Financing Africa’s greatest resource: Women

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Decades after the world officially recognized equality between women and men as a human right, women remain largely excluded from the upper ranks of government and business, earn less than their male co-workers and face an array of customs, traditions and attitudes that limit their opportunities. Are governments, businesses and the international community putting money behind their resolutions calling for women’s advancement? Are international aid budgets, government funds and private sector resources spent in ways that narrow economic, social and political inequalities between men and women?

The answer, notes Jacinta Muteshi, chair of the Kenyan government’s Commission on Gender and Development, is generally “no.” While there has been some progress in women’s political representation, advances have been limited in the economic realm and for poor women in particular. That is because disadvantages “are often anchored in social institutions, macroeconomic policies and development strategies that have not adequately recognized that women are important agents of economic development and poverty reduction,” Ms. Muteshi told Africa Renewal magazine.

Less than 1% of world’s property

The UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), in its 2008 report Progress of the World’s Women, says that gender bias has meant that “women have been more concentrated than men in informal, subsistence and ‘vulnerable’ employment,” that is, self-employment and jobs without salaries in family-owned businesses. According to the International Labour Organization fewer than 1 in 5 working women in sub-Saharan Africa receive regular wages or salaries, compared to a third of employed African men and almost 93 per cent of women in the developed North.

Even with a salaried job, the inequality continues. In its latest Enterprise Survey, the World Bank reports that only 1 in 26 salaried African women was employed in a senior management position, compared to 1 in every 6 men. That lack of opportunity at home contributes to a far higher percentage of university-educated African women, nearly 28 per cent, going overseas in search of employment, compared to 17 per cent of educated men.

In almost every respect, Ms. Muteshi argues, the economic deck is stacked against women. Citing UN estimates, she notes that women worldwide account for two thirds of all working hours and produce half the food, but earn just 10 per cent of the world’s income and own less than 1 per cent of the world’s property. First and foremost, she says, this gap reflects “the absence of women in economic leadership.”

Millennium Development Goal

Influencing how governments spend their budgets can be one way to make inroads into women’s economic inequality. In a December 2007 report to the UN Commission on the Status of Women on financing for gender equality, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon notes that 50 governments around the world, including several in Africa, used gender budgeting methods to help set spending priorities.

Mr. Ban’s report estimates that the equivalent of between 0.1 and 0.3 per cent of the overall economic activity produced by a country every year is lost from failure to “promote gender equality and empower women.” That goal is the third of eight internationally agreed development objectives known as the Millennium Development Goal (MDGs).

The goal includes a specific commitment to eliminate gender differences in education by 2015. Achieving this in poor countries, the report estimates, would require an increase in annual spending on gender equality programmes from some $8.6 bn in 2006 to nearly $24 bn by 2015. The World Bank puts the cost of achieving full economic and social equality between the sexes at $83 bn per year by 2015.

Aid donors have an important role to play in fostering greater gender equality. Many donors now monitor the impact on gender equality as part of their overall efforts to improve the delivery of aid to developing countries. The amounts of aid going to programmes designed at least in part to promote gender equality are rising, although such aid is still narrowly focused, and is going overwhelmingly to social services.

UNIFEM notes that financing for dedicated gender-equality projects represented less than 5 per cent of total aid from Western donors in 2006. UNIFEM argues for concrete targets and goals that would help policymakers and civil society groups design programmes that are more responsive to gender concerns.

Backbone to African economy

Ms. Muteshi says that the greatest problem with aid programmes in Africa is that they generally do not invest in sectors especially important to women, such as agriculture. “African women provide approximately 70 per cent of the workforce and grow about 90 per cent of the food, yet it is a sector that has seen little real investment directed towards women,” she observes.

There is some good news, Ms. Muteshi reports. Women benefit from microfinance loans, which are now available in most African countries. However, she adds, “the amounts remain small and have rarely been scaled up in ways that truly strengthen women’s economic power. It is time to provide women with credit that moves beyond ‘micro.’”

In the struggle for economic equality, UNIFEM asserts, there is mounting evidence that African and other poor women remain “at the margins of formal economies.” Securing the resources women need for equality, the organization says is “mission critical” to Africa’s development plans. It will require not only more gender-focused aid, but also fundamental changes in the way power and wealth are distributed. This includes regulating markets to ensure that women can participate fully and fairly in economic life and that women are at the table when economic priorities are set.

Even increases in donor support for sectors that benefit African women, Ms. Muteshi notes, such as health and education, are often made without women’s involvement, thus keeping them on the margins economically and politically. A major change is needed in the way the world thinks about women and economics, she argues. “Women are almost exclusively responsible for care and reproductive work and the unpaid economic activities in the household,” and yet these are underestimated or excluded from calculations of national economic activity.

Current initiatives for women’s empowerment and gender equality are too narrowly focused, Ms. Muteshi says. “They do not adequately address the root conditions that produce inequality.” Until the world learns how to value the work women actually do, “we leave women vulnerable to poverty, violence and powerlessness.”

Mr. Michael Fleshman is a writer for United Nations Africa Renewal magazine.

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Michael Fleshman
Michael Fleshman has been a writer and consultant for the UN Department of Public Information in New York since 2000, working primarily for the UN’s Africa Renewal Magazine and Africa Renewal Online programme. Prior to joining the UN he spent 20 years at the anti-apartheid American Committee On Africa and The Africa Fund, working to build US solidarity with the African liberation struggles in South and southern Africa, and with the Nigerian pro-democracy and environmental movements.
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