Léocadie-Aurélie Billy

Early Motherhood and Matriarchy
Questioning Feminism in Africa

Being a teenage mother contradicts the principles of a patriarchal society. However, early motherhood can result in a de facto matriarchy which should challenge feminism and even all African women. An ethics of palaver and communitarian solidarity might provide useful insights to the unfolding reflection of the issue.

Être précocement mère n’a pas le droit de cité dans une société patriarcale. Toutefois, cette maternité précoce peut engendrer un matriarcat de fait, lequel doit interpeller le féminisme et voire toute femme africaine.  Une éthique de la palabre et de la solidarité communautaire apporterait un éclairage utile à la réflexion sur la question.


Could the phenomenon of early motherhood lead to a new form of matriarchy? Frequently, children who are born to a teenage mother are rejected by the biological father, forcing the mother to undertake all parental responsibility. Moreover, the child will identify in relation to his or her mother’s family. The result is a link between teenage motherhood and matriarchy.

 My purpose is not to encourage unmarried motherhood through which young people could conquer today’s society by becoming mothers early. Rather, I intend to show that a form of matriarchy results from early motherhood and can be organized inside a patriarchal society.

 This study is tripartite: it will first try to understand the phenomenon of early motherhood; then it will attempt to articulate early motherhood and matriarchy in the context of a patriarchal society; Finally, it will address a double question: How does early motherhood challenge feminism in Africa? What can be the role of African woman theologians in relation to this phenomenon?

 1. Understanding the phenomenon of early motherhood

 Early motherhood means to become a biological mother during adolescence. As a starting point I take the WHO (World Health Organization) data that sets the age of adolescence between 10 and 19 years. In Togo, an adolescent acquires sexual majority at the age of 16 years, by law.[1]

Today, early motherhood is very widespread. According to a WHO report in 2013, it is estimated that nearly 7.3 million girls become mothers before the age of 18 each year, or 19% of the respective age. In West and Central Africa, the number reaches 28%, and 17.3% in Togo. It is a phenomenon of immense proportions, and it is a multi-dimensional problem that affects the mother, the community and the child.

 Generally, to become a mother means for a teenager finding herself in the middle of identity issues : She is met by other people’s crushing gaze : How did she get there? What are the possible causes of her condition? A study made about this group of girls reveals two categories of causes: exogenous and endogenous ones.

Exogenous causes, on the one hand, are due to family and religious contexts: the financial situation, „tabooing“ of sexuality, the lack of religious references as well as gender inequality in access to schooling and intergenerational transmission. The endogenous causes include the self-affirmation of the ability to become a woman, an unconscious desire for a child, the ignorance of the relationship between sex and motherhood, the non-use of protective means and contraception, mimicry behavior, the obsession with a higher living standard, hence an immoderate desire for easy money, the trap of „chic, shock, check“, with „chic“ representing the beloved man, „shock“ the boyfriend for dating, and „check“ the partner who provides for material needs, usually a married man with whom the girl maintains discreet relationships. However, everyone knows that many causes of early pregnancies are rooted in patriarchy which seems to protect unfaithful men who do not value virtue and honesty . Facing candid and naive adolescents, some men promise marriage, which often results in violence, manipulation, psychological or sexual harassment, etc.

If the causes of teenage pregnancy are multiple, its consequences are equally diverse, affecting the girl herself as well as her family, her community and the child. As for the parents and the clan, especially in a patrilineal context, unmarried pregnancy always holds the risk of having „different blood“ in the family. As for the girl, she may experience feelings of psychological retaliation, shame and guilt. These may lead her into a denial of pregnancy. Faced with the refusal to accept the pregnancy and the desire to realize her dreams of life, the teenager may opt for abortion. For those who carry their pregnancy full term, the child often becomes a „welfare case“. A father who runs away voluntarily or is rejected by the mother can cause emotional deprivation of the child. « Bastards » and, moreover, victims of a lack of family and social solidarity, these children are subject to all kinds of qualifications: „street children“ (Kpeji) „child witches“ (nagimbii), etc.[2]

Does this bleak picture of the phenomenon of early motherhood not reveal in the words of Eric Macé, « in discrimination and insidious forms of subordination, the persistence of patriarchal domination“,[3] that obliges one, in favor of an ethic of life, to plead for the acceptation of forms of a de facto matriarchy?

 2. De facto matriarchy in a patriarchal society

 The phenomenon of early motherhood generates a kind of matriarchy. Composed by the Latin mater, matris, (mother) and the Greek arkhe (sovereignty, rule), matriarchy means organization of the child’s life by the authority of the mother or the mother’s family. It is defined by Larousse 2012 as a form of society in which women have the predominant authority in the family. Here I will analyse matriarchy as it is organized in a patriarchal system.

Understanding de facto matriarchy

 By „de facto matriarchy“ I mean a situation in which women, because of the vagaries of life, are forced to replace the father and to get their families involved in the organization of the life of the child. This situation can also be deliberately chosen by the mother who installs herself as the exclusive parent, establishing a single-parent family. In this case the mother is often living in symbiosis with her child, making it her possession, her only object of desire. Thus, the child’s universe is restricted. De facto matriarchy can be voluntary or involuntary.

 Matriarchy is in the first place a concept of parenthood that is based on matrilineal descent. As kinship is the foundation of all social organization, in matriarchy the offspring is determined by uterine descent. Thus, uncles and maternal aunts are the first agents to encourage and support the young pregnant woman not to opt for abortion. These relatives are an insurance for the young mother who, even facing the virtual death of her partner, will not be left alone. Moreover, another remarkable aspect in the matriarchal system remains the father’s absence in terms of law, an absence that leads to defining matriarchy under three aspects: matrilinearity or transfer by the mother’s blood, matrilocality that is the organization of social life around the mother, and the avonculat meaning that the role of social fatherhood is provided by the maternal uncle. The mother, by default, takes the father’s place, with the support of the aunt and maternal uncle. Even if the progenitor is known, he has no right to the child.

Let’s remember this fundamental reality in the African worldview: the child is essential for the survival of its three-dimensional community, the living, the dead and not-yet-born. If an African cannot survive unless he or she has descendants to perpetuate his or her memory and pass it from generation to generation, welcoming and integrating a child, regardless how it came into being, may not be a problem. So, welcoming the niece’s child as maternal family guarantees the survival of the community. It follows that the African worldview does not reduce life to biological fertility, as there is moral and psychological transfer of life as well. This transfer is received from any person who acts in an ethically good way and helps others to lead a life in human dignity. [4]  Moreover, in the Nawda tradition (in Togo), for example, matriarchal and patriarchal systems of organization have never meant domination of one sex over the other, but a social order based on authority and maternal or paternal filiation. We must not confuse this social order with a political regime of  gynecocracy, in which power is exercised by women in the sense of a „Mutterrecht“.[5]

Three basic rituals for the child’s identification: name, circumcision, transmission

 The social integration of a child into the mother’s genealogy works through fundamental rituals that refer to name-giving, circumcision and transmission. In principle, it is the father or his family who carry out the rituals of social childbirth. In the case of early motherhood these rituals are accomplished by the maternal family.

 In the Togolese legal system which is modeled by European ideas, the child is identified by his father’s surname. In addition, even if sometimes the choice is left to the woman, it is usually the father who gives the first name to the child. This is often the name of a personality of its own lineage in order to perpetuate the name of the clan. In the Nawda culture, as in many other African cultures, the name is of utmost importance. As the name is „the very condition of the personality and the philosophical destiny of the individual, even the preliminary integration into his or her community,“[6] it conveys a theo-anthropocentric philosophy and is, in itself, a kind of life-program assigned to its holder. In general, at birth, names are chosen or enacted by concomitant events during pregnancy or at birth. Drawing his or her social, cultural and philosophical value from the name, the name-bearer somehow escapes social death. This is what has been observed in children forced by the problem of early motherhood to bear their mother’s surname in order to exist. As genetic paternity is not recognized because of the father’s rejection, the child remains unnamed according to the patriarchal system. Due to the biological father’s strangeness to the child’s maternal family, it belongs to his or her mother’s clan which excludes the progenitor. Integrated by name-giving into the clan of his mother, the child begins to exist socially. He or she thus has a name by which it is attached to a clan, which allows the community to identify the child in relation to a group.

 According to the Nawda tradition, it is the mother who transmits moral values to the children. However, the ceremony of male circumcision is assumed by men: first of all by the uncle or the father, if he has the required age. Circumcision marks the transition from childhood to adulthood by integrating the young man into his father’s community almost definitively. This ritual marks the boy’s separation from the mother and the father’s recognition of the son’s legitimacy. Thus, the boy becomes full member of his father’s clan. Circumcision marks a community’s identity compared to other communities. As a prelude to initiation and an expression of bravery, circumcision requires the presence of a strong father who symbolizes the transmission of masculine values. The presence of the father, or a substitute designated in the father’s lineage, is essential. In the case of de facto matriarchy, this role is played by the maternal uncle, thus definitely integrating the young man in his mother’s genealogy.

 The education of a girl at menarche is assigned to the maternal aunt called in Kabye Dagoo “ Scout mom.“ Listening, observing and watching are her principal means of guiding the girl through the kpaturu, the girl’s introduction into female accountability. Thus, the girl is gradually initiated into the secrets of women. As the authority, the aunt assumes the role of the mother, as the true initiator into womanhood.[7] It is her duty to monitor the girl’s virginity. She teaches her to respect her body and to honor her mother’s family. The safest way to protect the girl is to integrate her into a group of the same-aged, in which solidarity is required. The girl is or will be obliged to submit to group work: the kpaturu or cooperative. This is the framework par excellence in learning a woman’s role. Any shame or insult for a moral offense committed by a girl, then, falls back to the aunt. We say to her: « His bi Igim or basa Bariti »: you, woman, you dropped your honor. It is a shame for a woman to have been unable to educate her daughter’s self-respect in the sense of dignity, self-control, endurance, and above all loyalty to the customs of the community as infidelity is a symbol of lying, weakness of mind, theft, cheating, deceit. The instruction of the girl thus aims to avoid such shame for the Dagoo – the aunt – and through her to the whole maternal family. She also helps to releave certain constraints and prepare the girl for her future role as mother and educator.

 3. Feminism in the face of early motherhood

The wind of Western-style women’s emancipation did not skip the African continent. In recent decades, African women’s voices have risen above all with regard to the issues of eliminating discrimination against women, women’s empowerment, gender and gender equality. However, what could be the axis of a genuine feminist struggle in Africa?

 For an anthropocentric feminism in Africa

 Early motherhood is a specifically female problem. If African feminists do not try to restore the lost faith of these young adults in humanity, if they do not help the society to imagine other forms of the family than the classic nuclear family, the multiple efforts to curb a macho patriarchate will be in vain in Africa. In this context, the call of Joy Phumaphi is very challenging. For her, more than ever, women in general and in particular African women must answer to the challenge of pregnant teenager and of the de facto matriarchy that their situation engenders. She said to us women: „You, the most deserving and most dedicated advocates of a safe motherhood, you are called to act, because you can change their lives.“[8] Josée Ngalula, as an African intellectual, has understood her call to action and, by her many publications, has really begun to concretely consider and respect the status of her sisters. „Reading the (biblical) texts that tell about the violence done to women invites us to make concrete commitments…“[9] This results in a „prospective responsibility“ that consists of commitments for and with the vulnerable. This approach that strives to be with and to think with others, seems a promising feminism for Africa.

 For me, an African feminism must protect young mothers without interrupting the dialogue with the fathers. This requires new forms of education, of consciousness-raising among adolescent girls. The challenge to anthropocentric feminists is to take into account gender differences.

 Oyèrónké Oyewumi denounces the misuse of supposedly universal Western experience by African feminists. [10] For her, African women should leave aside what I dare to call a „cloned feminism“ or „mimetic feminism“ that is hardly adequate in an African society in which motherhood and fertility still seems to condition the lives of women. Freed from such cloning, African women might reflect and confront the challenges presented to them, starting also from the values of their own culture.

 De facto matriarchy as a place of humanization for women who are early mothers

 The typical example of a 75-year-old man who, after frequent sex with a girl of thirteen, managed to get her pregnant, invites to rethink patriarchy and male power. At a hearing in February 2015, this man acknowledged himself as genitorand proposed to marry the girl. The septuagenarian is far beyond life expectancy that is 52.9 years in sub-Saharan Africa. What will be the marital future for this girl? From whom will the child receive his education, her social birth? From a parent who is a possibly a great-grandfather? In a case like this, will a de facto matriarchy not come to question the obsolete dominant patriarchy? Obviously, the patriarchal organization in which the child and its mother would end up seems utopian, even a kind of prison for these vulnerable beings. The daughter-in-law would come into the family of his partner as a foreigner, maybe even a Dienstmädchen domestic servant for her husband and possible co-wives.

 Is a positive reading of the phenomenon of early motherhood possible? One can perceive the emergence of a form of matriarchy in which the teenage mother, supported by her family, would learn to take the primary role in conveying both material wealth and cultural values. There is hope in this. Early motherhood can provide guiding principles that bring us closer to the question of a de facto matriarchy. It is possible that someday there will be a differentiated system of distribution of transmission, unencumbered by traditions that place the child exclusively on the mother’s or the father’s side. What I envisage is an organization that is neither patriarchal nor matriarchal nor a system of equality without difference. There is perhaps no name yet for this form of social organization. Should we invent a system that could be called « child-centered » and would aim primarily at the child’s well-being?

 4. What I long for

 It’s only by valuing the non-marital social model that emanates from early motherhood that African women can get rid of a social evil and save those who are victims of patriarchy. Such a development also requires reconsideration of the family model, which should be based not only on paternal, but also on maternal affiliation links: uterine and consanguine.

 The phenomenon of early motherhood triggers a revolution. It is undeniable that genital fatherhood is essential, but social fatherhood appears to be no less important. The present organization of society, the enthusiasm of brothers, maternal uncles, and cousins allows a second social motherhood, since it is above all the social birth of the child that is at stake even if some may question a life outside of patriarchy. What interests me in this study is thinking out of the box. I think the situation of the child and his or her mother under the responsibility of the mother’s family reveals the fact that de facto matriarchy is anthropocentric and communitarian. We then pass from a narcissist form of matriarchy to a matriarchy that is in fact anthropo-communitarian. Such a matriarchy may be a chance for a solid foundation of the family, due to the education and human formation that the community has provided to the teenage mother and her child. Certainly, the question of the psycho-emotional wellbeing of the young mother remains open, but that’s another debate.

 At any rate, early motherhood and de facto matriarchy are realities that must be dealt with. They also challenge the church, which claims to be mother and educator of the society and must pay special attention to African solidarity. Moralizing rhetoric is not enough. An ethic of palaver is essential in order to enable the reconciliation and reconstruction of all stakeholders of the phenomenon of early motherhood.


Response by Ina Praetorius

Is it a problem, maybe even a fundamental contradiction of theological ethics that it focuses, on one hand, on the salvation and well-being of individuals, while it remains attached, on the other hand, to some non-negotiable „principles“? For example, the principle that the classical patriarchal nuclear family, father, mother, child, must be preserved at all costs? But what happens if this principle, in specific cases, impedes the fulfillment and happiness of real people?

 In her article, Léocadie-Aurélie Billy turns to this question unambiguously. Starting from the phenomenon of early motherhood, she shows that the de facto matriarchy in which many teenage mothers’ children are born could contribute to the development and well-being of these children and their mothers, as well as to the harmony of the whole community. Does this not mean that a society and a church that are mindful of the salvation of individuals and communities should recognize and promote this form of cohabitation outside of patriarchy? All the more as a positive validation of this de facto matriarchy could build on existing traditions that have been proven for centuries, above all but not only in Africa?

 I myself, in my childhood, had the chance to have an aunt who, for me, became a „spiritual aunt.“ By her benevolent continued presence, she ingrained in me the meaning of „unconditional love“ which, as I learned later, is at the center of the Christian faith and theology. Retrospectively, this aunt was much more important for my life as a Christian and a theologian than the subsequent formal religious education because it placed the existential basis of my faith in a benevolent and friendly divine reality. So the idea of Léocadie-Aurélie that could also lead to the creation of a „spiritual aunt office“ that in Christian communities would accompany girls in their development fascinates me a lot! There are so many possibilities that are favorable to life in this thought! The well-being and happiness of every person, whatever are the circumstances of his or her birth has in fact to be the center of theological reflection!



[1] Art. 4 of n° 78-34 portant code of the Togolese nation.

[2] See Ameyo DIJUMDIRIBA BILLY, La maternité adolescente au Togo. Une interpellation pour l’Église et la société, Thèse de doctorat présentée aux Facultés de théologie des Universités de Fribourg (Suisse) et de Strasbourg (France), 2014, Manuscrit, p. 116-117.

[3] Eric MACE, L’après-patriarcat, La Couleur des idées, Paris, Seuil, 2015, p. 180.

[4] Cf. Bénézet BUJO, Introduction à la théologie africaine, Fribourg, apf, 2008, p. 120. Voir aussi La vraie pauvreté est la pauvreté anthropologique . Interview in : Apic n°294, 10/2010, p. 1-6, ici p. 3.

[5] Johann Jakob BACHOFEN, Le Droit Maternel, recherche sur la gynécocratie de l’Antiquité dans sa nature religieuse et juridique, trad. Étienne Barilier, Lausanne, éd. L’Age d’Homme, 1996.

[6] Rigobert Koudjoulma M’GBOOUNA, La philosophie de la vie à travers les noms chez les Nawda du Togo, Lomé, Les Éditions de la Rose Bleue, 2008, p. 41.

[7] See the analysis of de Gnansa DJASSOA, Esquisse théorique des pratiques thérapeutiques chez les Nawdeba du Nord Togo : contribution à l’étude psychologique de la médecine traditionnelle en Afrique noire, Rennes, Thèse, 1988, p. 343.

[8] Cf. Peter MCINTYRE, Adolescentes enceintes. Apporter une promesse d’espoir dans le monde entier. Préface de Joy PHAMINI, Directrice Générale Adjointe de l’oms.

[9] Josée NGALULA, Le contexte de la non-violence et du pardon recommandés par le Christ, in : Josée NGALULA (dir.), Oser la défendre dans son inviolabilité. Actes de l’Atelier « Religion et violences faites aux femmes », du 2 au 4 juin 2005, Kinshasa, Ed. du Mont Sinaï, 2006, p. 98-115. Voir son site, http://srngalulapublications.blogspot.fr/ et son texte dans ce livre.

[10] Cf Oyèronké OYEWUMI, The Invention of Women. Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses, Minneapolis, U.M.P., 1997, p. 21.

(Translation from French: Ina Praetorius & Melissa Eberle-Schwartz)


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