Every 8th of March, the world marks International Women’s Day. This is a day when women’s remarkable achievements are applauded. It is also an opportunity for women to champion for equality across all sectors of life.
This piece reflects on the role women play in economic, cultural and societal advancements, the challenges they still face in pursuit of economic justice and progress made so far.
History has chronicled women making significant progress across various spheres, including politics, science, and academia. For instance, Rwanda became the first country in the world to have a women-dominated parliament– 61.3% composition in the lower house.
A big shoutout to women such as Dr. Purity Ngina, who aged only 28 years, attained a Ph.D. in Bioinformatics from Strathmore University. There is also Dr. Chao Mbogo’s contribution to the technology world that has earned her global recognition, including being among the five African women who received the OSED-Elsevier Foundation 2020 Award in Engineering, Innovation, and Technology; Dr. Stella Nyanzi from Uganda is yet another great example of women from the region who are a motif of pride and inspiration for younger generations.
With women making up approximately half the population, they play a significant role in Africa’s development. They hold great potential in income-generating activities.
However, more than two decades since the women empowerment struggle gathered stream, their effective participation in the continent’s social and economic prosperity remains limited.
Women work and live in a world, culture, and system that is, unfortunately, patriarchal. Across the continent, more women than men are in informal employment compared to formal employment that is dominated by men. A recent analysis in 2015 by the Africa Development Bank of ratios of women in top positions in different African countries found that only approximately 12.7 % of women hold high-rank positions (board directors) in top companies.
Statistics show that women receive relatively lower wages compared to their male counterparts in the same fields. Payscale recorded that, for every dollar a man made in the US in 2019, a woman earned just 79 cents.
Women are unsung heroes of the African home. They are more likely to be engaged in unpaid care work or activities that yield lesser economic benefits than men. This is above responsibilities in households that are prescribed to them by African culture. The value of this work each year to the global economy is estimated to be at least $10.8 trillion – more than three times the size of the global tech industry.
Globally, a woman today will work the equivalent of four extra years in her lifetime compared to her male counterparts. This is, however, detrimental to their health as it increases physical and mental stress and reduces their productivity at work. The burden compared to the economic rewards point to disparities and unfairness against women.
In education, there continues to exist disparities between men and women that later translate to the economic sector. Women face challenges like the risk of adolescent births, early marriages and retrogressive cultural traditions (like FGM) that may affect their efforts to academic advancement. In Kenya for example, 16% of women lack basic literacy skills compared to only 9% of men according to a recent study by UNESCO. However, it is worth noting that efforts to close the gender gap in education has over the years borne many fruits. A good example is the gender parity index in secondary school enrollment in Kenya which stands at 0.95 (in 2016) up from 0.88 in 2012. This may be attributable to the government’s efforts to provide sanitary towels to girls in school to ensure that they are comfortable and can concentrate in class, as well as banishing harmful traditions like FGM and early marriages.
Another significant challenge to economic justice to women is poverty, which has always had a woman’s face attached to it. According to the 2015-16 Kenya Integrated Household and Budget Survey report, households headed by females in Kenya were more likely to be poorer than those headed by men. About 30.2% of female-headed households were poor compared to 26% of their male counterparts. Women’s economic empowerment could reduce poverty for everyone and ensure gender equality, which is one of the SDG goals.
Outside the workplace, progress towards equality and empowerment of women means viewing women as equals when it comes to ownership of property. African women have limited accessibility, ownership and control of land and natural resources. Most women are kept from inheriting property from their deceased kin, even in today’s digitally-woke generation. Implementation of these laws remains a challenge, denying women access and protection of their property. However, Rwanda and Tanzania are among the few African countries that are currently working towards securing at least 30% on land rights to their women by 2025. Additionally, women’s views and opinions should be incorporated when making decisions such as the purchase of property and other assets. Women also need to be consulted by their partners during the sale and purchase of land, and their names added to title deeds to assure their security of family assets.
Sexual and gender-based violence against women workers’, exploitation and abuse (in particular sex workers) remains rampant, despite efforts towards eradicating this vice. Violence against women is endemic, and most of them lack access to justice to address violations. According to the Uganda Demographic Household Survey of 2016, 13% of Ugandan women reported having experienced sexual violence. There have been positive efforts to reduce cases of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in the region, as courts have actively taken up indicting the accused. However, women can use social media and the legal system to fight and advocate for justice and an end to GBV for their economic advancement.
For efforts to empower women to work, radical and progressive steps have to be taken by the entire society. This begins by acknowledging the patriarchal structure of society and eliminating existing structures that limit women from realizing their full potential and optimal participation in progressing society. Beyond granting women equal opportunities to men, according to their qualifications, there is a need to restructure workspaces and environments to accommodate the unique needs of women. Such things as extended paid maternity leave as those adopted by Safaricom and East African Breweries Limited, granting men adequate paternal leave to allow them to contribute to the parenting of their newly born baby by helping their partners, and period breaks or leaves, are great starting points.
Even as we mark International Women’s Day, it is important to acknowledge that there is still a lot to be done for women to fully realize their potential. Moving forward, society should work towards eliminating structures that are detrimental to the social and economic progress of women, and developing a new culture that enables them to thrive. It is only then that, on such a day, every woman in the world will have a reason to celebrate.
This article was co-authored by Clotilda Nalonja. Read Clotilda’s full bio on the ‘Meet Our Team’ Page.