Women in Egypt Via Wikimedia Commons
CAIRO - 7 January 2018:The Business for Africa and the World summit, Africa 2018, focuses during its first day on the theme “Women Empowering Africa.” The summit will discuss ways to further empower African women and to enhance their engagement as agents for change in the continent through active participation in shaping economic and social policies. It seeks to mobilize established and emerging women leaders from across Africa to propel their success as well as provide a platform for them to showcase and celebrate their achievements.
Investing in women’s economic empowerment sets a direct path toward gender equality and respect for women’s rights, poverty eradication and inclusive economic growth. Women make enormous contributions to economies, whether in businesses, on farms, as entrepreneurs or employees, or by doing unpaid care work at home. But they often face discrimination and persistent gender inequalities, with some women experiencing multiple discrimination and exclusion because of intersectional identities including ethnicity or social class. Gender discrimination means women often end up in insecure and low-wage jobs. It restricts women’s access to economic assets such as land, loans and productive assets. And, because women perform the bulk of household work, they often have little time left to pursue economic opportunities. Hence, women’s participation in shaping economic and social policies is very limited.
Having empowered women in any country means great reduction in dependence rates, reduction in violence against women, increased house- hold income leading to an improved standard of living. Women’s economic participation and empowerment enables them to have control over their lives and exert influence in society. It leads to independent decision making regarding career, education, health in general and reproductive health in particular, investments and rights. Therefore, it is inevitable that empowering women economically will directly enhance sound public policies leading to any country’s development and equal distribution of resources.
The approach to empower women economically was first recognized at the Beijing conference, the fourth global conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace in 1995. Ac- cording to the Beijing platform of action, the areas that need improvement if the position of women is to be improved include: reducing poverty among women, stopping violence, providing access to education and healthcare and reducing economic and political inequality. Twenty years later, the Sustain- able Development Goals (SDGs) were launched, in line with Goal 5 called for gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls by 2030. The global development agenda suggests that emphasis should be placed on the preconditions necessary for women to become economically empowered and that gender-aware economic policies should be promoted to advance both economic and social development.
Both the Beijing platform of action and the SDGs should no longer be viewed as a set of aspirations, but must be used as a tool to push for the adoption of gender-sensitive policies and to emphasize the accountability of all actors. They should also in- form partnerships for women’s economic empowerment and translate to increased dialogue among development actors to improve support for women at the global level.
Despite global improvement in the health and education levels of women and girls, no such progress has been seen in economic opportunity as women continue to consistently trail men in formal labor force participation, access to credit, entrepreneurship rates, income levels, and inheritance and ownership rights. Women can no longer be discounted as the weaker sex, particularly given their impressive success as micro-entrepreneurs around the world and as thoughtful leaders and community-builders. Under-investing in women limits development, slows down poverty reduction and economic growth.
Status of gender equality in Africa
Gender equality in the African continent witnessed some progress; but African women are held back from fulfilling their potential by many constraints, whether as leaders in public life, in board- rooms, or in owning and growing their businesses. The constraints are not only limited to widespread poverty, but also include social constrains, lack of access to education, poor health and highly segmented labor markets. Despite the fact that women of Africa make a sizeable contribution to the continent’s economy by growing most of Africa’s food, they remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Some areas of the law, such as family laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance and land rights, limit women’s economic rights, hindering their economic and social decision-making and restricting their ability to enter into contracts to own, administer, or inherit assets and property.
By limiting women’s options and alternatives, such laws hinder their ability to contribute as economic and social actors to Africa’s development. Furthermore, gender inequalities are exacerbated by weak institutional structure, particularly among those mandated to promote gender equality such as ministries for women, and by lack of reliable gender statistics.
In 2015, the African Development Bank (AFDB) launched the “Africa Gender Equality Index”, a comprehensive tool that provides ongoing evidence on gender equality for 52 of Africa’s 54 countries. The index is designed to promote development and inform actions in three important dimensions of gender equality that can bring out change: economic empowerment, human development, and laws and institutions.
The Gender Equality Index concludes that across
Africa, women and men often experience different opportunities conditions and privileges; they earn different wages, do not have the same access to education and are not always equal before the law. It also shows that gender inequality in Africa is exacerbated by the fact that primary development policies in many African countries, known as poverty reduction strategies, still do not take into account differences in income and power between men and women, hampering efforts to finance programs that reduce inequality. This in turns holds back the productive potential of more than one billion Africans and negatively affects the continent’s economy.
It also highlights that the most inhibiting factor is that women in Africa continue to be denied an education, often their only ticket out of poverty. Disparities between girls and boys start in primary school and the differences widen up through the entire educational system. Since the early 1990s, Africa registered the highest relative increase among region in total primary school enrollment due to policies specifically targeting girls – but the continent is still far behind. African education-gender-responsive policies included special programs to sensitize parents through media, reducing school fees for girls in public primary schools in rural areas and increasing the proportion of female teachers to equalize the gender balance among teachers as Africa has the lowest global proportion of female teachers. Also, many African countries embarked on programs to build latrines, assist pregnant students and distribute free textbooks. On the high school and collage levels, the gender gap becomes even wider especially in science, mathematics, computer sciences and technical programs. On the bright side, the index shows that Africa has registered improvements in adult literacy rates. However, in some countries the female illiteracy rates are still much higher than the regional average of about 50%.
Widespread poverty also hampers the expansion of education in Africa; poorer families often face the stark choice of deciding whom to send to school and often it is the girl who stays home. Costs of tuition, the requirement to wear uniforms, long distances between home and school, in- adequate water and sanitation, all are factors that further re- strict girls’ access to education. Moreover, poverty in Africa continues to wear a woman’s face as women make up the majority of the poor, as much as 70% in some countries.
The gender gap in employment remains high in terms of pay, labor segregation and access to support from institutions such as banks. Women dominate informal sector employment and they work 50% longer than men but they rarely own land.When they do, their holdings tend to be smaller and less fertile than those of men. Removing the hurdles women face in their economic activities, which are mainly concentrated in the informal sector, will help unlock potential for economic growth in the continent. For example, the Gender Equality index shows that if women farmers had the same access to inputs and capacity building as males, overall yields could be raised by between 10 and 20%.
Poor infrastructure, including clean water, sanitation, electricity and transport, in the majority of African countries also limits women’s economic participation and impacts how women allocate their time. Thus, efforts to provide affordable infrastructure for water, food and energy in Africa will help women engage in more productive market activities and promote growth.
One area where Africa is showing progress in relation to world averages is in women’s political participation. Seventeen African countries established quotas for women’s political participation at the national and sub-national levels. As a result, in women hold close to one-third of the seats in parliaments in 11 African countries, more than in Europe. African women also have made significant strides in the continental political body, the African Union (AU), in 2003 five women and five men were elected as AU commissioners. The following year, the AU’s Pan-African Parliament was headed by a woman and ever since; women make up 25% of AU members.
Actions by Africa countries to achieve gender parity
Despite the presence of national government bodies that deal with gender issues in almost all African countries, since Beijing, these units, departments or ministries showed weakness and inability to be responsive to the challenges presented by the struggle for gender justice in the continent, according to discussions at the African Social Forum in Lusaka, Zambia in 2004. They have poor resources, few staff and no power or authority within governments to advance equality and justice for women.
However, a number of African countries took action to redress the bias in macroeconomic policies that favor men and boys at the expense of women and girls through adopting an approach known as gender budgeting. This approach drives countries to allocate a percentage of its national budget to implement gender-trans- formative programs; guided by a thorough analysis of governments’ spending choices and their impact on women and men, boys and girls to identify dis- parities. In turn, it helps mobilize more financing to narrow the gaps.
Some African countries also adopted a women- quota system to increase attention to reform in areas like family law, and affirmative action policies that address economic inclusion, land rights and increasing women presence in decision making positions including in businesses.
Women Economic Empowerment themes discussed at Africa 2018
Pro-women policies can drive change
To enable women to escape poverty, African development policies should place more emphasis on women contributions to the economy through labor force participation or entrepreneurship. Policies should also facilitate the process of obtaining basic opportunities for women and actively thwarting attempts to deny those opportunities.
Promoting African women’s ability to influence how decisions are made, how public policies are shaped and how resources are allocated can have a significant impact on boosting their productivity rapidly.
The first step is to build knowledge for evidence- based policymaking that is based on real-time diagnosis and analysis of the current landscape. Next is reforming and enforcing laws. While all African countries recognize the principle of nondiscrimination in their constitutions, the traditional practices are not in sync especially in areas like marital property, inheritance, land ownership and labor where women are not treated as full citizens. By custom, often only male heads of households are able to enter into contract, travel and access markets. Many men also exercise sole control over household finances even when the women contribute equally to the household’s earnings. As a result, women’s participation in society and the economy continues to be mediated by male members of their families.
Introducing reforms to available laws, including family laws, to increase the minimum marital age for women, remove the husband’s ability to deny the wife permission to work outside the home, requiring the consent of both spouses to manage marital property and guaranteeing women access to reproductive health services including family planning commodities; can lead to increased levels of women’s labor participation and levels of vocational skills that increase women ability to move from self- employment into more sustainable entrepreneur- ship.
Adopting a pro-women agenda of action
Translating gender-sensitive policies and laws re- quires a progressive pro-women economic agenda of actionable strategies, plans, justice mechanisms, programs and interventions to strengthen African women’s economic empowerment in all sectors. Such an agenda can also facilitate the elaboration of a clear road map that supports increased country level dialogue on gender equality, contributes to closing the gender pay gap and maximizing women’s economic security.
Actionable steps to promote gender equality include adopting gender-responsive free trade agreements and agriculture policies that ensure women’s access to local and regional markets, support women’s access to agroprocessing and post-harvest management, investing in regional centers for excellence and business incubation hubs to foster training and learning processes focusing on women’s financial literacy training for women and entrepreneurs, increasing countries’ focus on providing financial services for women, including loans, savings, guarantee schemes, insurance and grants, and building partnerships with the private, social and voluntary sectors. Countries should also seek to address constraints on women’s access to quality employment in the formal sector and invest in promoting women’s access to new and labor-saving agricultural technologies to boost production, including innovative technologies aimed at supporting climate-smart agricultural approaches.
Removing hurdles faced by African women can create future business leaders and drive growth
To end poverty and accelerate development in the continent, women in Africa must be able to develop their full potential as business leaders. According the AfDB Gender Index, African women are both economically active and highly entrepreneurial. They form the backbone of Africa’s agricultural labor force, and they own and operate the majority of businesses in the informal sector. However, they are predominantly in low-value-added occupations that generate little economic return and they face an array of barriers that prevent them from moving into more productive pursuits. The challenge in Africa is not one of encouraging women to be more economically active, but rather to remove the barriers to women becoming more efficient business leaders.
Outside agriculture, African women’s labor force participation rates are high throughout Africa, except in North Africa. However, African labor markets are heavily gender segregated, with women working primarily in low- paying occupations. African women are far more likely to be self-employed in the informal sector than to earn a regular wage through formal employment where they earn on average two-thirds the salary of their male colleagues.