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Is Africa equal and enabled enough to empower women?

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By Liezelle Kumalo and Tsion Tadesse Abebe

The 2019 Global Gender Gap Report, developed by the World Economic Forum, says sub-Saharan Africa has achieved significant improvements towards closing the gender gap. The report measures four areas – health, education, work and politics.

Ethiopia and Mali are among the countries that have shown the greatest improvement in women’s political representation. In Mali, 52% of ministers are women, and in Ethiopia this figure is at 48%. This matters because strong representation of women in political leadership can lead to policies that benefit women.

In terms of women’s participation in the labour market, Burundi, Guinea, Rwanda and Sierra Leone have also recorded significant progress. In these countries, there are at least as many women as men in the labour market.

Cape Verde, Mali, Nigeria and Sierra Leone are also among countries that recorded significant improvement in women’s economic participation. This was mostly achieved through facilitating entrepreneurship and the creation of more job opportunities. These are important advances since economic empowerment is a key pillar for all aspects of equality – political and social.

Despite positive developments, an equal and enabled Africa is a distant prospect for millions of women

Despite these positive developments, an equal and enabled Africa remains a distant prospect for millions of women. The World Economic Forum report estimates that it will take sub-Saharan Africa 95 years to close gender gaps, due to multiple layers of gender challenges. So the 8 March International Women’s Day theme – ‘Each for Equal: An equal world is an enabled world’ – is timely.

The first and chief challenge in closing the gender gaps is protracted conflict across the continent. The Global Peace Index 2019 indicates that peace has deteriorated in 27 sub-Saharan African countries. Africa is home to half of active conflicts worldwide, and hosts seven of the 14 United Nations peacekeeping missions.

Conflict affects women disproportionally, being the major driver of forced displacement, which includes refugees and internally displaced people. Globally the highest number of women to be forcibly displaced is recorded in sub-Saharan Africa (52%).

The second problem is structural gender inequalities on the continent, driven largely by the prevailing patriarchal ideology. The impact is far-reaching, as structural challenges are also pervasive in political mechanisms tasked with facilitating gender equality. While it is desirable to have women in positions of power, merely having women in these positions doesn’t guarantee that gender equality will be achieved.

The chief challenge in closing the gender gaps is protracted conflict across Africa

‘Quotas to increase the employment of women have not served to redress gender inequality in any meaningful way, because power lies with those who make decisions,’ says Dr Chandré Gould, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Security Studies. Women ‘still face bullying, sexual harassment and even sexual violence in the workplace.’

A third obstacle is the escalation of violence against women and girls in Africa, a threat that hinders all efforts to create an ‘enabled’ environment. East and Southern Africa have recorded the highest rates of violence against women and girls on the continent, with 20% of 15- to 24-year-old females reporting having experienced intimate partner violence.

Sexual violence is also rampant in Africa. Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war; even at times of relative peace. In February 2019, Sierra Leone declared a national emergency over widespread incidents of rape.

African governments and businesses should contribute to the AU’s new African Women Leadership Fund

Despite these problems, 2020 provides significant opportunities for Africans to further enable the empowerment of women. South Africa, as the 2020 chair of the African Union (AU), included advancing gender equality and woman empowerment as one of its key focus areas for the year. Pursued effectively, this could encourage African states to improve their policies in this area.

Recognising that empowerment is linked to equality, the AU declared 2020 to 2030 the Decade of African Women’s Financial and Economic Inclusion. To make this a reality, the recent AU summit established the African Women Leadership Fund, which aims to mobilise resources from the global private sector to fund initiatives that advance gender equality.

The fund could be a game changer if it helps women gain economic independence. Governments and the private sector in Africa should also contribute to the fund. This will ensure that empowering women is firmly on Africa’s political agenda, and help overcome the perennial problem of a lack of political will.

Inclusion of women in all sectors is at the centre of the much-needed change. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres puts it, ‘Only through the equal participation of women can we benefit from the intelligence, experience and insights of all of humanity.’

And only in an equal and enabled Africa will African women be empowered to take their rightful place in society. This needs to be driven by a bold vision where all citizens contribute to and benefit from Africa’s development.


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