The dividends of empowering Africa’s female workforce

African women face major burdens. According to an International Labour Organisation (ILO) report sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest proportion (40%) of women who are just contributing family workers and are only supportive of the primary income earner. Only 15% of sub-Saharan African women are salaried (in developed countries it’s around 90%), and for most a job is not about building a career but about survival. In spite of the fact that women play such a key role in the home, and economy, they are not properly recognised and rewarded for their contribution.

Give African women the title deeds to their land

The vast majority of African women lack the necessary collateral to move them up the economic ladder. This is particularly problematic in the rural economy. African women work the land, but they do not own it. According to Oxfam, a paltry one percent of land in Tanzania is owned by women, three percent in Kenya; and even in Zimbabwe, which is considered to have a more equitable ratio, only twenty percent of the land is owned by women. Rural African women spend more time than urban women and men in reproductive and household work, this includes gathering water and fuel, caring, harvesting and cooking. Better rural infrastructure would go a long way to easing the burden of hundreds of millions of rural African women.

Also, subsidisation of agricultural inputs and equipment would allow women farmers to do more with less. Land title could help them go from survivors to agricultural entrepreneurs. Women aren’t the only ones who’d benefit from increased investment in agricultural infrastructure and input. It often falls on children (and particularly girls) to help out in farming tasks, which in turn affects school attendance. More efficient farming would lead to better school attendance for rural girls, and would give impetus to the drive to improve girls’ education.

Politically, strides are being made

The image of the strong and spirited African woman is rooted in reality, and this could be the century where African women get the deserved rewards and recognition for helping to carry a continent.

Politically, strides are being made. Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Mozambique, Angola, Tanzania and Uganda are in the world top 24 in terms of percentage of women in parliament; and Liberia and Malawi have woman presidents. The trend in Africa (which follows a worldwide trend) is to include women in the decision making process, both in business and politics.

Empowered women build empowered families

Empowering women makes moral and economic sense. The family is the basic unit of society, and the mother is at the centre of most families, particularly in Africa. Women spend more on their families than men, and are more involved in the care and education of their children. Empowered women help to build empowered families.

Unfortunately, in many societies across Africa, there is a culture of under-valuing women/girls and their roles. Money for education will tend to go to sons before daughters, and the oldest son normally inherits the family wealth. Further, such is the pressure on women to care for families that many who do go into careers, or start their own businesses, are forced to drop-out to look after children, parents and parents-in-law. Likewise, girls are far more likely than boys to drop out of school. Teenage pregnancy is one of the major causes here, and it is often left to the girl and her mother to take full responsibility for the child.

Freedom for women leads to a more prosperous society

Prosperous countries are those where women are free to pursue educational opportunities, career opportunities, and have the opportunity to self-actualise beyond the traditional role of mother. It makes economic sense to double your talent pool by giving girls the chance to take their rightful place in the formal economy. But, to do so you need structures in place to support women in their dual role of mother and earner. Crèches, maternity leave, flexi-time, and family planning will help to give women the support they need to educate themselves and follow a rewarding career.

Encourage and support women in STEM careers

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills are in short supply in Africa, and women are particularly under-represented in these fields. In Africa (as in most parts of the world) the STEM professions are seen as a male preserve, and women tend to go into the social sciences.

Government policy can help to reverse this prejudice and encourage girls to embrace maths and science from an early age. Women role models will help to encourage girls that they are up to the rigours of the technical professions, and that it’s worth toughing out a longer course, e.g. engineering.

Government can focus on giving scholarships and bursaries aimed at women, thus increasing their number in the STEM fields. Women who do land up in engineering (and other technical fields) are often daunted by the challenges of a male dominated environment. They are prone to drop out, or move into management. Women in the technical fields need support and encouragement in the workplace; corporate and government policy can help to build work environments whereby young women receive the necessary mentoring from role-models in order for them to excel in their careers.

The century of the African woman

This could very well be Africa’s century. It’s a wonderful notion, but will remain just that if women are inhibited from taking their rightful place in the economy. African governments that actively boost the role of women in the running of the economy, and provide the policy, structure and infrastructure to move them up the economic ladder, will reap the rewards of success and prosperity.

David Okwara

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