Africa is on the rise, and so are African women

Letty Chiwara, Chief of the Africa Section, UN Women

Definitively more democracy

Empowering women means dignity, equality, justice, human rights and the ability to govern. It means, ultimately, democracy.

Equal choice

When we talk about the empowerment of women we are talking about giving them skills, for women to have and to exercise their rights, for their voice to be heard, for them to be represented. In Africa this means not only that there should be women ministers and parliamentarians. Not only does it mean that they should manage companies. It means deciding whether to marry or not, whether they have children, whether they are in charge of their lives or not. It means being able to choose their individual destinies freely and to participate on equal terms in the choice of a common goal.


...And they have always been active in all areas of African society. Quite another issue is that their participation has not been recognized or rewarded at the same level as men. Empowering women is a very effective way to achieve development in its many dimensions. Nevertheless, it should not be promoted because of its instrumental nature, but for the intrinsic value of equality and non-discrimination of women: women's rights are human rights, and for this reason alone they should be promoted and defended.

African women produce 80% of the food and represent 60% of the labour force in agriculture (FAO). Furthermore, women account for 70% of those engaged in informal, cross-border trade. However, compared to other geographical areas, Sub-Saharan African women have less control over productive resources such as capital, land (according to the FAO, men account for 85% of the landowners, and the 15% who are female landowners face a great variation from country to country) and credit. They often spend most of their time in informal, underrated activities, and their access to essential institutions such as courts and markets is very limited.


Effort over the past decade

During the last decade, a great deal of effort has been made on different levels (continental, regional, state, etc.) to advance the empowerment of women:

  • The African Union's commitment to gender equality is reflected in various statements and documents, as in art. 4 of its Constitutive Act, the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, the SDGEA (Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa) etc. In 2000, the Directorate of Women, Gender and Development was created, and in 2009 the AU launched its first Gender Policy, accompanied by a comprehensive Action Plan.

  • In January 2010, the African Union Assembly adopted the African Women’s Decade (2010-2020), whose objectives are linked to the 13 critical areas of the Beijing Platform for Action, the 8 Millennium Development Goals and the programme of the International Conference for Population and Development (ICPD), as well as other regional commitments.

  • 51 of the 53 African countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

  • The African Development Bank has expressed its commitment to women's empowerment and gender equality. Although at the beginning these fell short, the lessons learned from the first Gender Action Plan (2004-2007) have been incorporated in the 2009-2011 Gender Action Plan. 

The Third Millennium Goal, to “promote gender equality and empowerment of women” has made some progress in Sub-Saharan Africa.

  • The IIG-Gender Inequality Index from the UNDP includes the loss of achievements caused by gender inequality in three aspects: reproductive health, empowerment and participation in the job market. The greater the discrimination, the higher the GII values. There has been progress in the GII in Sub-Saharan Africa, falling from 0.735 in 2008 to 0.577 in 2012 (the world average for 2012 was 0.463).

  • Women's access to paid employment is still a goal to be achieved, although one positive fact in Sub-Saharan Africa is that the percentage of women employed in non-agricultural paid jobs rose from 24% in 1990 to 33% in 2010.

  • As regards the level of women’s representation in parliaments, in Sub-Saharan Africa the percentage increased from 13% to 20% between 2000 and 2012. This percentage makes Sub-Saharan Africa the second regional highest in the world in terms of female representation in parliaments. According to the UN, this development occurred due to the existence of positive discrimination measures (quotas such as reserved parliamentary seats). In Rwanda, the percentage of women representatives is 56%.



However, this representation still faces the challenge of making it have a positive impact on the daily lives of women: it is paradoxical that while in South Africa women hold 40% of seats in parliament, in some provinces of the country one in four women has been raped.

In 2006 in Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first female head of state in the region, and was followed Joyce Banda in Malawi, in April 2012. This year, 2013, marks the 50thanniversary of the African Union, and it is also the year in which a woman, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, became the head of the African Union Commission for the first time.

The contribution made by African women's movements to these changes have not achieved enough visibility. The notion of gender mainstreaming, which became popular in the 1980s, had been explained by women like Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo from Burkina Faso in 1960.

NEPAD’s approach and work for the empowerment of women has been bolstered by the criticisms, demands and contributions from activists, social movements and academics, who have argued for a more inclusive, participatory approach to enable society to be transformed.

African women’s networks are addressing some complex issues: domestic violence, inheritance rights, female genital mutilation, early marriage, and other issues relating to customary law. Recently, there has even been increased support for gay and lesbian rights, and they have actively encouraged debate on abortion and the right for women to decide about their own bodies.

Three women shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, two of them from Africa: The President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the Liberian Leymah Gbowee and the Yemeni Tawakkul Karman. The award was bestowed for their struggle for the safety of women and for women's right to full participation in peace-keeping tasks.

However, much remains to be done in implementing UN Resolutions 1325 and 1820, which still pose many challenges: women often remain sidelined from the negotiating table, and in other cases sexual violence has failed to be included in peace processes and agreements, leading to impunity and hindering processes of reconciliation and reparations.


Author: African Studies Group at the Autonomous University of Madrid