Get the free mobile apps

Get the latest news from us on our apps.

Download app from Android Download app from Apple

African women battle for equality

Get monthly

African women battle for equality

Some progress 10 years after Beijing, but major challenges remain
From Africa Renewal: 
Panos / Crispin Hughes

A decade ago, African women had reason to expect change following a much-heralded global conference that set ambitious targets to transform the lives of women across the world. This year marks the 10th anniversary of that milestone event, the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995. Like their counterparts elsewhere, African women are taking stock of progress and asking to what extent promised reforms have been implemented. They are also examining why progress has been limited in many countries and are seeking ways to overcome the obstacles.

During the last 30 years there have been a number of signs of improvement, UN Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women Rachel Mayanja told the 10-year review of the Beijing conference, in New York in March. There have been moves to implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a UN protocol, as well as the development of new policies and guidelines and creation of networks of gender experts, she said, citing just a few examples.

African women continue to face not only widespread poverty, but also heavy labour burdens African women continue to face not only widespread poverty, but also heavy labour burdens.
Photograph: Panos / Crispin Hughes

However, over the same 30 years since the first World Conference on Women in Mexico City, “men have gone to the moon and back, yet women are still at the same place they were — that is, trying to sensitize the world to the unwarranted and unacceptable marginalization of women, which deprives them of their human rights,” Ms. Mayanja told the delegates, who came from 165 countries.

In Africa specifically, women have made significant strides in the political arena over the past few years. The continental political body, the African Union (AU), took a major step by promoting gender parity in its top decision-making positions. In 2003 five women and five men were elected as AU commissioners. The following year, Ms. Gertrude Mongella was chosen to head the AU’s Pan-African Parliament, where women make up 25 per cent of members. Another AU body, the African Peer Review Mechanism, which oversees standards for good governance, is led by Ms. Marie-Angélique Savané.

African women have also successfully promoted agreements that advance their rights. By the end of last year, 51 of the 53 AU member countries had ratified CEDAW, adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly and often described as the international bill of rights for women. And in 2003 activists succeeded in persuading their heads of state to adopt a protocol on the rights of women. They are now lobbying states to take the final step and ratify the protocol to make it enforceable (see box, page 9).

Obstacles persist

“We are all aware that despite achievements and progress made, African women face major challenges and obstacles,” says Dr. Farkhonda Hassan, chair of the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s Committee on Women and Development. For example, she says, the primary development policies in many countries, known as poverty reduction strategies, still do not take into account differences in income and power between men and women, hampering efforts to finance programmes that reduce inequality. In addition, she says, the majority of African women are still denied education and employment, and have limited opportunities in trade, industry and government.

Since the first World Conference on Women in Mexico City “women are still at the same place they were – that is, trying to sensitize the world to the unwarranted and unacceptable marginalization of women, which deprives them of their human rights,” says UN Special Adviser on Gender Issues Rachel Mayanja.

Out of the 1995 conference emerged a plan, the Beijing Platform of Action, which laid out areas that needed improvement if the position of women was to be improved. The areas include reducing poverty among women, stopping violence, providing access to education and health care and reducing economic and political inequality. Barring some notable exceptions, progress in these areas has been slow.

The Beijing platform should no longer be viewed as a set of simple goals and aspirations, says Ms. Hassan, but must be used as a tool to push for the adoption of gender-sensitive policies. “The objective now is not to renegotiate our dreams, but to emphasize the accountability of all actors through detailed discussions of goals, targets, achievements and failures,” she says. “We are no longer seeking promises, but are demanding action.”

Poverty has a woman’s face

For many African women, the Beijing platform and the various international instruments their governments have signed have yet to translate into positive changes in their daily lives. They remain at the bottom of the social hierarchy, with poor access to land, credit, health and education. While some of the agreements that African governments have ratified enshrine property and inheritance rights, in most countries women are denied those very rights.

Compounding the situation are setbacks such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic that is destroying the health of more women than men in Africa, eroding some of the development gains women had attained. As a result, poverty in Africa continues to wear a woman’s face, notes Ms. Gladys Mutukwa of the Zimbabwe-based non-governmental organization Women in Law and Development in Africa (WILDAF). She finds it disturbing that 10 years after Beijing, African women are much poorer.

Gender disparities in Africa 2001

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people living in poverty dropped in all developing regions except Africa, where it increased by more than 82 million. Women make up the majority of the poor, as much as 70 per cent in some countries. More often than not, men are more likely to find a job and enterprises run by men have easier access to support from institutions such as banks.

A UN Food and Agricultural Organization study on Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe shows that women rarely own land. When they do, their holdings tend to be smaller and less fertile than those of men. Studies also show that if women farmers had the same access to inputs and training as males, overall yields could be raised by between 10 and 20 per cent.

Getting girls into school

But perhaps the most inhibiting factor is that women in Africa continue to be denied an education, often the only ticket out of poverty. Disparities between girls and boys start in primary school and the differences widen up through the entire educational system. In total enrolment in primary education, Africa registered the highest relative increase among regions during the last decade. But given the low proportion of girls being enrolled, the continent is still far from the goal of attaining intake parity by the end of this year. By 2000, sub-Saharan Africa was the region with the most girls out of school, 23 million, up from 20 million a decade earlier.

The total number of children out of school has declined during the last decade. Between 1990 and 2000, worldwide enrolment in primary education increased from 596 million to 648 million, with the highest increase occurring in sub-Saharan Africa, which recorded a 38 per cent rise.

Policies specifically targeting girls were responsible for considerable improvements in countries such as Benin, Botswana, the Gambia, Guinea, Lesotho, Mauritania and Namibia. In Benin, for instance, the gender gap narrowed from 32 to 22 per cent, thanks to policies such as sensitizing parents through the media and reducing school fees for girls in public primary schools in rural areas.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that girls’ enrolments rise relative to boys as the proportion of female teachers increases. Therefore an effective method of ensuring gender parity is to equalize the gender balance among teachers, a strategy Mauritania used to narrow the gender gap in primary schools from 13 to 4 per cent between 1990 and 2000.

Guinea employed a broader approach, making girls’ education a national priority during the early 1990s. After assessing the challenges faced by girls in schools, the government embarked on programmes to build latrines, assist pregnant students, distribute free textbooks and increase the number of female teachers. By 2000, the country had more than doubled the number of girls in school and increased boys’ attendance by 80 per cent. But in general, Africa has the lowest proportion of female teachers of any region.

Numerous other hurdles continue to hamper the expansion of education in Africa. Austerity programmes introduced in many countries during the 1980s constrained educational spending. Governments had little money to maintain existing schools or build new ones. At the family level, households that became poorer often faced the stark choice of deciding whom to send to school – and often it was the girl who stayed home. Costs of tuition, the requirement to wear uniforms, long distances between home and school, inadequate water and sanitation, all help to restrict girls’ access to education.

By the time children go through high school and reach college, the gender gap has become even wider. “At the tertiary and university levels the low participation for women continues,” declared African government ministers gathered in Addis Ababa in October to take stock of the continent’s progress since Beijing. “Gender gaps are particularly pronounced in science, mathematics and computer sciences.”

As with a range of other historically male-dominated subjects, an International Labour Organization (ILO) survey shows that women are starkly underrepresented in technical programmes in African colleges. The share of women enrolled in polytechnic courses ranges from 40 per cent in the Gambia to just 2 per cent in Zambia, the ILO reports. In Ghana, even though 30 per cent of all those attending polytechnics are women, only 1 per cent of the total taking technical courses are women.

Africa, however, has registered improvements in adult literacy rates, which rose 20 per cent between 1990 and 2000. The goal is to raise adult literacy rates by 50 per cent by 2015, from the 1990 level. About half of sub-Saharan African countries have registered moderate increases towards gender parity in this area, UNESCO reports. However, in some countries the female illiteracy rates are much higher than the regional average of about 50 per cent. In Burkina Faso it is 82 per cent, in Sierra Leone 79 per cent and in Benin and Ethiopia 77 per cent.

Channelling money to women

Many now acknowledge that to enable women to escape poverty, development policies should place more emphasis on their contributions to the economy. Even though women make up a significant proportion of the economically active population, their contribution is not fully recorded because they are mainly engaged in family farming or in the informal sector. In other cases, what they do, such as household work, is not considered an economic activity.

In agriculture, sub-Saharan Africa’s most vital economic sector, women contribute 60–80 per cent of labour in food production, both for household consumption and for sale. But while they do most of the work, they lack access to markets and credit. In Uganda, women make up 53 per cent of the labour force, but only sell 11 per cent of the cash crops.

Providing women with greater access to credit and other sources of financing can help reduce economic disparities Providing women with greater access to credit and other sources of financing can help reduce economic disparities.
Photograph: ILO / A. Fiorente

“I strongly hold the view that since days immemorial, women have played and continue to play a significant role in the economic and social development of their countries,” says Namibia’s Women’s Affairs Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah. “What is at stake is that they are not visible, not recognized and not rewarded for the hard work they do.” She says that each country should allocate a percentage of its national budget to gender issues. “This request is based on the fact that to date no country allocates more than 1 per cent of its national budget to women and gender issues.” Currently, resources for national programmes for the advancement of women come mainly from external partners.

Ms. Josephine Ouédraogo of the African Centre for Women in Addis Ababa says women’s contributions through the household economy, which provides more than 70 per cent of food in Africa, are not adequately counted in national statistics. “Less than 10 African countries conduct systematic time-use or household surveys,” she says. This makes it difficult to identify disparities between the sexes and design remedial policies.

To redress the bias in macroeconomic policies that favours men and boys at the expense of women and girls, a number of African countries have adopted a tool known as gender budgeting (see Africa Recovery, April 2002). Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda are among the countries currently assessing their budgets along gender lines. This involves analyzing government spending choices and their impact on women and men, boys and girls, with the aim of better identifying disparities. That in turn can help mobilize more financing to narrow the gaps, for example by funding programmes to reduce the heavy time burdens on women or by improving their access to energy, water, transport and labour-saving technologies.

At a meeting in April 2004 to review women’s progress since Beijing, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) called on its 14 member countries to adopt gender budgeting by December 2006.

Influencing policy

Almost all SADC countries have a national government body that deals with gender issues. However, in the 10 years since Beijing, these units, departments or ministries “have become weak and unable to be responsive to the challenges presented by the struggle for gender justice,” NGOs declared at an African Social Forum in Lusaka, Zambia. “Poor resource bases, few staff and no power or authority within governments to advance equality and justice for women are just a few of the constraints.”

However, women in some countries in Southern Africa have moved into positions of political influence. In South Africa and Mozambique, for example, women hold 30 per cent of the seats in parliament. In February 2004, Mozambique became the first country in the region to appoint a woman as prime minister, Ms. Luisa Diogo. In Rwanda, women lead the world in representation in national parliaments. There, 49 per cent of parliamentarians are female, far more than the 30 per cent target specified in Beijing. The world average is just 15 per cent.

In 14 of 23 recent elections in African countries, women increased their parliamentary representation. Still, the situation is far from ideal. In the majority of these countries (20), women hold 10 per cent or less of parliamentary seats. In Madagascar, Mauritania and Niger, for example, they occupy less than 5 per cent of seats.

In some countries, the presence of women in parliament has made a difference in the adoption of gender-sensitive policies. Because of pressure from women, some countries now have affirmative action policies, such as quotas, to increase the number of women in decision-making positions. In South Africa, women parliamentarians succeeded in passing various pieces of legislation, such as those legalizing abortion, countering domestic violence and ensuring child support.

In Uganda, women parliamentarians helped to adopt legislation making rape a capital offence. In 2003, following a long delay, Mozambique passed a family law considered pivotal for the emancipation of women in that country. “If we had just one sex in parliament, the bill would have been weaker,” says the country’s higher education minister, Ms. Lidia Brito.

“The objective now is not to renegotiate our dreams, but to emphasize the accountablility of all actors. We are no longer seeking promises, but are demanding action.”

– Ms. Farkhonda Hassan, UN Economic Commission for Africa

Because the continent is so diverse, the problems are very complex, says Ms. Wariaru Mbugua of the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues at the UN. “Therefore, in global debates, they should not be made simplistic or be reduced to a single denominator.” For example, girls not only need access to primary education, but must also be protected from violence and harmful practices.

While there is a need to continue with basic strategies to lift women out of poverty and to halt HIV/AIDS, Ms. Mbugua says, “it is also important to put in place second- and third-generation strategies.” These include ensuring that global trade agreements and new information and communications technologies provide immediate benefits to women. Empowerment of women, she says, should not be confined to a narrow range of sectors within countries, but should also “ensure the equal participation of women in fast-moving global processes.”

‘Equality is still not a reality’

From 28 February to 11 March 2005, as part of the 49th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, more than 80 government ministers, 1,800 other government delegates and 2,600 representatives of non-governmental organizations, from 165 countries, convened in New York for the 10-year Review and Appraisal of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

“Ten years after Beijing, this review called attention to the many areas where women's equality is still not a reality – continuing high rates of violence against women in all parts of the world, including in armed conflict, increasing incidence of HIV/AIDS among women, gender inequality in employment, lack of sexual and reproductive health rights and a lack of equal access under the law to land and property, to name a few,” said Ms. Carolyn Hannan, director of the UN's Division for the Advancement of Women.

The meeting adopted a declaration calling for the “full and effective implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action ... essential to achieving the internationally agreed development goals, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration.”

So far, four international conferences on women have been held – Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985) and Beijing (1995).


Campaign to ratify women’s protocol

Gender activists are intensifying efforts to obtain the minimum 15 ratifications needed to bring into force a protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights aimed at promoting gender equality. Once in effect, the Protocol on the Rights of Women would provide a legal framework for women’s rights and require states to develop laws that prohibit discrimination.

The protocol states that every woman has the right “to the recognition and protection of her human and legal rights.” It includes articles on equality in marriage, access to justice and political participation, protection of women in armed conflict and the provision of education, training and health care. It also upholds women’s rights to housing and inheritance. The rights of widows and the special protection of elderly women and those with disabilities are also covered. The protocol contains guidelines on ending traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, which it condemns as harmful to the health of women and girls. Signatories will have to report periodically on progress and to provide financial resources to implement the rights enshrined in the protocol.

“For African populations and societies, the absence of a legal framework of reference to fight against violations of women’s rights currently constitutes a real handicap for the optimal participation of women in the development of their countries and of Africa,” writes Ms. Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson of the non-governmental Women in Law and Development in Africa. She notes that economic and social rights that are constantly violated, either deliberately or out of ignorance, would be better protected under the protocol.

Health Campaign