Big costs of gender gap in sub-Saharan Africa

African girls are better educated than a generation ago. Women are taking more leadership roles and building successful business careers. However, a new United Nations report says gender inequality on the continent costs it $95-billion a year.

genderUniversalGivingorg African women earn, on average, 30% less than African men. (Image: Universal Giving)

Sulaiman Philip

Gender inequality costs sub-Saharan economies $95-billion (about R1.4-trillion) a year, according to a newly released study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

That Africa loses 6% of continental gross domestic product is blamed on governmental failure to put into effect legal protections and break down harmful social norms. Failing to act means a large percentage of African women are locked out of opportunities to participate in the economic, social and political life of their countries.

The report was released this weekend on the sidelines of the Tokyo International Conference of African Development in Nairobi, Kenya. UNDP administrator Helen Clark pointed out that a 1% increase in gender inequality reduced a country’s Human Development Index score by a similar amount. “If gender gaps can be closed in labour markets, education, health and other areas, then poverty and hunger eradication can be achieved,” she said. “Achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment is the right thing to do, and is a development imperative.”

The Human Development Index (HDI) measures a nation’s achievement in key human development areas – access to education and medical treatment, quality of life and standard of living. African girls score high in access to primary education, but fail to access higher education or opportunities to join the labour market. The average for women in Africa is also lowered because of the continent’s still unacceptably high maternal mortality rate.

Professional work

Professionally, African women fare even worse. A total of 61% of all African women work outside the home but their jobs are poorly paid and their efforts go unappreciated. Despite holding the majority of positions in the non-agricultural sector – 66% – women earn 70 cents for each dollar earned by a man. Across Africa there are, at most, just 30% of firms with a female manager.

By not addressing the social norms that limit opportunity for women, Africa has no hope of attaining the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals or achieving its own Africa Agenda 2063 ambitions. UNDP Africa director Abdoulaye Mar says that the African Union’s lofty goals of equality are hamstrung by social norms.

African girls spend less time in education, are paid less for their labour and spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water. They have limited access to economic and financial assets and are less likely to have bank accounts. “Closing the gender gap would not only set Africa on a double-digit economic growth track, but would also significantly contribute to meeting its development goals.”

Africa is moving beyond the era of legislation and non-discrimination laws and quotas ensuring women’s participation. The African narrative remains to an extent, that girls don’t have the same opportunities as boys to get a decent education, that women are shut out of jobs and assets to uplift themselves and their families.

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Despite almost universal access to primary education, African girls are empowered more than they were but only to a certain age and stage in their lives – until they get married. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Fundamental change

For most people outside the continent, Africa is still a place where women have too many children and thousands die in childbirth because they have no access to basic health care. In parts of Africa this remains true, but Africa holds many secrets. Closer study shows that African women have also made important progress.

There is World Bank research that suggests a deeper reading of the statistics tell a different story. The international financial institution says that the lives of African women have fundamentally changed over the last decade.

Since 1990, enrolment of girls in primary school has come close to matching boys and the number of women dying in childbirth has halved. In work and politics Africa leads the world in female representation. The ratio of women to men in formal employment is greater than the rest of the world and the number of women in continental parliaments has doubled. Rwanda and Senegal have the highest proportion of women in government and in Cape Verde parity at cabinet level was achieved more than a decade ago.

artscultureheritageplenary Africa’s women and girls are its greatest untapped resource. It is they who will build the solid foundation of African prosperity. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Social growth

Social attitudes are also changing in Africa. As more people become aware of gender bias, it is becoming less prevalent. Over the last decade, fewer women are reporting sexism and sexual harassment at work.

Fewer people believe it’s better for a woman to look after the home while a man goes out to work. The number of people, of both genders, who believe that children are hurt if they are raised by working mothers has also decreased over the last decade.  More men are saying that work does interfere with home life, actively seeking employment with companies that offer paternity leave and flexible work hours.

In business the tide is turning as well. A recent poll found that younger employees believe women make better managers. In 2006, one in two women believed that an equally qualified woman would be passed over for a promotion because of gender. By 2014, it was a belief shared by four out of every five. And more women are now also earning more than their husbands.

Empowerment and equality

To go forward, the UNDP report maps out four routes to empowerment and equality:

  • Adopting legal reforms;
  • Building national capacity to accelerate women’s involvement in decision-making;
  • Adopting multisectoral approaches in promoting gender equality; and,
  • Accelerating female ownership of assets and management resources.

Co-operation and cross border collaboration between nations will boost the social changes that are improving the lives of African women. In the opinion of the UNDP researchers, two initiatives will speed up equality and empowerment. They propose the establishment of an African Women’s Investment Bank and the awarding of Gender Seal certification for businesses that promote gender equality.

Africa’s economy is booming. Banking, retail and telecommunications are driving growth. Large-scale construction projects are improving the continent’s infrastructure and making it easier for Africa to trade with Africa.

Growth is changing the continent’s landscape by strengthening its economy. Development is narrowing income gaps between citizens and nations and boosting continent-wide economic integration. And strong working economies disproportionately benefit women.

Africa is changing. It is moving beyond seeing gender equality as a token in development policy. As Africa changes, it is taking a leadership position in the conversation about gender. As the prospects of African girls and women improve, the continent gets to lead by example. As more African women realise the freedom to choose their own future, the more they become the champions of and the great hope for women across the world.