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publicationJuly 20, 2023

What Works to Narrow Gender Gaps and Empower Women in Sub-Saharan Africa?

Closing Gender Gaps in Sub-Saharan Africa

This report summarizes and comprises 8 evidence briefs that are based on a review of more than 150 studies analyzing the effectiveness of gender equality interventions across 26 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The briefs identify effective and promising interventions to narrow gender gaps, with a focus on the following issues:

Supporting Girls in Achieving Better Education Outcomes


Despite recent gains in closing gender gaps, children in Sub-Saharan Africa are still much more likely to be out of school than children anywhere else in the world, and gender gaps, though smaller, still persist. The success in education indicators for girls correlates positively with the income level of their respective country and negatively with its level of poverty.

Why it matters

Education is a pathway toward women’s employment, empowerment, and improved health; and it brings tangible benefits for their children. Equal access to quality education has a pivotal role in countries’ social and economic growth.

What works

Cash transfers, whether conditional or unconditional, show to be effective in increasing school enrollment and attendance of girls.

Increasing access to free schooling, either through elimination of school fees or provision of scholarships, translates into higher enrollment/attendance rates for girls at the primary and secondary levels.

In-kind aid can reduce school dropout rates and absenteeism while food-for-education schemes can increase girls’ school enrollment rates. Interventions that aim to make schools safer and more girl-friendly have the potential to reduce school absenteeism.

Supporting Women’s and Girls’ Access to Family Planning and Improving Maternal Health


Despite advances in recent decades, Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s highest maternal mortality ratio—534 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, accounting for over half of all maternal deaths worldwide.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s lowest rate of births attended by skilled health staff and lowest percentages of women receiving prenatal care.

Why it matters

Access to sexual and reproductive health services increases individual well-being with far-reaching benefits for countries and future generations.

Maternal health care is associated with child development, with a decrease in both mothers’ and babies’ mortality and disabilities, and improvements in women’s education, agency, and economic empowerment.

What works

Couples- and community-based interventions that provide opportunities to critically reflect on gender norms and power relations can have positive impacts on the use of reproductive health services.

In-school sexual and reproductive health quality education has the potential to have long term impacts on pregnancy prevention knowledge and on attitudes towards sex.

Provision of financial or in-kind incentives to pregnant women can increase uptake of one or more types of maternal health services. 

Helping Women in Sub-Saharan Africa Access Quality Jobs


Despite high levels of female labor force participation in Sub-Saharan Africa, most female employment in Africa is vulnerable employment. Thus, most Sub-Saharan African women face adverse work conditions, usually as family workers (often in agriculture) or in small low-productivity businesses.

Why it matters

Beyond increasing women’s economic empowerment and decision-making power, gender equality in employment is also an important driver of inclusive economic growth and poverty reduction. Furthermore, higher women’s income is associated with improvements in household dietary diversity, children’s nutritional status, and children’s education.

What works

Multicomponent programs that combine skills training with job placement support or internships/apprenticeships show to be effective at enhancing employment opportunities for women and increases their earnings.

Investing in young women´s education can lead them to higher-skilled employment and better wages.

Improving access to affordable early childcare is likely to increase poor urban women’s participation in paid work.

Empowering women and men through access to financial products can increase labor productivity and job stability.

Supporting Women Farmers to Maintain and Grow their Businesses


Employment in agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, although decreasing over the past 30 years, is still much higher than anywhere else in the world for both women and men.

Productivity in agriculture in the region is low in general, and research focusing on selected countries shows that it is particularly low in female-managed farms. Drivers of gender gaps in agricultural productivity include disparities in access to inputs and assets such as labor, technology, improved seeds, extension services, credit and land.

Why it matters

Giving women farmers the same access as men to productive resources and services could significantly increase agricultural output, boost economic growth, increase food security, and alleviate poverty in developing countries.

Land tenure security increases women’s ability to make decisions—with positive spillovers to household welfare.

What works

Land regularization and contract farming interventions, especially if coupled with information focusing on gender equality, strengthen women’s land rights.

Facilitating knowledge exchange among farmers and providing participatory learning approaches have the potential to improve crop productivity and/or agricultural income of female farmers.

Providing cash or in-kind transfers to female farmers are likely to improve female farmers’ ownership of animals and agricultural assets. Likewise, providing voucher assistance to buy agricultural inputs can increase crop productivity of female farmers.

Supporting Women Entrepreneurs to Maintain and Grow their Businesses


In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 81 percent of female workers and 70 percent of male workers are self-employed. The importance of self-employment in Sub-Saharan Africa is connected with the scarcity of wage employment and the lack of better opportunities—particularly for women, who often have lower levels of formal education and may be seen as a second option in hiring.

Women tend to bear most of the responsibility for domestic work, including childcare, so small-scale home-based businesses provide one of the few ways women can generate income for their households.

Why it matters

Female entrepreneurship is associated with an increase in women’s decision-making, autonomy, and financial independence, and contributes to improved family welfare through women's investments in households and children's needs.

What works

Women with access to financial products to support their businesses are likely to have higher incomes.

Incentives to increase business formalization, such as reducing the registration costs and offering complementary services, can have a significant impact on rates of formalization.

Psychology-based training, such as Personal Initiative Training, and One-to-One Mentorships seem to have the potential to improve microentrepreneur profits.

Reducing Child Marriage and Alleviating its Consequences


The highest levels of child marriage in the world are found in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Central and West Africa, nearly 37 percent of young women are married before age 18, and in East and Southern Africa the figure is 32 percent.

A negative correlation exists between the level of income and prevalence of child marriage. However, some countries still present child marriage rates above 50 percent even in the wealthiest households, suggesting that poverty only partly explains the phenomenon.

Why it matters

Child marriage violates a child’s rights and negatively influences education and health outcomes, placing girls at a higher risk for violence and abuse. Pervasive impacts of child marriage go beyond children, affecting their families, communities, and countries.

What works

Interventions designed mainly to improve educational outcomes can also affect the age of first marriage.

Improving the social image of families through charitable behavior can lead to a reduction in child marriage in families who marry their children mainly because of social image concerns.

Multifaceted empowerment interventions can lead to a decrease in child marriage.

Providing financial and in-kind assistance for girls to remain in school—such as cash transfer programs and education subsidy programs have been effective in some contexts and not in others.

Reducing Teenage Pregnancies and Alleviating their Consequences


Adolescent fertility has been decreasing moderately every year in Sub-Saharan Africa, leading to an overall 15 percent reduction since the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the region still has, by far, the highest adolescent fertility rate in the world—98 births per 1,000 women aged 15–19. Disparities within the region exist, but few countries show adolescent fertility rates below 60.

Adolescent mothers face negative health outcomes, such as higher maternal mortality and pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications. They are also likely to be in poor homes, have higher school dropout rates and have more children in the future.

Why it matters

Reducing teenage pregnancy can lead to increased economic empowerment of young women, enabling them to secure more lucrative jobs.

What works

Cash transfer and education subsidy interventions lead to decreases in pregnancy rates of teenage girls.

Interventions focused on school-based education to mitigate HIV/AIDS transmission among students have shown positive outcomes, including an increase in condom usage and a shift in sexual behavior. These changes have subsequently had an impact on the pregnancy and fertility rates of young women.

Access to youth-friendly health facilities that provide reproductive health services as well as sex education programs can reduce teenage pregnancy rates, leading to intergenerational health benefits.

Preventing Gender-based Violence (GBV) and Protecting Survivors


Country-level data for Sub-Saharan Africa show that, in several countries, more than 40 percent of women have experienced IPV (Intimate Partner Violence) during their lifetime. When looking specifically at sexual violence (any form), numbers are lower but still worryingly high: more than 20 percent of women have experienced this type of violence in some Sub-Saharan Africa countries.

Why it matters

Freedom from gender-based violence is a basic human right. Furthermore, women who suffer from violence have more problems related to physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health. They are also more likely to use violence to discipline their children and, boys who witness their mothers being abused are more likely to be abusers later in life.

What works

Psychological support can have a powerful and positive effect on the emotional well-being of vulnerable women who have experienced gender-based violence

Incorporating gender-sensitization efforts into economic empowerment interventions can lead to benefits for women that go beyond the economic dimension. In particular, these programs can reduce gender-based violence.

Classroom-based interventions can reduce sexual violence by tackling female empowerment and gender norms.

Technology-based interventions adapted to local contexts can improve women’s IPV-related health and safety in low-resource settings.

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