Empowering women to boost African development

14 Apr 2010


On gender equality in education, countries such as Botswana and Rwanda have met their enrollment targets.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, progress toward achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment has been modest, but several countries have been spearheading policies that address women’s needs.

One of the most notable achievements has been to elevate the debate on gender to the national level, with countries like Senegal, Benin, Burkina Faso or Liberia integrating gender concerns into their national development plans and poverty reduction strategies.

Progress in women’s political representation has sometimes been remarkable. The South African election of April 2009 saw women’s representation in Parliament rise to 45 per cent (from 34 per cent before the election). Uganda’s parliament is now comprised of 30.9 per cent women, whilst in Rwanda, the proportion of women in parliament is now 56 per cent, the highest in the world.

On gender equality in education, countries such as Botswana and Rwanda have met their enrollment targets: achieve universal access to 10 years of basic education for boys and girls by 2016 and ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling by 2015.

At the regional level, institutions have stepped up their efforts. For example, in partnership with UNDP, the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Africa has adopted a specific gender equality measuring tool, the African Gender and Development Index and set up the African Women’s Rights Observatory to monitor the status of African women's rights, raise awareness and create a forum for knowledge and experience sharing among countries.

Addressing African women’s needs

Despite these encouraging developments, much remains to be achieved on gender equality and women’s empowerment across the region.

  • Education - The female primary school completion rate is among the lowest in the developing world, at 57 per cent (10 percentage points below that of boys) and the percentage of enrolment of girls compared with boys in secondary education fell from 82 per cent in 1999 to 79 per cent in 2007.
  • Employment - Women’s labour force participation is another area of concern. In the non-agricultural sector, only about 25 percent of women are employed in Africa, with more than 70 percent in the unstructured, precarious and vulnerable informal sector.
  • Property Rights - Women’s property rights, particularly land rights, are unmet policy commitments within this area, as considerable gender inequalities persist in access to land and property.
  • Maternal Mortality - Reducing maternal mortality in the region is another challenge, since negligible progress has been made so far. Maternal deaths (per 100,000 live births) stood at 920 in 1990 and dropped only to 900 in 2005 (according to the 2009 UN MDG report).
  • HIV/AIDS - In contrast with other regions, almost 60 percent of people living with HIV in Africa are female, and women and girls bear a disproportionate burden in providing care for AIDS-affected families and communities.
  • Gender-based violence is another area of concern in many countries and is especially alarming in crisis or post-conflict States like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.

In most countries, technical capacity on gender issues at the government-level remains weak, slowing down the formulation, implementation and possibility of mobilizing resources for programmes on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

UNDP’s support for women in Africa

UNDP has been working with African countries to establish national plans and strategies that take gender issues fully into account, also in crisis or post-conflict countries. In Benin, for instance, UNDP supported the formulation of a national gender plan with the participation of many different sectors, including civil society organizations, the private sector and religious organizations. One of the key priorities has been to include more women in decision-making positions.

Poverty reducing programmes that specifically target women are being put into practice. In Burkina Faso, the introduction of 750 Multi-Functional Platforms, a diesel engine that powers multiple tools from cereal mills to carpentry equipment, has promoted access to energy in rural areas while empowering women’s associations. The time women and girls devote to domestic chores has been reduced by two to four hours per day, enabling women to go to school or to raise revenue from other activities.

UNDP has also been working with the governments to assist women through legislative reform, human rights advocacy and capacity building – improving the governmental institutions’ abilities to deliver effective services that also address women’s needs. In Burkina Faso for instance, UNDP supported the proposal of a bill on quotas in Parliament that stipulates that any municipal and parliamentary election must involve at least 30 per cent of candidates from either gender. In Togo and Malawi, women candidates were trained on campaigning and financing techniques. In Malawi, this support led to an increase in the number of female members of parliament from 11 in 2004 to 42 in 2009. Out of the 43 women who made it to parliament in 2009 following a sustained 50-50 campaign, one became the vice-president of the Republic of Malawi; one the second deputy speaker of Parliament; and 10 obtained ministerial positions.

With UNDP’s support, Liberia, which elected the region’s first female president, has adopted a National Plan of Action to prevent sexual and gender-based violence. The country has established a professional police force within the Ministry of Justice to fight the problem. The force has already started to investigate and prosecute cases.

For more information on UNDP in Africa, please visit www.undp.org/africa.