Op-Ed: Mainstreaming gender in African policy making: Ensuring no voice is unheard

By Dr Hanan Morsy, Director, Macroeconomics Policy, Forecasting and Research Department, African Development Bank Group.

Despite remarkable progress made on women’s participation in policymaking, Africa is still far from achieving the 50 percent gender parity target set by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Between 1995 and 2018, the proportion of women in African parliaments almost tripled from 8% to 23% but remains insufficient. Out of 11,037 African parliamentarians as of October 2018, only 2,591 were women and out of 1,348 ministers on the continent only 302, or 22%, were women[1].

The challenges in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, will be the focus of the Global Gender Summit to be held in Kigali, Rwanda from the 25-27 November. The Summit, hosted by the African Development Bank in partnership with the Government of Rwanda, will spotlight innovative financing, fostering an enabling environment and ensuring women’s participation and voices.

Mainstreaming gender in policymaking in Africa is crucial for at least three main reasons. First, women are the main driving labor force in most African countries, making a vital contribution to the economy. Empirical studies, including the African Development Bank’s own research[2], have found that if women had equal access to productive resources such as land, modern inputs, technology, or financial services, then the gender productivity gap in agriculture of 20%-35% would almost disappear.

This suggests that African countries could significantly increase their production by just closing the gender gap across economic sectors, particularly in agriculture. Second, increasing women’s participation in policymaking has been found to lead to higher GDP growth through increases in higher-skilled women in the labor force and women’s employment in high-productivity sectors[3]. Africa is therefore losing socio-economic opportunities by not doing enough to encourage the voices of women. The continent cannot afford to wait any longer to empower women.

Gender empowerment in policymaking can also boost women’s role as business leaders. Although Africa boasts the world’s highest rate of women entrepreneurs (at 27%) and is the only continent where more women than men choose to become entrepreneurs, most female-led enterprises are small businesses, in the informal sector with little growth prospects.

Access to finance is a key constraint and the Bank’s research found that women entrepreneurs in Africa are more likely to self-select out of the credit market due to perceived low creditworthiness compared to men[4].

By influencing policymaking in their countries, women can help lift barriers to their participation in labor markets which at 61% remains lower than men at 67%.

And to ensure that no voice remains unheard, much work needs to be done. Improving women’s access to education is key. Better educated women are more likely to influence policy. Despite commendable efforts, the gender gap in educational attainment persists in most African countries, creating barriers to women’s advancement.

For instance, the average number of schooling years between 2010-2017 was 4.33 for females but 5.6 for males in Africa. In many countries, the educational disadvantage of women starts at primary school and by the time girls become adolescents the educational gap has significantly widened.

One solution to explore is to ensure universal access to education to all girls and promote education parity at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. Several findings indicate that countries with greater education parity have realized higher economic growth[5]. In addition to bringing girls into school, having them complete their grades is also important, as the drop-out rate of girls in primary education is still very high in Africa, with a third of girls dropping out between 2010-2017.

Second, government efforts to support the development of women’s political competency is particularly important in raising their participation in policymaking. Mentoring and training programs can equip women candidates with the necessary skills to successfully run for political office. For elected women, leadership trainings would strengthen their influence in policymaking and advocacy.

Third, scaling up of programs and initiatives or implementation of laws aimed at fostering an enabling political environment for women will ensure that women’s voices are heard. Although many African countries have made legal provisions guaranteeing equal rights of men and women in policymaking and have even established gender parity in their electoral systems, only a handful have implemented these laws.

Only Rwanda, Ethiopia and Seychelles have achieved or are close to achieving gender parity in their ministerial cabinets. Rwanda is the only country in Africa where women outnumber men in the parliament (61.3% as of January 1, 2019). Other countries such as Namibia (46.2%), South Africa (42.7%), or Senegal (41.8%) have set examples for other nations to follow in mainstreaming gender in policymaking.

In its own operations, the African Development Bank in 2018 launched a Gender Marker System to track gender mainstreaming in its work. It has also developed an Africa Gender Index in partnership with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa to measure gender parity across economic, social, and political representation dimensions.

With its Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa (AFAWA) initiative, the Bank will extend women’s access to finance through commercial banks and financial intermediaries, provide technical assistance to women, and engage policy and regulatory bodies to create an enabling environment for women.

With initiatives such as AFAWA, and the Global Gender Summit in Kigali, the African Development Bank is advancing the course of women and ensuring that no voice is unheard.

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