Women are an untapped Opportunity in Africa’s Rise to Prosperity

It is hard not to be inspired by the widely recognized economic growth story of Africa: more than a decade of robust growth for a region that has become a credible destination for investment and has rebounded faster than most other regions of the world from the global financial crisis
Ms. Ezekwesili speaking to journalists in Washington office, the picture of African market teeming with female traders in the backdrop. (Photo Herbert Boh, World Bank.)
Ms. Ezekwesili speaking to journalists in Washington office, the picture of African market teeming with female traders in the backdrop. (Photo Herbert Boh, World Bank.)

It is hard not to be inspired by the widely recognized economic growth story of Africa: more than a decade of robust growth for a region that has become a credible destination for investment and has rebounded faster than most other regions of the world from the global financial crisis.

International Women’s Day celebrated yesterday reminds us all not only of the sacrifices and resilience of African girls and women, but of the missed opportunities to tackle the gender-related obstacles that keep 50 percent of Africa’s population out of the most vibrant economic sectors on the continent.

In Africa, the feminization of poverty still remains acute. One in twenty girls born today in Angola, Mozambique, Liberia and Sierra Leone will die in childbirth. An African woman is 25 times more likely to die during labor than a European woman. Girls still face genital mutilation in 28 African countries. More than 800,000 Africans, most of them female, are victims of human trafficking.  Three young women are infected with HIV/AIDS for every young man in Africa.

The African woman, however, is also Africa’s face of hope, strength and opportunity. The rate of female entrepreneurship is higher in Africa than in any other region of the world. An African country – Rwanda – boosts the highest female representation in parliament. The primary enrollment rate has climbed from 84 girls for every 100 boys in 1991 to 91 in 2009.

Significant strides have been made on the path towards gender equity, but great challenges remain. The ratio of girls to boys in secondary school has barely moved in the last 18 years – from 76 girls per 100 boys to 79. In tertiary education, there are only 68 young women for every 100 males. In stark contrast to Rwanda, female representation in parliament across Sub-Saharan Africa is only about 18 percent.

The road to achieving the Millennium Development Goals in Africa can only be built on a gender inclusive agenda, unleashing the productive power of women. That agenda should advance women’s education and access to information, protect women’s rights, improve women’s access to agricultural inputs and security over their land, promote female entrepreneurship, and increase the participation of women in government and public life. Urgent action in five key areas would help.

First, more African girls must go to and stay in school long enough to be armed with the skills essential for success. Girls need support at the secondary and post-secondary levels, where the crucial school to work transition is made. It is also vital for girls to acquire skills beyond the classroom – the kind that allow for innovation and entrepreneurship when faced with limitations.

Second, protecting women’s rights is essential for enhancing their access to economic mobility.  Family laws on inheritance, marriage, labor markets and land rights are greater determinants of economic decision making and empowerment than are business regulations. Legal restrictions on mobility, work outside of the home and control of personal assets are in dire need of reform in many African countries.

Third, women must gain access to productive resources. If women and men had the same access to agricultural inputs, productivity on women’s farms could increase 10 to 30 percent. It will take innovative programmes to provide women with these inputs and concerted action to protect their rights to land, ultimately altering the course of agricultural productivity for women, and for the continent.

Fourth, with African women currently absorbed by businesses concentrated in the less productive areas of the informal sector, breaking free will require access to credit – not just microfinance – but to higher credit amounts at low interest rates with longer maturity terms. These need to be complemented by the right kind of technical support for female entrepreneurs, delivered in a timely fashion. 

Progress is possible and can come swiftly, as primary school enrollment has shown. It cannot only be symbolic, though. While education is an essential starting point, it is only the first of many hurdles in shrinking the gender gap in earnings and empowerment. Africa needs to hear the voice of the missing half, who can help set a more representative and inclusive agenda with the right priorities – including advocating for greater commitments for pro-poor, pro-children and pro-women policies and reforms.

Success will require that African governments work with citizens and the private sector, civil society, communities and Africa’s friends in the development community. It will require sustained political will, a commitment to enforce laws that strengthen the agenda on policies friendly to girls and women.

At the World Bank, we are bringing our stone to help build the foundation for progress, keen to listen to the ideas of the poor and recognize that the African people must lead this process. Our Road Map for Gender Mainstreaming addresses gender challenges. Our Gender Action Plan fosters women’s access to land, agricultural inputs, infrastructure, labor markets and financial services while our Adolescent Girls Initiative trains mentors and empowers young African women to transition to work. As World Bank President Robert Zoellick puts it: “It goes beyond a matter of fairness or decency. It makes no economic sense to lose out on the energy, creativity and dynamism of half of the world’s population”.

Our private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), has invested a combined $170 million under a Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (GEM) initiative which has benefited thousands of women in 23 Sub-Saharan African countries.

The subject is close to our hearts at the World Bank. Gender equity and development will be the focus of the Bank’s flagship World Development Report for 2012.

It is one of the themes for our three-year funding period (2011-2014) for which the Bank has raised $49.3 billion to benefit the world’s 79 poorest countries, 38 of them in Africa.

Last week, the World Bank Board of Executive Directors endorsed our new Africa Strategy. Among others, the tools for implementing the strategy – partnerships and knowledge – will leverage our funding to deepen and accelerate economic growth that generates jobs, is broad, diversified and inclusive - benefiting the poor and women – on whom the well-being of children and future generations is so dependent. So far, gender has been an obstacle, yet every obstacle is an opportunity in disguise. The expansion of economic and social empowerment of the African woman is the key to the realization of the African promise.

Ms. Obiageli Ezekwesili is the World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region.

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