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Empowering Africa’s Women

JOHANNESBURG – Africa is again high on the global agenda, and this time for all the right reasons. As the kickoff to the World Cup in South Africa approaches, people are seeing not just South Africa but our entire continent as equal partners in this extraordinary global celebration.

So, as the world’s eyes turn to Africa, we should take the opportunity to showcase the key role that Africa’s women are increasingly playing in the continent’s success.

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Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf’s election as President of Liberia, the first women elected to run an African country, was symbolic of the progress of women across the continent. We are proud as well that women make up more than 50% of MPs in Rwanda – the highest proportion in the world. South Africa and Lesotho are just two other African countries that sit near the top of the gender-equality league table.

It is women as well who are helping to calm tensions and heal Africa’s terrible wounds of conflict and violence. Women are in the lead in conflict resolution, in reconciliation, and in drafting the legal and constitutional framework to secure peace and prevent abuses.

In the media, civil society, and in communities up and down the African continent, women are taking on major responsibilities. There is a huge amount more to do, but women are winning the fight to have their voices heard and help shape solutions and map priorities.

The gender gap in schooling remains a concern. Africa still lags behind many parts of the world in educating its girls from primary school through to university. But many more girls are attending and completing school now than a decade ago.

Education is the bedrock for progress and educated women will empower Africa, so the focus now must be on those countries that are failing to close the gap. Governments need to implement the right strategies and find the political will and resources to succeed. One of the major problems highlighted in the just-published Africa Progress Report, prepared by the African Progress Panel, is the gap between plans and change on the ground.

Another area where we have seen little progress is in harnessing women’s full talents and potential in the formal economy. Women’s economic contribution is, of course, under-valued in many places around the world. Wherever they live, women face greater obstacles and frustrations than their male counterparts.

But this is particularly true in Africa – a continent where the crucial role that women play in the economy cannot be missed by even the most casual visitor. Look in our fields. It is women who you will see planting and harvesting the crops. Look in our markets. It is women who you will see buying and selling the goods on offer. Women, too, are setting up the small businesses that are creating jobs and spreading prosperity.

Women are truly the motors of Africa’s economies. Yet at every turn, their contribution is downplayed and their ambitions are obstructed. Women find themselves cut off from training and support. And they can face discrimination from the authorities and suppliers.

But it is in women’s treatment, deliberately and accidentally, by the financial sector that the most damage is done. Women receive, for example, only 10% of the credit given to small farmers and less than 1% of total loans to agriculture. Yet they are responsible for growing 80% of the food on our continent. Inheritance rules dictating that land – and its proceeds – can be passed down only through the men of the family have put women at a terrible disadvantage.

Africa’s potential not only to feed its own people but to export food around the world is increasingly and rightly acknowledged. But this ambition will be met only through policies that recognize the central role of women in agriculture and enable them to drive a green revolution on the continent.

Women’s lack of assets, together with out-dated social norms, is also a major barrier blocking their access to the capital they need to set up and expand small businesses. Women-run start-ups are most likely to become established enterprises. Yet they command less than 10% of the capital available for investment in new enterprises.

The discrimination continues, despite overwhelming evidence showing that women are more likely to invest business loans wisely and to meet repayment schedules. Even micro-credit schemes often seem to lend less to women than to men in the same circumstances.

Nor are these problems limited to small businesses. The African Women’s Economic Summit, which I attended recently in Nairobi, was electrified by the story of a woman who had set up her own construction firm in Cameroon. Her capital needs run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. Yet, when dealing with financial institutions, she faced the same obstacles and out-dated attitudes familiar to the smallest businesswomen across the continent.

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Financial institutions must remove such barriers to fair and easy access to capital and financial services. For Africa to reach the growth rates needed to meet the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals, women must be brought fully into the formal economy and the financial sector.

This requires innovation in the financial services and products on offer, which in turn requires that women – locally, regionally, and internationally – are helping to formulate the solutions. If governments and key stakeholders can lift the barriers that prevent women from playing their full role in our economy and societies, the future is bright – not just for women but our entire continent.