Progress towards gender parity still slow, uneven

August - November 2019

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Progress towards gender parity still slow, uneven

— Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Zipporah Musau
From Africa Renewal: 
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women. Photo: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz
Photo: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz
It’s been 20 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic roadmap that set the agenda for realizing women’s rights, was signed by 189 governments. While there have been many achievements since then, several pledges remain unfulfilled. Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau spoke to the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, on Africa’s accomplishments and remaining challenges. The following are excerpts from the interview:

Africa Renewal: What is the current state of gender equality and women’s empowerment in Africa?

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Africa is home to 30% of the world’s poor and many of them are women and girls. This puts a lot of pressure on those of us who work for gender equality to address the situation. It is a concern that women in Africa till the land and contribute significantly to crop production, yet they own only 2% of the land. 

When it comes to education, the fact that two-thirds of Africa’s women are classified as functionally illiterate means that we have a challenge to ensure that there is better access for women and girls. We also have to ensure that the girls are retained in school and those who drop out are given a second chance. 

Even though women’s leadership has improved, in fact, some African countries are in the top 10 countries that have the highest number of women in parliament like in Rwanda, Seychelles, Senegal and South Africa, women’s representation in parliaments globally is still very low. There are more countries in Africa that have very small numbers of women in parliament than those who have made progress. Again, we have only two female presidents in Africa’s 54 countries. 

Female representation in parliaments is improving in the region. But are you satisfied with the quality of representation?

In countries like Rwanda, where the number of women in parliament is high and can take a decisive vote in support of what they want to advance, they have used that privilege and competitive advantage. But there is still room to do more. There is need to invest in the building of the women’s caucuses in parliaments in most countries, including those that have fewer women in parliament. I’m talking about women’s caucuses in parliaments that are multi-party. Women must work together. The divisions that women experience as a result of party divisions eat into the strength they could gather if they were to unite across political parties. The negative impact of under-representation is detrimental to all women, no matter their political affiliation. 

Do women parliamentarians always champion women’s issues in parliament?

Most of the time women leaders will champion women’s issues, although there are times when they make decisions that are detrimental to women. However, by and large, and not just in Africa, women in positions of authority make decisions that are good for women and girls.

How much progress has been made towards fulfilling the commitments made in Beijing?  

The progress has been uneven and slow, very slow. On education, for example, many governments invested a lot. To the extent that we do not have the results we want across the board, it is not out of governments not trying. Enrolments have increased significantly, especially in countries that started at a very low base. There has been a clear shift in how governments view and prioritize education.

On gender equality, after Beijing, governments have set up institutions such as women’s ministries, gender commissions and gender focal points in different ministries. However, structures do not do the work. Most of these structures are not properly funded. In the economic arena, the number of women who have entered the labour force progressed from 40% to only 48% in 20 years. That is so slow. At this pace, it is going to take us 50 years to achieve gender parity in Africa. 

On health, investment in maternal health has been strong. However, sometimes help with maternal health comes too late. We should be preventing, for instance, the complications that women and mothers experience, which have a lot to do with unwanted pregnancies. We should be talking about comprehensive sexual education which many governments have not really implemented.

Most governments have focused on the fight against HIV/AIDS, which impacts women significantly.  But limited resources have worsened the problem despite efforts by many countries. However, one thing that countries did not do enough is strengthening health systems as a whole as we have seen in countries affected by the Ebola virus outbreak.

On issues like female genital mutilation (FGM), most countries now have legislation against it. We have not been able to completely eradicate it. We have to address a very worrying trend where doctors and nurses are secretly performing FGM, saying there is a ‘healthy way’ of doing it. There is no healthy way of doing FGM; mutilation is mutilation. 

There are concerns that the gains African women have made over the years are gradually being eroded in some countries. What is your assessment?

The extremism and conflicts we are seeing in some countries are worrying. This is where the gains women have made are facing the biggest threat. Since Beijing, the countries that have had the least progress for women are those in conflict. This is where women are in the eye of the storm. The rise of fundamentalism and its hatred of girls is a major setback for women’s advancement.
We cannot really blame governments for this, but the burden for women is much heavier. 

Gender parity in primary education is improving but huge disparities remain in the transition to secondary education and drop-out rates are high. What is being done to address these issues?

This is a multi-sectoral challenge. We need to fight early marriages because girls are driven out of school while their male peers remain in school. Men need to take a stand on this. We need to mobilize men and boys, where men must say ‘I will not marry a child’. If men take up this campaign themselves, we could reduce early marriages significantly. We must also mobilize parents, including mothers, who sometimes marry off their girls. Of course, legislation is important too. But we have to push for its effective implementation. 

The other challenge is that the financial crisis robbed governments of the resources needed to invest in social development. It is usually the first item to be thrown out of budgets and it has negative impact on the well-being of women and girls. That is why we are pushing for gender-responsive budgeting. A few countries like Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Morocco and South Africa are embracing it and we would like to see more doing the same. 

What is your comment on access to technology in Africa?

In education, access is critical. The advantage of using technology is that you can access more young people than you can in a classroom. We need to invest in devices that can educate children. Imagine how much children in poor countries could do with devices if they were made available. You could have a teacher in New York, for example, if he is one of the best in teaching a particular subject, using the technology to teach children anywhere in the world. Technology has to be seen as a pro-poor intervention and not a luxury as we sometimes tend to do.
Many children do not have access to libraries and have to walk long distances to get to a library.  It will take a long time to attain the number of teachers we need, yet we can provide technology at low cost.

Looking at Africa in the next 50 years, what do the women want?

In the first place, women want economic well-being. With that, women can make decisions for themselves and their children to make life better for future generations. Investment in women has very high and sustainable rates of return. Second, women want their human rights to be respected. The violence against women in many parts of the world, including in Africa – physical violence, sexual violence, FGM, early marriages, or trafficking – must stop. One of the biggest needs for women therefore is leadership. They want leadership that is concerned about women issues, cares for them and is willing to protect them from violent experiences. 

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