Un­leash­ing Africa’s girl power

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa’s economies have boomed in re­cent years. But the head­line fig­ures of­ten mask longer-term prob­lems – not least, an over-re­liance on nat­u­ral re­sources and chronic in­equal­i­ties. In­clu­sive, sus­tain­able growth is achiev­able, but only by tap­ping the con­ti­nent’s great­est re­serve of en­ergy and cre­ativ­ity: African women and girls.

Health and de­vel­op­ment ex­perts, econ­o­mists, non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions, United Na­tions agen­cies, and banks agree that the key to un­lock­ing Africa’s po­ten­tial lies in ex­pand­ing women’s ed­u­ca­tion, free­dom, and job op­por­tu­ni­ties. To­day, many African women are not only ex­pected to ful­fill tra­di­tional roles, such as rais­ing chil­dren and car­ing for the el­derly; they also face le­gal and so­cial dis­crim­i­na­tion re­gard­ing land and prop­erty own­er­ship, in­her­i­tance, ed­u­ca­tion, and ac­cess to credit and tech­nol­ogy – in ad­di­tion to op­pres­sive sex­ual mores and vi­o­lence.

Yet gen­der equal­ity is nec­es­sary for the con­ti­nent’s well-be­ing. Con­sider the press­ing is­sue of food se­cu­rity. Women com­prise half of the agri­cul­ture sec­tor’s work­force, grow­ing, sell­ing, buy­ing, and pre­par­ing food for their fam­i­lies. Stud­ies sug­gest that equal ac­cess to re­sources would in­crease farm yields by 2030%, off­set­ting the ef­fects of drought and cli­mate change. Ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion, cap­i­tal, mar­kets, and tech­nolo­gies would al­low women to process, pack­age, and mar­ket their prod­ucts, es­pe­cially for Africa’s grow­ing mid­dle class, bol­ster­ing both earn­ings and food sup­plies.

Agri­cul­ture is but one ex­am­ple. Greater fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion in male-dom­i­nated oc­cu­pa­tions across the board would in­crease over­all la­bor pro­duc­tiv­ity by up to 25%. The same is true of pol­i­tics, where more fe­male par­tic­i­pa­tion and lead­er­ship would im­prove gov­er­nance and pub­lic ser­vices, as promis­ing ex­pe­ri­ences in some parts of Africa and else­where have shown.

The first step to im­prov­ing con­di­tions for women must be to strengthen their sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health and rights – an is­sue con­cern­ing which Africa has some of the world’s worst in­di­ca­tors. Sim­ply put, women must be al­lowed to de­cide, free of co­er­cion or vi­o­lence, about their sex­u­al­ity and health; if, when, and whom to marry; and whether and when to be­come a par­ent. This can­not hap­pen with­out pro­vid­ing women and girls with the in­for­ma­tion, ed­u­ca­tion, and ser­vices they need to make their own de­ci­sions.

Sex­ual and re­pro­duc­tive health is­sues ex­act a huge yet largely avoid­able toll on African women, their fam­i­lies, and com­mu­ni­ties. The costs usu­ally strike in the prime of women’s eco­nom­i­cally pro­duc­tive lives, de­valu­ing their fu­ture con­tri­bu­tions to so­ci­ety. At the ex­treme, more than 400 African women and girls die ev­ery day dur­ing preg­nancy or child­birth, scar­ring fam­i­lies and plung­ing sur­viv­ing chil­dren into hard­ship.

Many of th­ese deaths are caused by the es­ti­mated five mil­lion un­safe abor­tions car­ried out an­nu­ally in Sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. The cost to so­ci­ety in lost in­come from death and dis­abil­ity is nearly $1 bln. Almost all of th­ese deaths oc­cur in coun­tries with re­stric­tive abor­tion laws, which African lead­ers should con­sider re­form­ing as a mat­ter of common sense and so­cial jus­tice.

A prime fo­cus should be on pro­tect­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble – ado­les­cent girls. More than one-third of African girls marry be­fore the age of 18, which threat­ens their health, trun­cates their ed­u­ca­tion, and low­ers their as­pi­ra­tions for the fu­ture. They are also more likely than older women to die of birth-re­lated com­pli­ca­tions, and are more prone to abuse. Though most African states out­law early or forced mar­riages, en­force­ment is weak.

African girls are also dis­pro­por­tion­ately vul­ner­a­ble to con­tract­ing HIV. Roughly 90% of the world’s preg­nant women and chil­dren with HIV live in Africa, and, de­spite no­table re­cent re­duc­tions in HIV trans­mis­sion rates, ado­les­cent girls are still more than twice as likely as boys of the same age to carry the virus. Yet barely a third of young Africans know how to pre­vent HIV – another rea­son for ur­gent and com­pre­hen­sive sex­u­al­ity ed­u­ca­tion.

Another epi­demic af­flict­ing African women is vi­o­lence, all too of­ten per­pe­trated with im­punity. Sex­ual vi­o­lence is used as a tac­tic of war. But it is also a disturbing fea­ture of home life; 37% of African women re­port hav­ing been abused by their part­ner. In the case of fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion and child mar­riage, such vi­o­lence is cul­tur­ally sanc­tioned. We must change laws, ju­di­cial sys­tems, and at­ti­tudes that ex­on­er­ate the per­pe­tra­tors, and we must pro­vide help to vic­tims.

At­ti­tudes can change. Con­tra­cep­tion, for ex­am­ple, was once a con­tentious is­sue. To­day, most African lead­ers ac­cept it as an im­por­tant, cost-ef­fec­tive in­vest­ment and as part of their coun­tries’ eco­nomic-de­vel­op­ment strate­gies. Ba­sic fam­ily plan­ning in 16 Sub-Sa­ha­ran coun­tries could save more than $1 bln in ed­u­ca­tion costs alone. The num­ber of ma­ter­nal deaths could fall by one-third, sav­ing mil­lions (in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries over­all, ma­ter­nal and new-born health-care sav­ings could reach $5.7 bln). How­ever, the sad re­al­ity is that, de­spite support from var­i­ous de­vel­op­ment part­ners and donors, as­sis­tance for re­pro­duc­tive health care and plan­ning fell by half in the last decade.

The com­pound­ing ben­e­fits of end­ing le­gal, eco­nomic, and gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion are vast. Health­ier, wealth­ier, and bet­ter-ed­u­cated women tend to pro­duce health­ier, wealth­ier, and bet­ter-ed­u­cated fam­i­lies, be­cause women typ­i­cally invest more of their earn­ings than men do in their chil­dren’s well­be­ing. With the con­ti­nent’s pop­u­la­tion fore­cast to dou­ble by 2050, there is hardly a bet­ter time to invest in women and girls. It is as much an eco­nomic as an eth­i­cal ar­gu­ment.


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