Why closing Africa’s gender gaps will benefit everyone

Africa must close its gender gaps in order to succeed. The empowerment of women and girls is a crucial element in Africa’s quest for inclusive, sustainable growth and development. The total potential annual economic losses due to gender gaps in labour force participation have been estimated to exceed $255 billion for the sub-Saharan region, and to cost an equivalent of  9% of Africa’s overall GDP growth.

Women wait for transport in Khartoum April 30, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah
Women wait for transport in Khartoum April 30, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Many African countries have made great progress through the Millennium Development Goals in the enrollment of girls and boys for primary school education and increased enrollment at secondary level. It is important to build on this good start and close the considerable gaps that still remain, including poor quality of education, teacher shortages and high dropout rates – especially amongst girls. Those dropout rates reflect the prevalence of forced and early marriages and teenage pregnancies; the confines of unpaid care work; and obstacles such as lack of feminine hygiene infrastructure for adolescent girls at schools.

Achieving gender equality is key to releasing vital growth potential for the continent, and to moving towards more inclusive and sustainable societies through associated growth in improved health, education, and life opportunities.

UN Women’s new flagship report Progress of the World’s Women shows that the benefits of Africa’s economic growth have been uneven. Those benefits have not yet reached a large portion of the population, and in most countries growth has not created enough decent jobs, nor reduced poverty to required levels. The high unemployment of both men and women needs urgent attention.

Without full and equal rights to land, economic opportunity, finance, and services to help relieve the care burden, women’s contributions to food security, development, and national  – and personal – growth are inhibited.

Women are unpaid and unrecognized carers of the sick, and the young  – doing up to four times as much care and domestic work as men in Ethiopia, Madagascar and Mauritius. Our drive to increase inclusion of men and boys in changes that thoughtfully readjust the balance is a vital aspect of the transformations we seek. In addition, we must invest in the creation of infrastructure and industries that reduce the burden of care, such as early learning and care centres, and water and energy infrastructure at household level.

Scaling up social services to achieve women’s rights through an increase of trained and paid social workers, health workers and extension officers would also create much needed decent jobs for women.

When we consider that almost 2 billion babies will be born in Africa between 2015 and 2050 it is clear that investments in expanded and improved health care, education, and social services are essential, as well as deeper changes in equality.

In Africa, 89% of women’s jobs are informal. As a result they are not covered by labour relations laws, have no minimum wage and bring no social protection, no maternity benefits, nor old age pension. Agriculture, in which almost all employment is currently informal, can be a key contributor in Africa to growth and poverty reduction. As a major employer, its transformation into a formal sector would be influential. It is a priority for creative and innovative action by both governments and business.

Women’s productivity could be multiplied through the design of agricultural technologies that are specifically suitable for women, and in green power solutions that free up their time, currently so constrained by infrastructural limitations such as water and fuel. Accelerated, strategic investment in these areas would put global capital to productive and equitable use, enhance farm productivity and agricultural growth and reduce rural poverty. Improved post-harvest storage facilities would preserve farm yields, and improved access to markets would allow more efficient distribution.

Business is a big part of the solution, with the power to pay equal wages, remove glass ceilings, and offer wages and opportunities for women in the work and market place that will help to reduce the 30% average gender pay gap for sub-Saharan Africa (the global average is 24%).

Small and medium enterprises are vigorous engines of job growth in the world economy, accounting for 80% of jobs worldwide. Investing in women-owned firms pays dividends in terms of jobs and development. New technologies such as mobile banking can be key facilitators and drivers of business development for women.

The Women’s Empowerment Principles, developed by UN Women and the UN Global Compact, provide a framework for companies of all sizes to play a role.

Together, with clear leadership on these aspects from the business sector, we can ensure concerted investment in expanded employment options, with education, training and mentorship so that women are properly equipped to work, advance and excel in all sectors, including as entrepreneurs.

Ultimately, bringing new light and resources to the informal sector, strengthening social services, upholding women’s rights and breaking access barriers, will not only make economies work for women, it will also benefit societies as a whole by creating a more sustainable future, for Africa, and for us all.


Author: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women.

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