GENDER INEQUALITY SHACKLES AFRICAN ECONOMIES
What can a mother of six do when her husband’s sporadic contributions to the household run dry? Thirty-five-year-old Amina created a job — an extraordinary achievement for a previously unemployed woman living in Djougou in northwest Benin. A micro loan from a local organisation helped her create a successful business. Today she is selling cooked rice at the nearby school. One day, Amina says, she will open a restaurant. Providing economic opportunities for women and creating entrepreneurs such as Amina create positive ripples beyond just their immediate families. Not only are such women able to improve their own income and welfare, changing their own lives and the lives of their children in the process, but more than that, it is fundamental for creating economic growth and development in Africa.
Africa needs a better future. Despite progress in many areas, the continent has largely been left behind by globalisation just as most countries in Asia, Latin America and eastern Europe have surged ahead. Without things changing soon, it seems unlikely that African countries will meet the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, including that of gender equality, by 2015.
Inequality between men and women exists in spite of international agreements on gender equality. It exists in spite of equality between men and women being constitutionally ordained by most countries. And it exists in spite of the many studies that show that it is an economic win-win for men and women when women’s participation in the work force is increased. Then why is it that female participation in the labour market is so much lower than the participation rate of males? Why is it that women still get the lowest pay, the least education, access only to the most unskilled jobs, and are mostly employed in the informal sector?
Only about 10% of all wages in Africa go to women, although women on average work 10-15 hours more per week than men. And African women own only around 1% of the continent’s overall economy. To address these and other key topics determining the future of Africa, the Danish Africa Commission puts economic growth and employment in Africa at the top of the international agenda. Launched in Copenhagen in April, bringing together public and private sector notables, it is chaired by Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. The majority of its 18 members are African.
The role of women is a critical part of the commission’s work, not just because it’s the politically correct thing to do. We know that economic growth and gender inequality are closely related: the less the inequality the higher economic growth. Improving the African women’s lot, unleashing the entrepreneurial energy of the many Aminas out there can only ensure a more prosperous continental future. But how? To do so governments, labour market organisations, civil society and the private sector, supported by international donors, should concentrate their actions by focusing on four key actions that can unlock this great potential.
First, reduce women’s time burdens by investing in water supply and sanitation, energy for household needs, access to public transport and investment in labour-saving technology especially in agro-processing, opening up and adding real value to the rural areas.
Second, empower women in small- and medium-scale businesses, the engine room of African economies, through access to micro-finance and skills training.
Third, facilitate female entrepreneurs by ensuring equal rights between men and women — including rights to ownership — and by supporting women’s business and social organisations, and by listening to and acting on their policy concerns.
Fourth, introduce targets for gender equality in public sector employment and promotion through public sector reforms.
Africa’s women are a hitherto largely untapped source of huge energy and economic potential. No one likely works harder worldwide than the rural Africa woman, tending her crops, raising her family literally on her back, and traipsing hours every day for water and other basics. Properly harnessed, this energy can transform Africa, liberating its women from such burdens and, at the same time, liberating the continent from underdevelopment.
*Luísa Dias Diogo is prime minister of Mozambique.
*Greg Mills directs the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation.
*Ulla Toernaes is minister for development co-operation in Denmark.
All three are members of the Africa Commission.