By Olga Arara-Kimani, Regional Head of Corporate Affairs, Brand & Marketing for Standard Chartered in Africa and the Middle East

In recent years there has been significant improvements towards empowering women in Africa and the Middle East (AME). Despite these steps towards inclusion, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap index[1], it will take more than 150 years to close the gender gap between men and women in Africa and the Middle East. The effect of gender divide means women often face barriers and end up in insecure, low-wage jobs, and constitute a small minority of those in senior positions.

The divide hasn’t gone unnoticed. Regional governments are increasingly moving ahead with progressive policies and legislation, whilst Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have been instrumental in providing women with new skills and spurring attitudinal change. A solid foundation has been laid for women to maximise their potential, however government legislation and NGOs will not suffice if we are to truly level the playing field. For this to occur, the private sector must be engaged as a key partner to deliver on female equity.

To begin with the public sector, governments across the region have moved to increase female participation in the workplace in recent years.  In the UAE, the government recently passed a resolution to increase women’s representation in the Federal National Council (FNC) to 50 percent[2], whilst South Africa President, Cyril Ramaphosa has just announced that government plans and budgets will have to include gender-specific delivery targets.  Governments across the region have also been instrumental in introducing legislation to encourage women both in, and into, the workplace. For instance, Lebanon has increased paid maternity leave from 49 to 70 days. Progressive policies are not only helping women enter and stay in the workforce, but in the long-term will have a positive impact on the region’s GDP. In the GCC alone, some estimates tout a 50 percent boost to economic output if women participate in the workforce to the same extent as men. International organisations have also contributed to significant advances in female economic empowerment across Africa and the Middle East, with a significant impact on attitudes towards equality. The United Nations (UN) has led this charge, with gender equality high up on its agenda as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the Middle East, UN Women awarded 200 youth volunteers at HeForShe for reaching 20,000 commitments on women’s empowerment[3], and in Africa, the organisation aims to empower up to two million women through various initiatives aimed at increasing income, wealth and business leadership skills. Beyond the UN, a large number of international organisations have also been instrumental in empowering women across the AME region. Oxfam, for example, has launched a global campaign called Raising Her Voice (RHV) which aims to promote women’s rights. This included a budget in Pakistan of over US$500,000 between the years of 2008-2013[1]. In South Africa, the RHV campaign received roughly US$50,000 annually for training and workshops that involved feminism and advocacy skills[2].

Local NGO initiatives have also been key in the advancement of female inclusion throughout the AME region. As an example, five Lebanese NGOs and the Lebanese League for Women in Business (LLWB) teamed up in 2016 to form Girls Got IT, an NGO to provide female students with access to hands-on tech workshops, talks by industry leaders and tutorials on digital innovation. To take but one of many examples from Africa, a Tanzanian NGO called ‘Village Enterprise’ works on ending extreme poverty by helping women in rural areas through entrepreneurship and innovation. The group has been working successfully and achieved a milestone of one million lives transformed in May 2019[3].

It’s clear that governments and civil society have done much to integrate women into AME economies, positively affecting millions of lives along the way. Nevertheless, much remains to be done. Female labour force participation rates vary widely among African states, with South Africa at 49 percent[4] and Tanzania at 80 percent[5]. On the other hand, in the GCC, women comprise just 19.2 percent of the workforce according to one study[6]. In this context, the private sector, with all of its economic might, constitutes perhaps the most crucial element in addressing the balance. A recent study by Deloitte showed that Africa’s private sector represents 75 percent of generated wealth and 90 percent of all employment opportunities in the continent[7]. Fortunately, there are encouraging signs that companies are stepping up across AME and pursuing a concerted effort to empower women with new skills and opportunities. Standard Chartered stands as a case in point. The Bank has committed to raise USD50 million, between 2019 and 2023 through fundraising and Bank-matching, to empower the next generation to learn, earn and grow via its Futuremakers programme. By no means is Standard Chartered satisfied to merely provide financial donations – it also actively implements women’s empowerment programmes such as Women in Tech, aimed at promoting the economic and social development of women entrepreneurs. To date, this programme operates in five countries with entrepreneurial female participants from Pakistan, Nigeria, the US, the UAE and my home country, Kenya. The Bank is also committed to creating a more inclusive environment to help working parents balance work and family responsibilities; its staff can enjoy the benefit of flexible working policy, a parental paid leave of up to 140 calendar days for the mother and two weeks for the spouse.

Achieving gender equality is an important moral principle and acts as a catalyst to other development outcomes such as poverty reduction, well-being and health[1]. Governments and NGO’s have been active in empowering women; however, change will take a collective partnership between government, NGO’s and private enterprise across the region to elevate women to an equal status. The outcome of maximising women’s potential and achieving gender equality will result in greater contributions being made and benefits to the entire region.