We hear that girls in Africa don’t have the same opportunities as boys to get a decent education, that discrimination is shutting women out of the jobs and assets they need to provide a better standard of living for their families, that the benefits of economic growth are being wiped out because women are having too many children, and that thousands of women are dying in childbirth because they don’t have access to basic healthcare.
While all of these things are true, they also hide something that you rarely hear – that Africa has been making significant progress and even has a thing or two to teach the rest of the world.
Between the establishment of the Millennium Development Goals in 1990, and the transition to the Sustainable Development Goals last year, the gap between girls’ and boys’ primary school enrollment was dramatically narrowed, the average rate of maternal mortality was almost halved, the ratio of women to men in the labor force increased so that it is now greater than in any other region of the world, and the average representation of women in national parliaments more than doubled —with Rwanda and Senegal topping the list of countries with the highest proportion of women in parliament (in Cabo Verde, gender parity at the cabinet level has prevailed for over a decade).
Part of the reason for this progress is that countries all across Africa have turned the depressing statistics with which we all too familiar into a surprising advantage. It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. In this spirit, governments, researchers, and many others in Africa have set about generating evidence to determine what works and what does not work to address the many gender challenges that are preventing them from making even greater progress.
While economic development can be a major driving force in closing gaps between women and men, some issues are “sticky” and do not simply go away as countries get richer. An example of one of these sticky issues is occupational segregation. In many countries women and men work in different sectors and jobs simply because of their sex. This is clearly not efficient, yet this situation persists even in the wealthiest countries.
In Uganda, research has uncovered the factors that allow some women entrepreneurs to cross over into more profitable sectors, such as construction, that are usually dominated by men. As it turns out, women who have a male role model in their youth, especially a father, are more likely to cross-over into a male-dominated sector. Paradoxically teachers appear to discourage women from entering male-dominated sectors. The results of this research also suggest that a major obstacle to women crossing over is their lack of information on the higher profits they could earn in male-dominated sectors.
These results were echoed by a similar study in Ethiopia, which also highlighted the negative impact of sexual harassment and discrimination from customers who prefer to deal with a male business owner, and the difficulties women face in building up their professional networks in sectors with few other women. Both of these studies offer important lessons for policymakers around the world who wish to encourage and enable more women to move into sectors that can help improve the livelihoods of themselves and their families.
Some of the most pressing gender issues across Africa have an important inter-generational aspect. When mothers are educated, delay marriage and childbearing, participate in the labor market, and don’t tolerate domestic violence, their daughters are more likely to grow up sharing those characteristics.
We now have strong evidence that an effective way to address many of these issues is to support young women during adolescence - a critical juncture in their lives. In Uganda, the Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) program, implemented by the NGO BRAC, uses girl-only clubs to deliver vocational and ‘life skills’ training. The vocational training emphasized skills that would be useful for self-employment, as there are not many opportunities in the formal wage employment market. An impact evaluation of ELA shows that the girls in the program were 72 percent more likely to be engaged in income-generating activities and reported self-employment earnings that were three times greater compared to the baseline mean.
Impacts on control over their own bodies were equally impressive: girls in the program were 26 percent less likely to have a child, 58 percent less likely to be married or cohabiting, and 44 percent less likely to have had sex against their will over the previous 12 months. Girls also expressed their desire that their own daughters would have their first child 4.6 years later, highlighting the potential intergenerational and knowledge-sharing impacts of the project.
The impact of this type of program is of great significance for many African countries where a lack of progress reducing fertility rates has led to a ballooning youth population who lack access to sufficient economic opportunities to make a decent start in life.
Evidence from Africa also shows us that, sometimes, simply making the economy work better can disproportionately benefit women, even without an explicit focus on gender. Some recent experiences with land tenure reform provide one such example.
Improving tenure security can increase incentives to invest in land by giving land owners greater confidence that they will reap the benefits of whatever investments they make. Evidence suggests that the impacts of such improvements are greater for women, who tend to have less access to land and weaker tenure security. This is an important issue for economic growth in Africa, where so much economic activity is concentrated in the agriculture sector. In Rwanda, improving land owners’ tenure security caused women to increase investments in their land by 19 percentage points, which was double the impact on men. This evidence could help policymakers to further improve agricultural productivity and food security.
That doesn’t mean of course that we don’t need laws and policies promoting gender equity. A country like Cabo Verde adopted a legal and institutional framework promoting gender equality back in 1975 guaranteeing equality and non-discrimination before the law. And quotas ensuring women’s participation in political life are a major step forward. But it’s time to move from speeches to actions with impact.
The fact that we are seeing a proliferation of such rigorous evidence on measures to address gender issues in Africa gives us great hope. Firstly, it signifies that we have moved well beyond the tendency to include gender in development policy as a well-meaning token, and can now systematically develop rigorously tested solutions that work in practice. Secondly, it gives Africa the rare opportunity to lead the global policy dialogue on gender and speak for itself, by its own actions, rather than being spoken about, and prescribed to, by others.
Makhtar Diop has served as the World Bank's Vice President for Africa since May 2012. Under his leadership, the World Bank Group committed a record-breaking $11.6 billion to Sub-Saharan Africa in FY 2015 to help tackle development challenges
Cristina Duarte is Cabo Verde’s Minister of Finance, Planning and Public Administration since 2006. Before her appointment, she was the Director of Cabo Verde's private sector development and competitiveness program. Early in her career, she worked for Citibank in Kenya and Angola.