we have hope. These elections will be the most disputed in the history of this country. Because today, in 2022, for the first time, the possibility of the MPLA losing the elections is real. The promises of the current president were not fulfilled, the opposition has a strong and charismatic candidate, and the system is overwhelmed. The opposition did something that civil society had been asking them to do for years: they formed alliances. Political parties managed to come together and form a united front, the United Patriotic Front. There are young people on this list, people who are not members of political parties, people who do not follow the logic conceived in Angola as to what is a party. A logic that says no one cannot criticize the leader or diverge from the system. This is something for us to celebrate. And I refuse to give up hope, because that would mean giving up this country that also belongs to us. And I truly believe that it is women who are going to change this country. The women who organize at the community level, the women with Ondjango, those in churches – they are organized and will change the country.
Interview by Bianca Pessoa
Translated from Portuguese by Carolina Facchin
1 On May 27, 1977, a rift between supporters of two different candidates of the MPLA party led to internal persecution that resulted in tens of thousands of Angolans being tortured, sent to concentration camps and shot without right to a trial.
2 Bloody Friday, in Angola, symbolizes the massacres perpetrated against Angolans of the Kikongo ethnolinguistic group on January 23, 1993.