Gender equality in Africa

Commitments without implementation widens the gender gap and undermine the achievement of Africa’s social-economic development

Mary Wandia Policy & Development

For the past decade, Africa has experienced strong growth with an average of 5% a year. The continent has also witnessed progress towards gender equality: maternal mortality has declined, the gap in primary school enrolment between girls and boys had decreased, and women’s participation in the labour force has increased the participation of women in politics and boardrooms is encouraging. These advances have not improved women’s economic empowerment, and they have not substantially altered women’s lack of decision-making capacity. Gender inequality remains a significant constraint to economic growth and poverty reduction.

Women in Africa are making a significant contribution to Africa. However, they are hampered by poor access to health care, clean water, food and fuel, they are forced to work fewer hours, travel less considering the family needs and societal obligations more aligned to what society ‘expects’ from the woman. Is it surprising then that the continent is reporting increasing economic growth rate while inequalities that disproportionately affect women are on the increase?

UN Women Progress of the World’s Women 2015-16 offers useful numbers that show that women in Africa are making a significant contribution to Africa’s economic and social development that is not captured in calculation of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as it is largely in the informal sector and has not led to their own economic empowerment due to gaps in economic and social policy planning needed to increase their access to resources and services to facilitate their full participation in development and enjoyment of their human rights. The gender pay gap is 30% in Sub Saharan Africa (compared to 24% globally). Further, women across the continent are contributing to economic growth through unpaid care and domestic work which is essential for reproducing the labour force and generates real economic value that is neither incorporated into the calculation of GDP nor taken into account in economic or social policy planning.

The data on women participation in the economy is insufficient in the formal sector if available but weakest in the informal sector where women contribute more. The UN Women Progress of the World’s Women 2015-16 confirms this. Some 89% of women’s jobs are in the informal sector that is not included in the calculation of GDP, with agriculture employing 59% of women. Women’s participation in the labour force increased to 64% between 1990 and 2013 while the gender gap in labour force participation is 13% and this is costly to Africa’s development as it reduces GDP per capita by nearly 9%. The report notes that participation in the labour force is not always a sign of women’s empowerment.

The gender gap manifests itself at a very young age, where girls are discriminated against, controlled, gagged and at the same time subjected to harmful practices to control their sexuality and limit their bodily autonomy. With female genital mutilation, child marriage, sexual violence and sex trafficking, the gender gap can only widen.


The hurdles for the majority of African women are put up from childbirth. Of the ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage, nine are in Africa. If current trends continue, almost half of the world’s child brides in 2050 will be Africa. The latest UNICEF report paints a grim picture; an estimated 130 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, the majority in Africa. Sub- Saharan Africa has recorded over 50% of adolescent girls’ childbirths, which is the most high-risk group during pregnancy.

Discriminatory legislation particularly in the family, civil, penal, labour and commercial laws or codes, or administrative rules and regulations still persists. For instance, in a number of countries, nationality laws still do not grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change and retain their nationality and some laws contain discriminatory provisions that do not allow women to transfer nationality to their spouses on the same basis as men.

The African Union has integrated women’s rights and gender equality in its development blueprint Agenda 2063. The Assembly of the Heads of States and Governments of the African Union declared 2016 as the Africa Year of Human Rights with a particular focus on the rights of women. Policies and protocols to advance women’s rights and gender equality have been adopted by sub-regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC)the East African Community (EAC) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Across the continent, many countries have reviewed their constitutions and upheld the principles of equality and right to non-discrimination.

While adoption of development blueprints, legal and policy frameworks on women’s and girls’ rights is critical, but without implementation, they have remained aspirations with minimal impact on the lives of most women in the continent. For instance, of the 38 countries in Africa that have ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, only four have submitted reports to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on progress made in implementation.

To support gender equality, economic and social policies need to work in tandem to transform social norms, institutions and policies to deliver for all members of society including women and girls. Women’s contribution to social economic development should be quantified and included in the calculation of GDP. Social policies must ensure women are protected from discrimination and all forms of violence throughout their life cycle. Access to basic services and resources by women such as education, financing, capacity building, land, water, health etc. – should be enhanced. Full participation of women at all levels of politics and decision making on an equal basis with men should be a norm rather than an exception. Macroeconomic policies should be transformed to foster sustainable growth by promoting gender equality, reducing structural barriers faced by women, upholding women’s right to decent work and equal pay and re-distributing, among men and women, the burden of unpaid care and domestic work. Discrimination against women in law and practice should be eliminated to unleash women’s full potential, end violence, uphold their right to nationality and full control of their sexuality and reproductive health and rights. Gender equality is integral to Africa’s social economic development.

“People and their talents are two of the core drivers of sustainable, long-term economic growth. If half of these talents are underdeveloped or underutilized, the economy will never grow as it could. Women represent 50% of the global population, they deserve equal access to health, education, influence, earning power and political representation. Their views and values are critical for ensuring a more prosperous and inclusive common future. Humanity’s collective progress depends on it.” Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum.

Written by

Mary Wandia is a feminist Pan-Africanist with over 16 years of experience working with regional, international and civil society organisations on women’s and girls’ rights. Mary is dedicated to ensuring that women and girls enjoy their human rights. She believes good laws not only condemn perpetrators of gender discrimination and violence, but also provide protection against human rights violations.