The Gender Brouhaha: Why Invest in African Women?

By Foluke Ajani Ishola

“ The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights” -Gloria Steinem

The global celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8 of every year comes with an array of activity to mark the progress that has been made to advance women’s rights and recognize those making history across the world. While there has been some progress over the years, the struggle for equality for women all over the world is far from over. The different theme chosen this year is apt and timely.

Of the world’s one billion poorest people, three fifths are women and girls. Of the 774 adults in the world who cannot read, two thirds are women. Around the world, as many as one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way. All eight MDGs adopted by the international community touch essential aspects of women’s well-being . This means that women’s empowerment is not only necessary but also critical to achieving the development goals.

Gender Inequality in Africa

The gender divide in Africa is one of the most significant inequalities within the digital divide. It cuts across all social and income groups. Part of the problem comes from reluctance to deal with topics that are inextricably associated with societal norms, religion, or cultural traditions. And part comes from real (or feigned) ignorance about the nature of gender disparities and the costs of those disparities to people’s well-being and countries’ prospects for development.

In Africa, it does not matter whether a woman has four Ph.Ds or runs the most successful business in town. If she has never married and/or is childless, she is perceived to be lacking in a fundamental way. Girl children are raised and socialized into this ideology and few ever question or challenge its basic tenets. An African woman’s life is mostly defined by the ideology of domestic work and her unwaged productive and reproductive labour in the domestic arena is unacknowledged, unvalued and invisible in economics statistics.

Any woman who wishes to transcend this sphere is forced to meet the “masculine” standards that operate as a delicate “glass ceiling”. As a consequence, women have long suffered various forms of gender discrimination, inequality and exclusion.

Women confront manifold violations of their human rights — when they are prevented from going to school or accessing health care or are subjected to harmful traditional practices. This violation is also visible when they cannot participate in the decisions that affect their lives or claim fair political representation. They face discrimination in employment, and suffer varying degrees of violence within and outside their own home.

When the vice-president of Uganda publicly declared in 2002 that she was filing for divorce because she refused to be the victim of continued domestic violence, many retorted that such issues do not belong in the public arena (“Eby’omunjju tebitotorwa”: “Home issues are strictly classified”). However, a close analysis of domestic violence reveals that in fact by shielding the private sphere from state interference, patriarchy lends men considerable liberty to dominate women.

Women’s Empowerment is about women taking control over their lives: setting responsible agendas, gaining skills, building self-confidence, solving problems and developing self reliance. We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.

The only two female heads of state in Africa, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Malawian President Joyce Banda are definitely a welcome improvement to the male dominated sector . The likes of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa, Luisa Dias Diogo of Mozambique, Rose Mukantabana of Rwanda, Isatou Njie-Saidy of Gambia, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala of Nigeria and Joice Mujuru of Zimbabwe may also herald the infusion of female political leaders throughout Africa. Nevertheless, more needs to be done to boost women’s involvement in societal and global affairs.

Strategies by African Leaders

The Sixth African Development Forum convened by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), the African Union Commission (AUC) and the African Development Bank (AfDB) held in Addis Ababa from 19 to 21 November 2008 brought together leaders from all sectors to address “Gender equality, women’s empowerment and ending violence against women”. A Plan of Action for Ending Violence against Women and Girls, Achieving Gender Equality and Empowering Women was adopted which consisted of launching an Africa-wide campaign to eliminate violence against women and girls; improve financing and strengthen the collection of reliable data.

Although important steps have been taken to improve the representation of women in Africa’s decision-making structures, such as the legislature, the judiciary and the executive, the situation remains woefully unsatisfactory. Translating decisions into effective action continues to be a major challenge.

Why invest in African women?

Women account for about 50% of the world’s total population. Unfortunately, two-third’s of the women population is illiterate. In Africa, a greater percentage of the total African population consists of women and female children. From all indications, women form a dominant part of the society yet their involvement in societal and global affairs is quite limited as compared to the participation of their male counterparts. In order for a more progressive development , it is necessary that more women are educated and supported in their career pursuits and particularly in leadership situations.

Educating girls pays off not only in their own expanded economic opportunities and greater livelihood security as adult women (thus aiding in the fight against feminized poverty) and in terms of a reduced likelihood of early marriage (thus contributing to efforts to reduce maternal mortality), but also in the educational attainment and very survival of the children they may one day have(contributing to reduction in infant mortality). Studies suggest that gender inequality in education directly affects economic growth by lowering the average level of human capital. Improving women’s educational levels lowers fertility and slows population growth. These are key ingredients of sustainable development.

Addressing maternal health also contributes to global and national efforts to alleviate poverty. Strategies to improve safe motherhood will achieve wider health service improvement. Indeed, maternal health indicators have been used to trace the performance of health systems in terms of access by poor people, gender equity, and institutional efficiency. As a result, investment in maternal health services is likely to have positive effects for health service delivery in general.

Because women spend a greater proportion of their income on family nutrition and welfare than men, raising their incomes amounts to accelerating poverty alleviation and the quality of life of their families more rapidly than doing the same for men. This means quicker improvements in productivity and economic output.

A World Bank report entitled ‘Enhancing Women’s Participation in Economic Development’ starts from the premise that economic development is best served when scarce public resources are invested where they yield the highest social and economic returns. It shows, on the basis of worldwide studies that were carried out, that such returns are, on the whole, greater for women than for men.

The Way Forward

Reforming legal and economic institutions is necessary to establish a foundation of equal rights and equal opportunities for women and men. Because the law in many countries continues to
give unequal rights to women and men, legal reforms are needed, particularly in family law, protection against violence, land rights, employment, and political rights.

It is very important to create strategic socioeconomic policies that will promote the health and welfare of women and, in particular, enhance female literacy and entrepreneurship. Political participation of women is undoubtedly an essential component of accessing, allocating and controlling resources.
The campaign to eliminate violence against women and girls needs to transform patriarchal values, end harmful traditional practices, and improve women’s access to productive assets, housing and property. It also needs to involve strengthening legal systems as well as educational, health, police, judicial and social service institutions entrusted with preventing such violence and punishing its perpetrators.

Adequate funds should be devoted to financing advocacy and implementation strategies for gender equality, women’s empowerment, and protection of women and girls against violence.

For women to be on the rise , the ideology of seeing men as people who are superior to women needs to change. The African community is already paying for inequality in monetary terms as well as in unfulfilled human potentials. This cost far exceeds that of closing the gender gap and empowering women. The Time for Action is Now!


Mina Baliamoune-Lutz, Globalisation and Gender Inequality: Is Africa Different? J Afr Econ (2007) 16(2): 301-348
“ Engendering Development—Through Gender Equality in Rights, Resources and Voice (co-authored by Elizabeth King and Andrew Mason)

Gender Trauma in Africa : Enhancing Women’s link to resources By Sylvia Tamale

Report of The Sixth African Development Forum (ADF VI) – “Action on gender equality, women’s empowerment and ending violence against women in Africa
Priority Gender Equality ; UNESCO Action Plan ;1008- 2013

Grown, C., Bahadur, C., Handbury, J., and Elson, D. “The Financial Requirements of Achieving Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment.

Mobilising financial resources for maternal health ;Jo Borghi PhD ,Tim Ensor PhD ,Aparnaa Somanathan DSc, Craig Lissner MBA e, Prof Anne Mills PhD
Gender Inequality and the Economy: Empowering Women in the new South Africa .Keynote speech at Professional Women’s League of KwaZulu Natal, August 9, 1999.


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