From Mobilization to Organization: Women in Mozambique

Jennifer Leigh Disney. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 2: Country Profiles. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Historical Context

Placing women in Mozambique in the proper historical context involves first understanding the Mozambican experience with colonization and underdevelopment. Mozambique was colonized by the Portuguese, who arrived in southern Africa in 1498. The Portuguese began to settle and trade along the Mozambican coast in the 16th century and by the 17th century “competed with Arabs for the trade in slaves, gold, and ivory” (Torp, Denny, and Ray 1989, 12). To increase Portuguese colonial influence in the interior of the country, the Portuguese king granted prazos, large landed estates in the lower Zambezi Valley of Mozambique, to women prazeros provided they married Portuguese men: “Prazo ownership was designed to be kept in the female line for three generations in an attempt to bring Portuguese men in to settle the land; after that the land was supposed to revert to the king” (Sheldon 2002, 47). As the Portuguese colonial state increased in power after European colonial boundaries were established at the Berlin Conference in 1884, it succeeded in suppressing the resistance of African peoples, particularly the Macondes in the north and the Tsonga in the south, and eliminating the autonomy achieved by the prazeros.

Through the purchase of 25-year, renewable land concessions, three large companies controlled by foreign investors (the Mozambique Company, the Niassa Company, and the Zambezi Company) established Mozambique’s 20th-century, export-led colonial economy based on cash-crop production, forced cultivation, and settler farms of sugar, tea, tobacco, cashew, rice, maize, groundnuts, cassava, potatoes, copra, sisal, and cotton (Torp, Denny, and Ray 1989). The forced labor of cotton reached its height from 1938 to 1961, when almost 1 million peasants, the majority of whom were women, were legally required to plant cotton: “Despite the fact that most cotton growers in Mozambique were women, colonial authorities assumed ‘real’ producers to be male, just as they understood ‘real’ work to exclude a wide range of essential tasks they dismissed as women’s ‘domestic chores’” (Isaacman 1996, 2-3).

Despite claims to the contrary, Portuguese colonization was characterized by two racialized, hierarchical systems of economic, political, and cultural exploitation: (1) chibalo, a system of forced labor in which Mozambicans were forced to use their most arable land for cotton, which they picked at gunpoint for the infant textile industry in Portugal; and (2) the assimilado system, wherein those black Mozambicans who could prove themselves assimilated enough into Portuguese culture, through such measures as their ability to speak and write the language, style of dress, and cooking, could achieve higher political status, more human rights, and greater economic opportunities. The assimilado system was a racist system that defined both progress and humanity as moving from that which wa sAfrican to that which was European. Only 1 percent of Mozambicans ever achieved the assimilado identity. Writing in 1969, Eduardo Mondlane eloquently summarizes the consistent nature of Portuguese colonialism from the late 19th century to his leadership of and participation in the war for national liberation:

Thus, in the years between 1890 and 1910, the main characteristics of Portuguese colonialism were established: a centralized net of authoritarian administration; the alliance with the Catholic Church; the use of companies, frequently foreign, to exploit natural resources; the concession system; forced labour, and the extensive export of workers to South Africa. There have inevitably been minor changes; but in its essence, the system today is the same. (33-34)

The historical context of women in contemporary Mozambique begins with the decolonization struggles of African countries to achieve independence and self-determination. After World War II, when other European countries in Africa were accepting the concept of self-rule embodied in the expression, “Africa for the Africans,” the Portuguese held onto their overseas colonies particularly tightly. Mozambican independence from Portuguese colonization was won through the success of several anticolonial guerrilla movements that joined under the leadership of Eduardo Mondlane and Frelimo (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique [Liberation Front of Mozambique]) to fight for an independent Mozambique. In 1974, after a 10-year war of liberation against Portuguese colonization (and a military coup d’état in Lisbon), Frelimo seized state power and became the government of an independent Mozambique. In 1977, Frelimo officially adopted Marxism-Leninism as its ideology. In 1992, after a 16-year war against Renamo (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana [Mozambique National Resistance]), a foreign-created and foreign-funded counterinsurgency force established in 1976 by Rhodesian intelligence and subsequently funded by South Africa’s apartheid regime, Frelimo embraced multiparty democracy. A United Nations peacekeeping operation in Mozambique was created to monitor the implementation of the 1992 Rome Peace Accord, demobilize Renamo and Frelimo soldiers, transform Renamo from a military force into a political party, and create a stable environment for the country’s first multiparty elections in 1994.

Mozambique’s transition from a Marxist-Leninist, one-party state to a capitalist, multiparty state in the 1990s has had a significant impact on women’s organization and participation in politics. Women in Mozambique have transformed themselves from being mobilized by Frelimo for the purpose of achieving the nationalist and socialist goals of the party to organizing themselves for feminist political change within an active and growing women’s movement. During the revolutionary rule of Frelimo (1975-1990), there was only one women’s organization in Mozambique: the Organização das Mulheres Moçambicanas (OMM, or Organization of Mozambican Women). In fact, the OMM was created by Frelimo in 1973 to mobilize women in the revolutionary process. Although the OMM was the only organization for women throughout Frelimo’s one-party rule during the 1980s, today there are more than 60 autonomous women’s rights and gender-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the country that have had a tremendous impact on the nature of women’s organizing, the quality of women’s lives, and the achievement of gender-based initiatives and legal change. This transformation from mobilization to organization is an important part of the history of women in Mozambique.

The Birth of the OMM

The birth of the OMM was rooted in two previous organizations: Liga Feminina Moçambicana (League of Mozambican Women [LIFEMO]) and the Destacamento Feminino (Women’s Detachment). In 1966, during the clandestine war for liberation, Frelimo created a Women’s League, LIFEMO, which was based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. According to Carlos Cardoso, the Women’s League was effectively “a leaders’ wives’ club” (1999). The second organization for women created by the Frelimo Central Committee was the Destacamento Feminino. The Women’s Detachment was a military organization used to mobilize women to join the liberation struggle. In 1966, the Frelimo Central Committee decided that “women should take a more active role in the struggle for national liberation, at all levels” and that “the emancipation of women is central to the liberation struggle” (Organization of Mozambican Women 1980, 2). The political and military training of women began as an “‘experiment’ to discover just what contribution women could make to the revolution—how they would use their initiative, whether they were, in fact, capable of fulfilling certain tasks” (Women’s Section 1970).

Paulina Mateus, current secretary-general of the OMM, was part of this original experimental group of women. She had been involved in the revolutionary movement since she was very young, helping her father distribute letters inviting people to join the Frelimo movement: “When colonialists noticed, my father was jailed. I stopped my studies due to a lack of money to continue, and began working with friends of my father. In 1964, when the struggle started, my father was killed. Before he died, he said, ‘If I die, continue to work with my daughter … the first born, the only girl’” (Mateus 1999). Mateus went on to become a part of the first group of women who had military training: “In March 1967, myself and 27 other girls between the ages of 17 and 20 began political and military training” (Mateus 1999).

In many ways, the presence of armed women in and of itself served as a critical form of political education to “dispel myths about the innate incapacity of women” (Women’s International Resource Exchange 1980, 31). At the very least, it sparked a discourse about the differences and similarities between men and women. Manuel Tomé, former Frelimo secretary-general and current head of the Frelimo Parliamentary Group, described the debate that took place “trying to give women their adequate place” in the armed struggle: “There were very interesting discussions: women cannot do fighting versus women can do the same work. Of course, women and men are not biologically identical, but we are essentially the same. The Women’s Detachment was a turning point for women in Frelimo: not only were they taking care of children and old people, but they were also Freedom Fighters” (Tomé 1999). Women’s involvement in the Mozambican revolution as freedom fighters helped challenge traditional notions of women’s inferiority. Indeed, some have claimed that it was women’s military involvement in the war that gave women greater credibility in the early 1990s when they started demanding peace (Collier 1999).

In 1969, the Frelimo Central Committee decided that the Mozambican Women’s League, LIFEMO, should be completely fused with the Women’s Detachment to create a Women’s Section of Frelimo. According to Paulina Mateus (1999), support stopped for LIFEMO, and the group collapsed. Frelimo subsequently put its efforts into the Women’s Detachment, which had goals and objectives all over Mozambique. Josina Machel, wife of Samora Machel, first president of Mozambique after independence, was chosen to be the chief of the Women’s Detachment, coordinating all of the small military groups of women around the country. According to Mateus, the birth of the OMM was connected to the death of Josina Machel, who died on April 7, 1970, in armed combat during the national liberation struggle: “When she died, groups met, and decided to create an organization doing something else. Not just liberation fighting but something else” (1999). In 1972, the Central Committee of Frelimo decided to establish the OMM “as the arm of Frelimo in charge of mobilizing and uniting all women so that they will become involved in the revolutionary process” (Organization of Mozambican Women 1980, 3). The first conference to establish the OMM was held in 1973 in Tanzania. Delegations from several women’s detachments were sent to the conference.

There are many different explanations for the creation of the OMM, but one thing is indisputable: it was created by Frelimo. According to OMM secretary-general Paulina Mateus, “One of the objectives was to make sure all of the women participating in the struggle were in the organization and participating in liberation, seeking equality with the men and fighting against the exploitation of women” (1999). Former secretary-general of the OMM Salome Moiana stated in 1981 that because of the fact that in traditional society women are not “trained to participate in the life of the community, there was a need for an organization to politicize women and involve them in the struggle” (Women’s International Resource Exchange 1980, 31). Moiana states that the main objectives of the OMM were “to mobilize all Mozambican women regardless of race, position or place of birth” to support Frelimo, and to create an awareness among Mozambican women of women’s struggles in other countries (Women’s International Resource Exchange 1980, 31).

Despite Frelimo’s apparent commitment to the mobilization of women, both through the Women’s Detachment and the OMM, the question of mobilization toward what end remained. Stephanie Urdang (1985) points out that the importance of mobilization, while emphasized throughout the revolutionary struggle, was curiously absent from the strategy proposed for the emancipation of women:

Discussion of the need to mobilize women politically centers rather on mobilization to join the general tasks of the current phase of the revolution. But political mobilization expressly to fight for their rights as women, and against the attitudes and customs that perpetuate women’s subordination within both the home and the larger society, is treated for the most part as secondary. (Urdang 1985, 364)

The difference between mobilization as women and mobilization as Frelimo revolutionaries is a critical one, given the fact that the agenda of each group may or may not be the same. The most important criticism of the founding structure and operating mechanism of the OMM is that it was created by the Frelimo leadership and, as such, remains still to this day incorporated into the Frelimo Party. Former OMM secretary-general Salome Moiana stated that “the OMM did not arise as an autonomous initiative of women. It was, rather, an expression of Frelimo’s will to liberate women” [author’s emphasis] (Women’s International Resource Exchange 1980, 31).

Values and a Woman’s Place in Society

Mozambique is a culturally diverse society. Not only are there regional differences from the south to the center to the north of the country and religious differences from traditional African religions to Islam to Christianity, but there are also patrilineal and matrilineal marriage systems in the country and traditions of polygamy in both the Muslim and African patrilineal communities. As a result, at least four different sociopolitical cultures have had a material and ideological influence on the place women hold in society today: (1) traditional African patrilineal kinship systems, which exist predominantly in the south, including traditions of polygamy in both the African and Islamic communities; (2) traditional African matrilineal kinship systems, which exist predominantly in the north; (3) Portuguese colonial laws and customs; and (4) Marxism-Leninism.

Matrilineal and Patrilineal Societies in Mozambique

Two different types of marital, kinship, and inheritance systems exist in Mozambique: patrilineal in the south, and matrilineal in the north. In the southern patrilineal systems, the wife lives with the husband’s family after marriage, and the husband’s family pays lobolo, or brideprice, to the woman’s family in the exchange. The practice of lobolo refers to some kind of material exchange from the family of the groom to the family of the bride, representing a shift in ownership and responsibility for the bride, as she will leave her family and go to live with the family of her husband. Originally, lobolo only signified an alliance between two families. Money was first introduced into this custom during colonization (Women’s International Resource Exchange 1980, 30). The brideprice is seen as compensation from one family to another for the loss of the labor power the wife-to-be represents. It is important to note that in this custom the woman is acknowledged as having value in and of herself and her person, the loss of which is paid for economically. Lobolo, then, is very different from the exchange of a dowry, which is given to add value to the woman in question.

Many women in Mozambique, however, describe the payment of lobolo as a system in which the man is understood to have “paid” for the woman, and thus has power over her, their children, and her capacity to ever leave the marriage. According to a 1997 Women, Law, and Southern Africa study entitled Families in a Changing Environment:

The situation that we found shows that the marriage establishes an exchange of services between families in which “lobolo” has an economic and a moral basis and stabilizes the matrimony, making the husband and his family responsible for maintaining the woman. Marriage is patrilocal and the woman becomes the circulating element. Power over her is transferred from her family to that of her husband. In case of death of the husband, the woman continues to belong to the husband’s family, not inheriting, nor being able to decide about herself, her children, or even the items she brought in at the wedding. The woman rarely divorces either, because there are not many reasons that can legitimate a woman’s request, or because even if accepted by the relatives, the woman must always leave the children at her husband’s [author’s emphasis]. (28)

The practice of lobolo, therefore, limits the exercise of women’s agency in the marriage. Lobolo has been found to discourage divorce in patrilocal societies because the control of the woman is given to the husband and his family through an economic bond, meaning the woman would be expelled without her children after a divorce, and the lobolo would be paid back. It also indicates that the woman’s autonomy even after the husband dies is circumscribed. Responsibility for the widow often transfers to the husband’s brother. The OMM argues that lobolo puts women in a position of total dependence on men, “who, because they have paid for them, can use and disown them as mere objects” (Women and Law in Southern Africa Project 1997, 28).

In the northern matrilineal marriage systems, on the other hand, women have more power in terms of property and divorce because the husband lives with the wife’s family after marriage: “In Mozambique’s matrilineal societies, residence is with the wife’s family, and the social father of the couple’s children is the wife’s brother, whereas in patrilineal societies, the social father is the biological father and the children belong to the husband’s family” (Women and Law in Southern Africa Project 1997, 22). In many ways, there are significant differences between the power and decision-making available to women in each system. For example, in cases of domestic violence or divorce, women living with their own families in matrilineal systems have much more power: they have rights over the children, and often, it is the family of the wife that expels the husband in cases of violence, adultery, or divorce. In patrilineal systems, the husband and his family have exclusive rights over the children and banish the wife in cases of divorce, often accepting adultery on the part of the husband.

Nevertheless, in both systems it is still a man who often holds the property and decision-making power, even in the matrilineal systems. The 1997 Women and Law in Southern Africa study confirms these findings:

From the findings from the matrilineal groups, it can be concluded that although the marriage is defined and oriented by the wife’s family, the men continue to hold power as uncles and brothers. Although inequality is common in all regions, regardless of lineage, in matrilineal societies, the woman has greater possibilities to intervene to modify the model of traditional marriage. That is because she occupies a more socially visible position that reinforces her ‘destiny’ as producer of resources and children. (Women and Law in Southern Africa Project 1997, 28)

It is also important to keep in mind that in both matrilineal and patrilineal societies, the presence of children often determines the validity of the marriage, circumscribing the discourse and practice of women’s reproductive rights: “In every region of the country, both in cities and countryside, a marriage is only fulfilled when there are children as the guarantee of family reconstitution. Children are a resource and an investment that at the same time provide a symbolic recognition of the family in society…. In the social conception, a woman without children is not a complete person” (Women and Law in Southern Africa Project 1997, 24).

In such a diverse society, political culture, social and religious custom, and the rule of law have interacted through the years to situate women’s place in society. Since independence, Mozambique has attempted to create a unitary legal system, a hybrid of formal civil law and informal customary law. Much of the formal law in Mozambique has been carried over from the period of Portuguese colonization. The family, civil, and penal codes are only now being changed and updated in accordance with postcolonial values. Two great examples of legal change for women include the New Land Law of 1997 and the New Family Law of 2004.

The Land Campaign and the New Land Law in Mozambique

The most promising recent achievement for women in agricultural labor in Mozambique has been the passage of the 1997 Land Law. Led by the late Dr. José Negrão, a development economics professor and civil society activist who posthumously won the Southern Africa Trust Civil Society Drivers of Change Award, the Terra Campanha (Land Campaign), a movement of more than 200 NGOs, grassroots organizations, and churches, identified tenant security as the real problem for peasant producers, predominantly women, in Mozambique. Although women have worked the land for centuries, women have not always owned the land, which has usually been passed down through the husband’s lineage in patrilineal societies and through male relatives of women within matrilineal societies. Advocates for the New Land Law demanded that land ownership be granted to the “individual” or a “community,” not to the “head of household” or the “family,” both of which have historically, through customary and civil law, placed land rights in the hands of men. As the predominant agricultural producers in Mozambique, women have finally become the focus of the policies on land tenure. As a result, the New Land Law allows for two very unique aspects of land ownership: community ownership and the right to express land ownership through oral testimony. Because women in the field seldom owned property, the recognition of oral testimony is particularly important. Today, Mozambique is one of the only countries in Africa in which the rights of occupation can be asserted through oral testimony. However, although the Land Law establishes innovative support for women’s continued access to land, it does not address women’s disproportionate contribution to production and reproduction and therefore leaves unchallenged the gendered relationship of women and men to the land.

The Impact of Marxism-Leninism

One of the most important legacies of Frelimo’s Marxist-Leninist ideology is the incorporation of women into the national liberation struggle and the inclusion of women’s emancipation as one of the party’s stated goals. However, this same legacy contains several key limitations: (1) the assumption that the exploitation of all Mozambicans and the exploitation of Mozambican women was the same exploitation and that a fight to end the exploitation of [paid, male] workers in the public sphere of the market would also automatically eliminate women’s oppression and thus necessarily liberate women; (2) the focus on state-led, large-scale economic development projects despite the fact that the most popular form of agricultural production was family farming, which was performed predominantly by women; and (3) the economistic way women’s emancipation was conceptualized, thus increasing women’s labor burden by bringing them into paid labor while ignoring and avoiding women’s oppression in the sphere of the home and family and not simultaneously encouraging men to engage in reproductive labor. Thus, although the Marxist-Leninist [male] leaders of Frelimo deserve credit for mobilizing women and integrating them into the revolutionary struggle, they also deserve criticism for circumscribing and limiting women’s roles once they got there.

Mozambique’s 1975 Constitution did contain several strong statements establishing equality between women and men. The Constitution stated that women’s emancipation is “one of the essential tasks of the state,” that “women and men have the same rights and are subject to the same duties,” and that this notion should guide “all state legislative and executive action” that “protects the marriage, the family, motherhood and childhood.” Despite the constitutional mention of the family, fatherhood is conspicuously absent from the list of things the state must protect, suggesting that the discourse of Frelimo was, at best, gendered and, at worst, patriarchal. The sphere of home, family, and marriage continued to be understood as the sphere of women and children, thus perpetuating the sexual division of labor that allows men to abdicate their responsibility to engage in the reproductive labor of the household, including family farming, food provision, cooking, cleaning, and child care.

The history of male labor migrancy in Mozambique has often been cited as a major contributing factor to this sexual division of labor. In fact, migrant labor has both contributed to and challenged the sexual division of labor in Mozambique in interesting ways. Men’s migration to urban areas left women in the rural areas tending to the fields and engaging in all of the reproductive labor of the family economy. It has also created the conditions for women to become the head of household, pursue income-generating survival strategies, and assert decision-making power in the family. Still, although women were encouraged and, often through necessity, forced to engage in the productive labor of the money economy, men were not equally encouraged to assist in the unpaid labor of the family economy.

Moreover, though equality between men and women was established in the 1975 Constitution, it was not codified in the civil or customary law. Many women in Mozambique have worked for years to achieve postindependence legal change. One of the first attempts at legal reform in the revolutionary period was directed at the Family Law. In 1980, a Draft Family Law was prepared by the Ministry of Justice and the Faculty of Law at Eduardo Mondlane University as part of a Family Law Project. It was designed to replace the Portuguese Family Law and reform discriminatory customary law without directly addressing the diverse marriage systems that exist throughout Mozambique. From 1982 to 1990, parts of the Draft Family Law were put into use as a result of a Supreme Court of Appeals Directive, but not until 2003 was the Draft Law, after several years of consultation, research, and reflection throughout the country, actually debated in parliament. In 1999, Terezinha da Silva, former director of the faculty of social sciences at Eduardo Mondlane University, spoke of the organized efforts of the late 1990s among academic feminists to lobby parliament about the Family Law:

Two months ago, there was a proposal or request of the Ministry of Justice to discuss the Family Law. Men had attitudes at the issues raised. Some of us decided, let’s organize a group of women, feminists, to organize, to influence the parliament. On which issues can we get success? If you start with abortion, you’ll go down. So, we started with property rights, inheritance, maintenance. Mostly academic feminists…. We were so horrified with the attitudes of lawyers, educated men in Maputo, middle-upper class.

For the most part, achievements for women in the legal sphere in Mozambique have been limited by legal inaction and cultural norms. However, recently, because of the actions of women parliamentarians, feminists, and women’s organizations in civil society, significant legal changes have been made on behalf of women’s equality, such as passage of the 2004 Family Law. How have Mozambican women been able to organize themselves politically in the three decades since independence to achieve these kinds of successes?

Political Participation and Representation: Country-Specific Data

In 2008, with 34.8 percent of its National Assembly seats held by women, Mozambique had one of the highest percentages of women in parliament anywhere (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2008). Indeed, only 11 other countries in the world (seven European, three Latin American, and one African) surpassed Mozambique’s successful representation of women in its National Assembly (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2008). This is an amazing achievement for one of the poorest countries in Africa and one of the newest multiparty democracies in the world. How has Mozambique been able to achieve such success in the parliamentary representation of women?

Mozambique has done very well in increasing the political representation of women for a few key and internationally recognized reasons, most specifically, Frelimo’s adoption of a party quota for women candidates, and the use of a proportional representation, party list electoral system. At its sixth congress in 1992, the Frelimo Party decided to introduce quotas to ensure greater representation for women at all levels and in all bodies of the party (Abreu 2004, 6). Frelimo Party policy requires that 30 percent of the party’s candidates for the National Assembly be women. In addition, Frelimo’s policy also commits (though does not require) the party to balance the distribution of men and women throughout the party list.

From the party’s revolutionary inception, Frelimo sought to mobilize women and achieve greater women’s political participation. Soon after independence, the representation of women in Mozambique ranged from 12 percent at the national level to 28 percent in local assemblies (see Table 1).

Table 1. Percentages of Women and Men Represented at Different Levels of Government in Mozambique, 1977
National Assembly Provincial Assembly District Assembly City Assembly Local Assembly
Source: Organization of Mozambican Women (1980) .
Women 12.4 14.7 23.8 20.9 28.3
Men 87.6 85.3 76.2 79.1 71.7


Table 2. Percentages of Women and Men in Frelimo, 1999
Members of Frelimo Party Members of Central Committee Deputies of Assembly of Republic
Source: Frelimo Central Committee (1999) .
Women 42 28 43
Men 58 72 57


During the first multiparty parliament from 1994 to 1999, Frelimo boasted a very high representation of women at the national level (see Table 2). For Frelimo, the 30 percent quota for women is no ceiling; indeed, 42 percent of Frelimo members of Parliament (MPs) in 1999 were women. This represents a doubling since 1992.

In 1990, the representation of women in management positions within government ministries ranged from 0 percent in the ministries of defense, interior, and justice to 25 percent in the Ministry of Agriculture and 33 percent in the Ministry of Culture (Casimiro 1990). In 1993, of the 105 leadership positions in the civil service, 10 percent were occupied by women (Forum Mulher 1994, 13). The visibility of women in leadership positions in Mozambique has improved dramatically over the past decade. In 2004, Mozambique proudly boasted a woman prime minister (Luisa Diogo), a woman minister of higher education and technology (Lidia Brito), and two women spokespersons in the National Assembly for Frelimo (Veronica Macamo, first deputy speaker of the Assembly of the Republic) and Renamo-UE (Zelma Vasconcelos). After the 2004 elections, women took on an even greater role in administrative positions, appointed as seven ministers and four deputy ministers, including Alcinda Abreu as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation (see Table 3).

Having women in leadership positions is an essential component of any project of women’s empowerment, not to mention of dispelling myths of women’s incapacity and achieving a truly democratic society. However, the extent to which women will lobby for women-centered initiatives or further a feminist policy agenda once they attain leadership positions is as uncertain in Mozambique as it is anywhere in the world.

Table 3. Women’s Representation as Ministers and Vice Ministers in Mozambique, 1999 and 2005
1999 2005
Source: Hanlon, Mozambican Government, February 2005,
Number (%) of Women Ministers 3/24 (12.5%) 7/26 (26.9%)
Number (%) of Women Vice Ministers 5/18 (27.8%) 4/15 (26.7%)

Obede Baloi (1999) of The Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa, argues that Frelimo’s decision to set quotas for women’s representation has had a very important impact on women, not only in parliament, but also in society: “Women are not only to be in the kitchen, they can be in the parliament! Frelimo did more. Virgilia Matabele, a woman MP, was the Deputy Chair of the Frelimo group in parliament. Having a woman communicating decisions of the ruling party has an impact” (1999). Sérgio Viera (1999), founding member of Frelimo, also applauded the party’s accomplishments in bringing more women into parliament, though he suggested that many more women need to be governors of provinces and district administrators.

The gains in women’s political representation in Mozambique are often cited as evidence of the party’s commitment to the emancipation of women. For Gertrudes Victorino, that commitment is obvious: “Of course they [Frelimo] had an analysis of women’s oppression. They gave us space. Otherwise, we could not be in the parliament, for example. Women are inside Frelimo, in the government at every level: city council, provincial, national. Ministers and vice ministers, directors of firms and factories….” Mozambique credits the Marxist perspective of Frelimo with helping women gain greater political representation than in many liberal democracies: “The Marxist perspective was clearly reflected in the constitution of 1975—equality for everyone—‘sex’ included … The 1990 constitution also has no discrimination based on sex” (1999). Edda Collier, gender specialist at the Ministry of Social Action, believes it was this framework that enabled the OMM to lobby for a quota for women within all organs of the party and Frelimo decision-making bodies.

The relationship between the OMM and Frelimo has had an important impact on women’s political representation. The OMM was the instrument through which Frelimo was able to mobilize women in the revolutionary one-party state; in the postrevolutionary multiparty state, the OMM is doing more, with the help of autonomous organizations in civil society, to lobby Frelimo. But one thing seems constant: the women who rise within Frelimo and the OMM are the same women. Signe Arnfred, a Danish sociologist who worked with the OMM, argues that the organizational identity of the OMM was determined by Frelimo: “All the time I was there, from 1980 to 1984, they didn’t do anything that was not confirmed by the party. They never took initiatives; there was never disagreement. The party sent initiatives down to the OMM. On the whole, in the OMM the line was very much in my view given from the top down” (1999). Arnfred’s perception of the nature of the relationship between the OMM and Frelimo was confirmed by Ana Rita Sithole, Frelimo MP and OMM member. Sithole noted that: “Sometimes we feel Frelimo uses us for mobilization for elections and that we are not a part of the big decisions. There is a tense relationship. However, most of the OMM leaders have Frelimo responsibilities. If not, they will not rise—they will not become an OMM leader” (1999).

Not only is party support important for becoming an OMM leader, but membership in the OMM is an important prerequisite for women who wish to become party candidates for public office. Perhaps one of the most important roles of the OMM today is submitting names of women to the party for elected positions. Generossa Cossa was elected to the Maputo city council working in the areas of gender, youth, social assistance, and civic education: “I was elected as an OMM member. I am still an active member of OMM. It is a really strong organization. If you go to a meeting, you’ll feel that! People fight to get seats, to get elected” (1999). The OMM seems to be the path toward electoral success for women not just on the local but also on the national level. Generossa Cossa also noted that the secretary of the OMM of Maputo city had a list of 600 women who want to be members of the National Assembly: “The OMM is one of the ways to get into parliament” (1999).

Despite a brief period of autonomy, the shift from a revolutionary one-party state to a postrevolutionary multiparty state propelled a major transition for the OMM, from being the organization of all Mozambican women to being the women’s organization of the Frelimo Party. Renamo does not have a party quota for women, nor does it have a women’s organization. Thus, women’s path to political office in Mozambique tends to be a partisan discussion: the Frelimo party seems more committed to the representation of women in parliament than Renamo (in the second parliamentary session from 1999 to 2004, Frelimo had 54 women MPs whereas Renamo had 23 women MPs). Indeed, despite the desire and efforts of several Frelimo and Renamo women MPs to create a women’s caucus in the National Assembly, partisan divides have made it difficult for women from both parties to come together as women in parliament to effect political change. This begs the question: What impact have women MPs had in the Mozambican parliament once they have gotten there?

Limits to Women’s Political Participation and Representation

Despite the fact that 34.8 percent of Mozambique’s National Assembly seats are held by women, Mozambique only has a Gender-Related Development Index of 0.373 according to the 2007/2008 UNDP Human Development Report (United Nations Development Programme 2008). Women’s political representation numerically does not necessarily translate into women-centered policy initiatives substantively, especially in one of the poorest countries in the world, which is struggling to meet the basic human needs of all of its citizens. In other words, the representation of women in national legislatures is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for women’s empowerment. This is true for two main structural reasons: (1) the descriptive representation of women in national legislatures may not translate into the substantive representation of women-centered or feminist policy initiatives; and (2) the infrastructure necessary for women’s empowerment may be as much absent in the country as the infrastructure necessary for overall human development for all citizens.

Has the descriptive representation of women in Mozambique led to substantive representation for women? As the Mozambican National Assembly just completed its second, multiparty term in 2004, it may be too early to tell. However, concerns have been raised by women activists in civil society, and expectations are high. Elisa Muianga (1999) and Celeste Nobela Bango (1999) formerly of MULEIDE (Mulher, Lei, e Desenvolvimento [Women, Law and Development Organization]) share their cynicism, speaking of the difference between the quantitative and qualitative aspects of women’s representation after the first multiparty parliament in Mozambique from 1994 to 1999:

In Africa, Mozambique has the second-highest percentage of women in parliament. The question is to know if they are fighting for women inside. Are they representing women? Probably not Frelimo, but women in parliament are discussing it in meetings with other organizations. We cannot be happy with the number of women in parliament but with the quality of women in parliament. This is the first parliament. It is a quick evaluation, but we are not satisfied. But, they are learning now. They have no practice. We must give them time, then criticize them [author’s emphasis]. (Muianga 1999) Ivete Mboa also shared her skepticism of the difference between the quantity and the quality of women serving in parliament. According to Mboa, while many women have ideas, some women “choose the party and not the people” (1999). In discussing the composition of political power in parliament, Carla Braga concurs that numbers are not enough: “How many times did this woman make an intervention in parliament? How many times was she heard?” (1999). Despite the fact that there has been an increase in the number of women in parliament, many women continue to assert, “you don’t necessarily get empowerment from participation” (Collier 1999). Not only can this be due to the ineffectiveness of women’s political participation, but it can also be due to economic underdevelopment and a lack of economic opportunities for women.

Economic Participation: Country-Specific Data

How does the overall state of underdevelopment in Mozambique present limits to women’s economic and political participation? Data from the 2007/2008 UNDP Human Development Report, shown in Table 4, reveal the harsh reality of life expectancy for all Mozambicans, as well as the gendered reality of adult literacy, access to education at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels, and estimated annual earned income.

Table 4. Human Development and Demographic Facts about Mozambique
Source: United Nations Development Programme (2008) .
* HDI = Human Development Index.
† No wage data are available. For the purposes of calculating the estimated female and male earned income, a value of 0.75 was used for the ratio of the female nonagricultural wage to the male nonagricultural wage.
HDI* rank No. 172
HDI value 0.384
Female life expectancy 43.6 years
Male life expectancy 42.0 years
Female adult literacy 25.0%
Male adult literacy 54.8%
Female combined gross school enrollment 48.0%
Male combined gross school enrollment 58.0%
Female estimated earned income (PPP $US) $1,115
Male estimated earned income (PPP $US) $1,378
% Seats held by women in Parliament 34.8%

As these data reveal, the quality of life of all Mozambicans is seriously threatened. Women suffer disproportionately within this environment because of their relationship to home, family, and subsistence agriculture in Mozambique. Economic development is a key component of any agenda of women’s empowerment.

Formally, women’s equal economic status was officially codified in the Mozambican Constitution. Article 17 states that: “women and men have equal rights and duties in the economic sphere.” Moreover, several important laws grant women rights in the economic sphere. The Law of Sixty Days (1976) permits pregnant women workers 60 days paid leave. Article 228 of the Rural Labor Code grants all women workers the right to miss two days of work per month without losing any salary. And in 1981-1982, the Labor Act was passed, which enacted legislation to protect women from job and wage discrimination. But in reality, women’s participation in the paid sphere is very low in Mozambique, while their participation in unpaid reproductive labor is enormous. In 1990, women accounted for only 1 percent of wage laborers. Moreover, only 1 percent of women worked in cooperatives, 8 percent of women worked in industry, and 19 percent of women worked in the commercial sector. And while 97 percent of women worked in the agricultural sector, only 1 percent of women worked in agricultural cooperatives. This means that the other 96 percent of women working in the agricultural sector were engaged in the unpaid reproductive labor of subsistence family farming. Women “are the main people directly responsible for food production, and through their domestic work ensure the reproduction of the labor force. Due to their excessive workloads and low educational levels, women continue to occupy the worst paid jobs and to have difficulty in obtaining formal employment” (Forum Mulher 1994, 29).

Limits to Women’s Economic Participation

In sub-Saharan Africa, women contribute 60-80 percent of the labor in food production both for household consumption and for sale (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 1998). In 1975, at the time Frelimo came into power in Mozambique, it was estimated that women contributed three-quarters of the labor required to produce the food consumed in Africa, and 90 percent of the Mozambican population lived and worked in rural areas (Davidson 1988, 228). Most of the agricultural production at that time was family farming, and most of it was done by women. The women who were family farmers always hoped to produce not only enough to feed their households but also a surplus to sell, so they could buy other necessities, including soap, cooking oil, and capulanas (hoes) (Urdang 1989, 59). In 1975, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, women provided 90 percent of the labor for processing food crops and providing water and fuelwood for the household, 90 percent of the work in hoeing and weeding, 80 percent of the labor in food storage and travel from farm to village, and 60 percent of the work in harvesting and marketing (Lele 1975, 46-50). Today, these figures have not dramatically changed. According to Africa Recovery, despite some variation from country to country, in many African countries, women continue to account for up to 80 percent of food production, earning women farmers the title “invisible producers” (Africa Recovery 1997, 1). In addition to women’s invisible subsistence agricultural production, all of the unpaid reproductive labor of the household performed predominantly by women has historically not been counted as part of economic activity. The 1995 United Nations Human Development Report estimated that in addition to the officially estimated $23 trillion of global economic output, $16 trillion of unpaid and underpaid work is performed around the world, $11 trillion of which is the unpaid, invisible work of women (8). And yet, women are not usually considered part of the economically active population unless their work involves cash transactions:

Gender struggles and issues also permeate the countryside. Women participate extensively in agricultural production, undertake most household duties and child care, and comprise a growing percentage of informal traders. Yet rural surveys, credit schemes, extension programs and private company practices tend to privilege men and neglect the work that women do. Many rural assessments of agricultural output, smallholder income, or even food security assume that the male is the head of the household, use male interviewers to gather data, and rely on male informants for information about crops, trees, harvests, and income. (Pitcher 2002, 169)

Women’s unpaid subsistence agriculture, family farming, and all of the other types of unpaid labor performed in the reproductive sphere of the family economy have not been considered active contributions to the productive economy by the colonial state, capitalist development experts, or socialist revolutionary leaders. Despite their rhetorical commitment to women’s emancipation, Frelimo focused on production at the expense of reproduction without seeing the intersection of the two spheres from the perspective of women. Moreover, a restructuring of the reproductive sphere in Mozambique did not accompany Frelimo’s plan for women’s emancipation, which focused exclusively on the increased participation of women in the productive economy. The revolutionary policies of the Frelimo government were designed to emancipate women through their “real participation” in the economy. With 80-90 percent of women engaging in subsistence agriculture to feed their families and sell their goods in informal markets, the question can be raised: Weren’t women “really” participating in the Mozambican economy already? While men in Mozambique tend to be cash croppers or migrant laborers working for a low wage, the majority of women are food croppers engaging in unpaid subsistence farming “not only for themselves and their dependents but [for] the male workers as well” (Sheldon 1991, 576). Moreover, women’s responsibility for all the unpaid household labor and childrearing constitutes their dual labor burden. Yet historically, women have not been considered part of the economically active population because they were not involved in the money economy. Obviously, determining who is considered a part of the economically active population will also determine who gets to help shape economic policy, in whose interests such policy will be shaped, and who will benefit.

During the 1980s, Frelimo’s emphasis on large-scale state farms, the subsequent devaluation of subsistence and family farming, the gendered access to paid agricultural labor on state farms and to full cooperative membership, and the perpetuation of the sexual division of labor in the sphere of reproduction all reveal limits to women’s economic participation. However, since Mozambique adopted a multiparty democratic state in the 1990s, women’s increased political participation has gone a long way toward achieving greater empowerment for women in the family. The best evidence of this is the New Family Law.

Women’s Mobilization and Civil Society: The Successful Passage of a New Family Law

The New Family Law, in draft form for more than 20 years before it was passed in the Mozambican Parliament in December 2003, epitomizes both the historical and cultural impediments to change, as well as the legal and material achievements of Mozambican women lobbying in parliament and organizing in civil society. Through a combination of government initiatives, efforts of women MPs, and, most importantly, pressures and demands placed on both by women’s organizations in civil society, the successful passage of an extremely progressive Family Law was achieved after years of research and struggle. The history of the Family Law is a long one, involving actions on the part of executive governmental commissions, legislative assemblies, and NGOs in civil society. According to Maria Angelina Dique Enoque, Renamo MP, “I think that very honestly the pressure was from women in civil society. I do not want to say that women MPs were not interested in the law, because we were. [But] the Family Law was one of the moments society used women MPs to help in this project” (2004). In other words, despite the necessary efforts of governmental commissions and the national legislature, it was women’s organizations in civil society pushing from the outside and pressuring such governmental agencies on the inside that did the most to achieve the successful passage of a, perhaps flawed but also feminist, New Family Law.

In 1998, the Ministry of Justice, under the direction of the president, ordered the Commission for Legal Reform to study, research, and draft a new version of the 1980 Draft Family Law in consultation with civil society organizations. Such women’s organizations as Forum Mulher, MULEIDE, Women and Law in Southern Africa (WLSA), and the Association of Women Lawyers not only played a crucial part in drafting the law, but also assisted in the process of conducting research, holding discussions, and assessing attitudes in every province throughout the country. From 1998 to 2001, there was a real attempt to identify the attitudes of Mozambican citizens in urban and rural areas before and after the new version of the law was drafted.

However, once a new draft was sent to the National Assembly in 2001, it stalled and was not debated in Parliament. In fact, according to Celeste Nobela and Emanuela Mondlane of Forum Mulher, from 2001 to 2003, parliamentarians made numerous excuses for why the law was not being addressed (2004). It was simply pushed off of the legislative agenda because it was not a priority—or perhaps because it was too controversial to deal with a fundamental restructuring of the Mozambican family. As part of a civil society campaign to promote the adoption of the New Family Law, Forum Mulher organized a women’s march to the National Assembly building in November 2003. Women demonstrated and demanded that the president of the Assembly of the Republic, Eduardo Joaquim Dinis Erasto Mulembwev, come out and address them. Women leaders in civil society had written a statement that they read to Mulembwev, demanding that the Family Law be discussed and passed during the current session of Parliament. Amazingly, after 20 years of legal inaction and two years of stalling within Parliament, in December 2003, just one month after the march, the bill was passed. Pressure from organized coalitions of women’s groups outside government was essential to convince Mozambican MPs to take action on behalf of women for legal change in the country.

What Does the Law Accomplish for Women?

Overturning years of patriarchal privilege in the family, the new law recognizes shared leadership and property in the family. The law goes very far in improving the status of women in the family in three key areas: (1) it challenges the assumption of a male head of household—a woman or a man can be the chief of the family; similarly, either partner may legally initiate a divorce; (2) it establishes the right of a husband or wife to work—the right to work cannot be restricted by either partner, and the wife no longer needs to ask her husband’s permission to go into business or contract debts; (3) it establishes the equal protection of the children of traditional, customary, religious, and civil marriages.

One of the most difficult and controversial areas of the law was its attempt to recognize religious and customary law alongside civil law. In April 2004, President Joachim Chissano returned the law to Parliament with claims that the sections of the law dealing with the mutual recognition of religious, civil, and customary marriages were unconstitutional. The Assembly’s Legal Affairs and Social Affairs commissions reworked the law in light of Chissano’s objections. On August 24, 2004, during an extraordinary session of the Assembly of the Republic, the amended bill was passed unanimously and with acclamation. The New Family Law took effect 180 days after its publication in the official gazette, the Boletim da Republica, to allow time for changes in other legislation affected by the law, such as the Inheritance Law, and to train registrars and religious and traditional dignitaries in what the law requires of them (Mozambique Information Agency 2004).

The law recognizes both customary marriages and de facto unions. Ade facto union is defined in the law as a woman and a man cohabitating for at least three years but not marrying legally. De facto unions are the most prominent form of relationship in urban areas. The New Family Law also attempts to provide protections to women and children without challenging the traditional or religious belief systems of polygamy, patrilineality, or Islam. Under the new law, women within de facto unions and traditional or religious marriages of all kinds, including polygamous ones, would be able to seek alimony, maintenance, or custody in the case of divorce or separation, even though the couple may have never legally married. Only about 10 percent of marriages in Mozambique are official, civil marriages through the state. Ninety percent of marriages are customary, traditional, or religious. Most importantly, the recognition of noncivil marriages affords the law the opportunity to protect the children of these unions. The New Family Law eliminates the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children and affords both equal rights. In addition, the law raises the minimum age of marriage for boys from 16 to 18 and for girls from 14 to 18, although it allows exceptions for girls at 16 “under special circumstances” and with parental consent (Mozambique Information Agency 2003). The law also makes it easier for couples to adopt and acknowledges the concept of “foster family” for the first time in Mozambican history. The practice of taking in foster children has become very common in Mozambique because of the number of children orphaned or abandoned during the war years, or whose biological parents are dying of HIV/AIDS. The New Family Law, achieved through the active organization of women in civil society, makes great strides in establishing women’s equality in the family and challenging the history of patriarchal family structures in Mozambique.


Mozambique’s transition from a one-party Marxist-Leninist state to a multiparty capitalist state has ushered in new opportunities for women. Frelimo has always been committed to women’s participation in the party structure and in the OMM, but the extent to which women have had the autonomy to question the party and/or develop a feminist agenda has been questionable. After years of inaction, a very progressive New Family Law has been passed, establishing women’s legal equality in the family. The role of women MPs and the rise of autonomous NGOs outside the realm of Frelimo and the OMM, such as Forum Mulher, MULEIDE, and WLSA, have been crucial to such legal achievements within the Assembly of the Republic. The interaction between women’s organizations in civil society and women MPs has shaped the discourse around these issues by setting the terms of the debate and putting women and women’s rights at the center. Moreover, women’s organizations in civil society have influenced women MPs through their research, lobbying efforts, and pressuring of parliament to achieve legal changes for women from a feminist perspective. The women’s organizations of today will have the responsibility of continuing to address the issues of importance to Mozambican women, such as economic development, women’s legal equality, and education, and highlighting the issues historically difficult to get on the agenda of women’s empowerment in Mozambique, such as violence against women and reproductive rights. Moreover, women MPs will have the challenge of working across party lines to cultivate women’s gender identities within parliamentary structures and work toward more bipartisan women-centered policy initiatives.