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GENDER EQUALITY IN AFRICA IS REALLY ‘300 YEARS AWAY’

Karabo Mokgonyana - 27 March 2023


During a UN General Assembly speech to commemorate this year’s International Women’s Day and launch the Commission on the Status of Women, secretary general Antonio Guterres outlined that, “Gender equality is growing more distant. On the current track, UN Women puts it 300 years away.”


He further outlined that, “Women’s rights are being abused, threatened and violated around the world,” noting key issues like caregivers denied work, child marriage, maternal mortality and girls being denied access to education.


Although there is concern regarding the “300 years away” remark made by the secretary general, there is sufficient indication on the African continent that this could be a reality. Africa has a long way to go in addressing gender inequality — from the household to higher positions of power. The progression of fighting against gender inequality is stagnant due to a lack of resourcing and investing in gender equality, patriarchal norms in leadership and decision-making and increased exclusion of gender mainstreaming in addressing environmental, social and economic issues.


Women and girls carry the majority of the care and domestic burden in Africa and are less likely to be employed in the formal sector (and where they are employed, earn lower wages), are less likely to be able to influence government policy and they continue to experience high levels of violence. Differentiated treatment according to gender is particularly acute during adolescence, when many girls are faced with the prospect of marriage (often before reaching the age of 18), adolescent pregnancy and gender-based violence, as well as a heightened risk of HIV transmission.


The risk of dropping out of school is high for girls at this age in Africa. This compromises education and training opportunities for women and girls.


Women experience different forms of violence because of their gender, especially in the social sphere. They are often subjected to domination by their spouses, which leads to unfair discrimination.


According to Unicef, approximately two out of three married girls aged 20 to 24 were married to a partner at least 10 years older in Gambia, Guinea and Senegal. The majority of underage marriages globally occur in West Africa, with a prevalence of 77% and 61% in Niger and Mali, respectively.


This can be explained by the importance of social norms and traditions, which influence the choice to marry one’s daughter. Having a child out of wedlock is perceived as a disgrace and the earlier a girl is married, the lower the risk of pregnancy outside marriage. These child marriages then create inequalities in schooling and training, for example, out of 916 women married at an early age in Mali, 366 had to leave school and 294 never went to school. This lack of access to education for girls has consequences for the country’s development.


Economically, women also face discrimination and are still far from empowerment. There are many obstacles to their participation in economic activities, mainly due to the disparities between women and men, both in terms of access to economic resources and in the various sectors of activity.


Women’s economic empowerment remains at the bottom of the ladder and they work in difficult conditions, with low incomes. The wage gap difference can be explained by parameters such as age, type of job and level of education. These results then demonstrate that Africa is missing out on its full growth potential because a considerable portion of its growth pool, namely women, is not being fully harnessed for state development.


In addition, African women are more likely than men to be in vulnerable employment and work primarily in the informal sector. In 2010, 65.4% of non-agricultural jobs in the informal sector were held by women in Liberia and 62.2% in Uganda. Women working in the informal sector lack social protection, reinforcing their precariousness.


According to Louise Jousse, women are largely underrepresented in ministries and other legislative and executive bodies. Nevertheless, despite this low percentage, some countries stand out, such as Rwanda, the first country in which women make up more than half of parliamentarians, making up 61.3% of them in 2018. African women are slowly taking ownership of the political sphere and are gaining greater visibility, allowing them to push the political agenda in their countries. However, progress is measured in micro-advances and several African countries have less than 10% of women in mid-level positions, such as Morocco with 5.6%, Nigeria with 8% and Sudan with 9%.


Africa does not contribute significantly to climate change but, despite this, the continent is heavily negatively affected by it because of multiple factors that include underdevelopment, low adaptive capacity, heavy dependence on climate-sensitive sectors and limited access to finance and technology. It goes without saying that women are highly impacted by climate change due to gender inequalities and gender roles and responsibilities. Climate change exacerbates vulnerabilities and exposes underlying discrimination. Women rely more on natural resources and climate-sensitive sectors for their livelihoods than men.


Climate Change adds to household burdens, threatens economic opportunities and increases health risks for women. Gender inequality causes women to be poorer, have less education and face more health risks than men. Labour markets are heavily gender-segregated and women are employed primarily in low-paying and insecure occupations. They carry a disproportionate unpaid work burden and rely more on natural resources and climate-sensitive sectors for their livelihoods than men. Making it more challenging is the fact that women often don’t own land and they have declining water access.


Despite all of this, women remain underrepresented and excluded from decision-making processes on climate change responses. Further, Aimee-Noel Mbiyozo, from the Institute for Security Studies, outlines that over three-quarters of climate development finance in Africa has failed to consider gender dynamics. Women on the continent are often at the forefront of developing effective mitigation and adaptation strategies because they suffer the most from climate change. There is a lack of understanding on the continent that giving women land rights would significantly reduce the risk of displacement, increase crop productivity and lead to improved investing and access to credit for women.


Although the overall picture is one of stagnation, or even reversals, in the journey towards parity, some countries have shown remarkable improvement. For instance, Rwanda and South Africa have increased women’s representation in middle-management roles by 27% and 15%, respectively. Algeria has cut maternal mortality rates by around 9%. Egypt has tripled its score and Guinea and Liberia doubled their scores on legal protection of women. These examples of rapid progress should inspire others to forge ahead with actions to advance gender equality.


According to McKinsey’s Power of Parity Report: Advancing Women’s Equality in Africa, to reduce this 300 year gap, African countries should invest in human capital by driving sustained economic growth and boosting productivity by investing sufficient resources to improve the skills, experience, resilience and knowledge of women and girls.

Further, they need to unlock opportunities for women-owned businesses, develop public and household infrastructure and improve the quality of jobs in the informal sector. In addition, African countries should leverage technology to close the gender gap and enforce laws, policies and regulations.


Arguably, any drive toward gender parity in Africa starts with efforts to change entrenched and widespread attitudes about women’s role in society, an extremely difficult and complex challenge that will require all stakeholders to play a part that is sustained over the long term. Fighting against social, economic and political inequalities demands a change of mentality. For this to happen, society as a whole must become aware of the importance of valuing the status of women and therefore question its practices, both for men and for women who have internalised and accepted the norms to which they are subjected.



‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’

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