CGIAR Gender

Complexity of intersectionality: relevance to African research

By Eileen Nchanji (International Center for Tropical Agriculture, Nairobi, Kenya), Lilian Nkengla (International Crop Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, Bamako, Mali) and Susan Ajambo (Bioversity Internationa, Kampala, Uganda).

Intersectionality (image credit IWDA)
Intersectionality (image credit IWDA)

One of the courses we were taught during the Gender Research and Integrated Training (GRIT) workshop focused on intersectionality. As the course went on we realised that the society and institution we worked in as women gender specialist or women scientist included and sometimes excluded us from certain activities and decisions due to the way we are categorised. This ties in with Kimberlé Crenshaw’s definition of intersectionality that people have different socio-political, economic and cultural identities through which they can simultaneously experience oppression and/or privilege. Crenshaw illustrated the concept of intersectionality using discrimination of black American women. In her view, the discrimination they were facing was not just because they were black people or women but because they were black women. Race and gender discrimination was colliding in their lives in ways which were not understood. The term intersectionality was thus born out of the need to understand how social identities intersect with systems of oppression and discrimination.

People who work around intersectionality have been criticised: a) for their tendency to simply list identities, b) not recognizing the power relations embedded in social categories and divisions and, c) not clearly identifying which social category should have more relevance in any given context. At the same time, it is exactly the openness and malleability of the theory that appeals to feminist and other scholars. Intersectionality can be applied in various contexts. It examines diverse issues in agreement with post-colonial and post-structural ways of thinking about power relations. It brings a different notion of self or identity based on various co-constructed identities that shape relative power. In Europe and the Americas, intersectionality has been used as a lens to study race, class, gender and even sexuality.

This blog aims to show the relevance of intersectionality in Africa, and which social categories are important in understanding the intersectional politics of inclusion and exclusion across Africa. By using an intersectional lens, Sylvain’s (2011) study of San indigenous women showed that various aspects of identity are inseparable and influence all forms of discrimination and privilege. She explained how intersectional discrimination experienced by San women limited their ability to benefit from national and international gender progressive laws and policy initiatives, and how it made them vulnerable to racially/ethnically/culturally motivated group-based harm. Walker et al., (2017) give a nuanced understanding of the lived experiences of non-national migrant mothers who sell sex in Johannesburg, South Africa. They explained how urban spaces are shaped by the everyday experiences and vulnerabilities of those working, traveling and living in it (including the migrant workers).

Intersectionality is thus used to disentangle complex layers of identity, categories, and experiences which form the everyday life of migrants. Dancer and Hossain (2018) addressed social difference and women’s empowerment in the different pathways of agricultural commercialization in Africa. They discovered that marital status was the most significant dimension of social difference in agriculture and non-agricultural contexts in Africa. They called for a wider study that examines how age, history, wealth and ethnicity affect individual agency, power relations, household organisation and participation in agriculture.

As people move along different commercialization pathways, in the wider sociopolitical, economic and cultural environment, the relevance of the intersectional approach to the analysis of social categories cannot be over-emphasized. This approach provides a nuanced understanding of lived experiences within different complex spaces, which shape our everyday experiences. The above examples show a diversity of identities and social categories which builds on the need for contextualisation in our different research endeavours.

GRIT training (photo credit: E. Nchanji)
GRIT training. The picture is a reflection of different categories of gender scientist across CGIAR and Penn State University (photo credit: GRIT)


Sylvian, Renee, 2001. At the intersections: San women and the rights of indigenous peoples in Africa. The International Journal of Human Rights 15(1): 89-110. Doi:10.1080/13642987.2011.529690.

Walker, Rebecca, Jo Vearey, and Lorraine Nencel. 2017. Negotiating the city: Exploring the intersecting vulnerabilities of non-national migrant mothers who sell sex in Johannesburg, South Africa. Agenda 31 (1): 91-103. Doi:10.1080/10130950.2017.1338858

Dancer, Helen, and Noami Hossain. 2018. Social Differences and Women’s Empowerment in the Context of the Commercialisation of African Agriculture, APRA Working Paper 8, Future Agriculture Consortium.