The conversation on gender equality predating the 20th century is still a pressing issue. Now more than ever, a rise in global consciousness has seen a more radical generation of activists and advocates taking the fore and demanding an end to gender inequality. It’s no secret that there is a great disparity in the material conditions of men and women across Africa. Differences arise in wages for the same work, in access to education and in financing for women led enterprises. Cultural norms further exacerbate inequality before the law as well as minimal representation in areas of leadership.
Gender equality per the United Nations, does not mean that men and women are the same, but that their rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they were born male or female. The sentiment is clear but there’s a mountain of obstacles to climb in order to achieve equality. Heinous crimes committed against females continue unabated. Young girls are sold off to marriage by family members who are supposed to protect them due to financial reasons. Of concern are the rising levels of sexual and physical violence meted against women, bringing the risk of death. Many African women stand no chance competitively against men from a young age. A 2019 study in Ghana showed that from a sample of 250 school girls in rural areas, 40% missed classes during menstruation due to the lack of sanitary pads, which robbed them of the education they desperately need to stand shoulder to shoulder with men at a professional level. Shortly after WWII, the then Secretary of Labour in the United States of America, Lewis Schwellenbach said the following on the matter of the gender pay gap: “there is no sex difference in the food she buys or the rent she pays, there should be none in her pay envelope”. Though this might seem to be common sense that women must receive equal pay for equal work, the World Economic Forum has shown that it might take up to two centuries to close the gender pay gap. Women in Africa hold 4 of every 10 jobs and yet earn on average two-thirds the salary of their male colleagues and very few countries have laws against gender discrimination in hiring. Women in Africa stand tall as the most economically active women in the world as farmers, workers and entrepreneurs. Still, during the Global Gender Summit held in November 2019, it was revealed that 70% of women are financially excluded in Africa. Due to the $42 billion financing gap, they are constricted to low-value-added occupations and subsistence-level agriculture, reaping only marginal returns and barely breaking the barrier into more productive pursuits. According to McKinsey, achieving gender parity could take Africa up to 140 years - a costly period for the continent, considering that unlocking the unparalleled economic opportunities in Africa is urgent and will require the full participation of both women and men. Though research shows that labour force participation among women increases and results in financial autonomy, in certain regions of Cameroon, Chad and Gabon they still need to ask for permission to work. In some African countries women can’t open a bank account without their husband’s or father’s approval and inheritance laws leave them with little or nothing meaning no collateral. There are 9 countries where a married woman cannot apply for a passport in the same way as her husband, and 15 where a married woman does not have full freedom to choose where to live. In 35 countries, married women are obliged by law to obey their husband. How then do we move forward on a continent fraught with centuries of female oppression? Countries need to be deliberate about addressing the legal, social and political gaps between men and women. More countries need to adopt the Gender Equality Index to evaluate the effectiveness of their policies and support initiatives such as the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA) launched by the African Development Bank, aiming to mobilise $3 billion of new lending by banks and financial institutions for women in Africa. This will help to guarantee loans, train women on financial matters and eliminate laws and regulations that make accessing credit difficult. Women account for 70 per cent of informal cross border traders in Africa often facing security issues thus the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) is another opportunity to deliberately encourage the participation of women as the reduction of barriers such as tariffs will result in their integration into formal channels thereby boosting intra-Africa trade. It is imperative that we level the playing field so that women and men alike can contribute to and benefit from social and economic development. Civil society, the private sector, governments and NGOs working hand in hand will deliver a society free of gender disparities, one that promotes inclusive growth and better livelihood opportunities for all. Happy International Women's Day to all the phenomenal women around the world! #ChooseToChallenge Yours in Thoughtful Learning Panashe Maningi This article was edited by Tsidi Bishop and the Warwick Economics Summit ERH Team.