WOMAC : Between Marginalisation and Empowerment: Women in African Catholicism (the case of Ghana)

National Science Centre, Poland


Principal Investigator
Anna Niedźwiedź (Jagiellonian University in Kraków)

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Focussing on the example of Ghana – as a religiously and ethnically complex sub-Saharan country with relatively stable economic and political situation – this project seeks to study African Catholic women and their entangled ethnic and religious identities in the context of gender. It seems that the position of African women, who identify themselves as Catholics, is full of ambiguities, contradictions and tensions that relate to the twofold processes of marginalisation and empowerment. What does it mean to be a woman and an African and a Catholic at the same time in the contemporary world? Which elements of this complex identity bring empowerment and give voice to African Catholic women and which lead to their marginalization and lack of independence? How do African Catholic women situate themselves in relation to post-colonial re-invented African indigenous identities, post-missionary Catholicism, globalized institution and the patriarchal hierarchy and structure of the Roman Catholic Church?

In asking these questions, the project combines ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Ghana with a study of the broader context that includes activities by African feminists and female theologians, discourses on women and their position within religious structures and variously defined African traditions. Ethnographic and qualitative side of this project reflects on the anthropological concepts of ‘lived religion’ (religion as lived and experienced by people on an everyday basis, influencing and shaping their lives and biographies ‘on the ground’), as well as the concept of identity as a construct (i.e. something that is constantly shaped, reshaped and negotiated through personal choices and emotions as well as social, cultural and political forces). This approach means that I will focus not only on the institutional level and official declarations but also on personal stories, individual biographies, the practical level of religion and the identity formation of today’s African female Catholics.

Anthropological studies on African Catholics and their religious practices are still underdeveloped compared with the wave of scholarly interest in Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal Christianity. Yet Africa contains the world’s most rapidly growing Catholic population; by 2025 one-sixth of the world’s Catholic population is predicted to be African. Both the numerical dominance of females in African Catholicism and their active involvement in parish life and less formal Catholic communities (often promoting charismatic and ‘pentecostalised’ spirituality) raise questions about possible tensions between the personal and communal empowerment that women seem to develop as Catholics in Africa, on the one hand, and the hierarchical, male oriented structure of the Roman Catholic Church and its understanding of the female role, on the other. This issue seems to be important at a time of significant change within global Christianity, especially associated with the rapid growth of Pentecostalism, the growing development and strength of the ‘global South’ and inter-continental migration

Recent activities

Conference presentation: Anna Niedźwiedź, ‘A child of God must mind how s/he dresses!’: Catholic fashion in Ghana. SIEF Congress (Helsinki / on-line), June 2021 

Conference presentation: Anna Niedźwiedź, Lived Catholicism in Contemporary Ghana (women in the church). Conference: Lived Catholicism(s): New Questions and Untold Stories (Durham University / on-line), November 2020