Global notions of ‘North’ and ‘South’ may mercifully be the polarities of the past, but consider this contrast: how is it that enough men in ‘the North’ worry out loud that they are somehow ‘finished’, while here in the South it is painfully clear to almost all of us that women have barely started?
The North, of course, has a long way to go to establish true and full gender equality. But its girls get better grades at school than its boys, and more of its women than its men go to university. Manufacturing work, traditionally a male preserve, has declined, while jobs in services have expanded, and are there for the taking by women. We can make the case that women are the economic drivers of the world. As half of the American workforce (up from a quarter a century ago), women generate GDP. We estimate that the increased employment of women in all the developed countries has contributed more to global growth in the last 10 years than China. At the same time women drive demand, not least in that they take most of the consumer buying decisions. In the emerging world of brain not brawn, women may well be better investments, and investors, than men.
The opposite, it seems, is true of Africa, whose women constitute a treasure that remains largely hidden. This is above all a matter of human rights, and of the demand for equality and fairness for those who ‘hold up half the sky’. Women are of course different, but they are no better or worse than men: all they need is to be given the same opportunity.
A continent in which there are countries where a woman needs permission from her husband to travel, to work, or to open a bank account; in which she cannot buy or inherit land; or in which she bears the brunt of the impact of conflict; has a long way to go. How often do we repeat the fact that half of Africa’s people bear considerably more than half of its problems? Two-thirds of the continent’s children out of primary school are girls; and two thirds of its adults living below the poverty line are women.
But the issue goes beyond morality, since women’s economic empowerment means national economic growth. Women have been engines of growth in India and China, and they will be in Africa.
Africa hurts itself by keeping the lid on the bottle of female economic potential. In the instances where it empowers women it reaps the reward, but where it restrains them, it knocks percentage points off its GDP. It is not only morally wrong that women cannot fully contribute to and benefit from the growth on this continent: it is economically damaging. Africa has grown at an average 5% a year for a decade: enough to effect transition, but not transformation. We estimate that the physical infrastructure gap on the continent costs it $40 billion (or 2% GDP growth) a year; and the gender gap may cost it as much, or more. We know for sure that political empowerment often brings economic empowerment. We often hear that in Rwanda – where it was the women who were the first to bring about healing and rebuilding in the wake of the genocide – well over half of the country’s MPs are female, and the proportion has doubled in ten years. Less well known is that female-owned manufacturing businesses have grown dramatically in the same period.
So women need to have their place at every level of society, from the top down and from the bottom up.
We are right to strive for an Africa in which women own companies, serve as directors on company boards, and buy and sell on stock exchanges. But of 33 of The New African’s business nominees for the top 100 Africans of 2013, only three were women.
But above all, we need to work from the bottom up, with the hundreds of millions of African women who are economic actors facing visible or invisible barriers to what they do. The reality is that African women operate largely in the informal sector, in small firms, and in traditional sectors like agriculture. Our collective task is to enhance this current reality, while also moving towards a new reality where women work in the formal sector, in larger firms, and in new, high-value services and industries.
One way of turning the present into the future is in turning subsistence agriculture into agribusiness. Agriculture itself encapsulates the challenge and the response, on a continent where women provide 70% of all agricultural labour and produce 90% of all food, while owning 1% of the land and receiving 1% of agricultural credit. Studies show that if women are given the rights, the credits, the seeds, the fertiliser, the technology and the market access, then they use it, and often better than men.
Where governments lead, societies and financiers must follow. The first prerequisite is education for girls, and vocational and business training for young women. The second is women’s ability to own and control assets, above all equity and land. That means bringing customary law into line with constitutional rights. The third is improved access to finance (and knowledge about finance) for women who – every study tells us – will almost always pay it back with interest. The stark fact is that two in three of the adult population of Africa (and four in five women in Sub-Saharan Africa) have no access to financial services: they are unbanked, uninsured and uninvested.
The African Development Bank is currently working alongside the Graca Machel Trust and other partners to provide 10 million women in Africa with improved access to credit and finance. The inalienable rights of half the population bring the realisation of tangible goods for the whole. As the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day reminds us, equality for women really is ‘progress for all’.