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ISS TODAY OP-ED

Get gender equality right in Africa, and prosperity will follow

Get gender equality right in Africa, and prosperity will follow
Shoprite opens at Matsamo Mall, creating 107 new jobs, many for women desperate for employment. (Photo: Shoprite Media Team)

Realistic reductions in gender inequality could produce a $259-billion larger economy in 2043 than current path forecasts. 

Rising global fragility fuelled by conflicts, Covid-19, the Russia-Ukraine war and climate change have worsened gender disparities worldwide.

In Africa, women often face greater vulnerability to climate change due to their social roles, economic circumstances and limited access to resources. They are more likely to rely on climate-sensitive sectors like agriculture, making their livelihoods susceptible to changing weather patterns, droughts, floods and other climate-related risks. And women are disproportionately represented in the informal economy, which was seriously impacted by Covid-19.

Gender inequalities in Africa are rooted in social and cultural norms and traditions. Despite progress in policy and legislation, the continent is far from achieving gender equality. Sub-Saharan Africa is the worst-performing region in the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index (see chart) — a composite measure reflecting the disparity between women’s and men’s achievements in reproductive health, empowerment and the labour market.

Gender equality

(Graph: Supplied by ISS Today)

At this rate, estimates are that achieving full gender equality in Africa will take over a century. Gender disparities affect education, healthcare, employment, political representation and access to resources.

African women are more likely to die from communicable diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, malaria and nutritional deficiencies than men. Although maternal healthcare on the continent has improved in the past two decades, sub-Saharan Africa accounts for around 70% of global maternal deaths, due to gender bias in healthcare access.

Women and girls in Africa also bear the greatest burden of unpaid care and domestic work. They face a higher risk of violence especially at home, and are under-represented in the labour market and politics, governance and decision-making. In 2019, women made up 56% of Africa’s average labour force, compared to men’s 73% — an improvement from a 23 percentage-point gap in 1990.

Regionally, the greatest gap is in North Africa, where the female labour force participation rate was about 22% in 2019 compared to 70% for men. Although North Africa has lower gender inequality in education, this hasn’t meant progress for women in the labour market. In 2021, the World Bank reported that women in the region face unfair laws that economically disempower them. Countries such as Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia prohibit women from working in certain industries.

Political representation 

In African parliamentary bodies, women hold on average 24% of seats, while their presence in top executive roles is just 7%. Despite local governments being perceived as entry points for women in politics, women hold only 21% of African council positions. Of the few examples of progress, Rwanda, Namibia, South Africa and Senegal rank among the top 10 nations globally for female parliamentary representation.

Even in education, where Africa has made significant progress in reducing gender inequality, girls in sub-Saharan Africa are still the most disadvantaged compared to other global regions. Widespread child marriage, teenage pregnancy, poverty and the social norm of valuing boys over girls are among the factors that constrain women’s access to education.

Climate change compounds these inequities. African women — constrained by societal roles, economic status and restricted resource accessibility — are disproportionately vulnerable to climate change impacts.

Closing these gender inequalities would have major benefits. New research by the Institute for Security Studies’ African Futures and Innovation programme shows what Africa’s development could gain from more gender inclusion.

Closing the gap

Using progress made by other countries or regions at similar levels of development as a benchmark, the study models the impact of an ambitious but realistic reduction in gender inequalities (Gender scenario) on Africa’s development prospects to 2043. The report also includes an illustrative Gender Equality scenario that models the effect of full gender equality by 2043, with the full knowledge that this isn’t practically achievable.

In the Gender scenario, the 2043 African economy is about $259-billion larger than in the business-as-usual forecast. The services sector greatly benefits from reduced gender inequality, gaining $174-billion in added value compared to the current growth trajectory by 2043.

Reduced gender barriers in the scenario accelerate women’s movement from agriculture to other sectors, particularly the service sector. While most women are still employed in agriculture, those in Africa’s service sector have been increasing in number partly due to shifting social norms. In the Gender scenario, Africa’s GDP per capita is $355 more than the business-as-usual forecast by 2043, and there are 53 million fewer extremely poor people.

Even more impressive is the illustrative full Gender Equality scenario. It shows an African economy $1-trillion larger than the Current Path forecast. GDP per capita is 12% higher, and Africa has 80 million fewer people in extreme poverty compared to the Current Path forecast in 2043.

These findings imply that aggressively implementing policies to reduce gender inequality and create a level playing field for all could significantly enhance African growth and development.

Policies must confront deep-rooted cultural and traditional values as the primary cause of gender inequality. Governments should prioritise implementing international and regional conventions to decrease gender disparities, especially in rural areas where discriminatory practices persist unchecked. Involving religious and traditional leaders in awareness campaigns and education is crucial.

Investing in free education up to secondary level could significantly promote gender equality in education. Governments should combat child marriage and teenage pregnancies, ensuring a minimum marriage age of 18 and improving access to contraceptives and sex education. Encouraging girls and women to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics programmes through scholarships and role models can narrow the gender gap in lucrative sectors.

Reproductive health services, legal reforms to address land ownership disparities, and gender-sensitive agricultural programmes are also vital. Removing legal barriers to women’s employment, investing in infrastructure that reduces time spent on household production, and extending paternity leave can enhance women’s participation in labour and mitigate wage inequality.

Adopting mandatory quotas for female candidates, gender-responsive electoral processes, and mentorship programmes can boost women’s political participation. Education on domestic violence and victim support, and legal consequences for perpetrators are essential.

Implementing these measures could decrease gender inequalities in Africa, fostering development and prosperity. DM

Dr Kouassi Yeboua, Senior Researcher, African Futures and Innovation, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria.

First published by ISS Today.

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