While most governments in Africa acknowledge that empowering women and girls is a key contributor to economic development, the fertility transition in Africa , an important factor in sustained economic growth , has been much slower than in other regions of the world.
Access to family planning and maternal health services as well as education for girls typically results in improved economic opportunity for women and lower fertility. Some governments in Africa are seeking innovative ways to accelerate the demographic transition.
African women had reason to expect change following a much-heralded global conference that set ambitious targets to transform the lives of women across the world whick marked the 10th anniversary of that milestone event, the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, in 1995.
Like their counterparts elsewhere, African women are taking stock of progress and asking to what extent promised reforms have been implemented. They are also examining why progress has been limited in many countries and are seeking ways to overcome the obstacles.
There have been moves to implement the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW).
In Africa specifically, women have made significant strides in the political arena over the past few years. The continental political body, the African Union (AU), took a major step by promoting gender parity in its top decision-making positions.
We are all aware that despite achievements and progress made, African women face major challenges and obstacles. Primary development policies in many countries, known as poverty reduction strategies, still do not take into account differences in income and power between men and women, hampering efforts to finance programmes that reduce inequality. The majority of African women are still denied education and employment, and have limited opportunities in trade, industry and government.
A UN Food and Agricultural Organisation study on Benin, Burkina Faso, Congo, Mauritania, Morocco, Namibia, Sudan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe shows that women rarely own land. When they do, their holdings tend to be smaller and less fertile than those of men. Studies also show that if women farmers had the same access to inputs and training as males, overall yields could be raised by between 10 and 20 per cent.
But perhaps the most inhibiting factor is that women in Africa continue to be denied an education, often the only ticket out of poverty. Disparities between girls and boys start in primary school and the differences widen up through the entire educational system. In total enrolment in primary education, Africa registered the highest relative increase among regions during the last decade. But given the low proportion of girls being enrolled, the continent is still far from the goal of attaining intake parity by the end of this year. By 2000, sub-Saharan Africa was the region with the most girls out of school, 23 million, up from 20 million a decade earlier.
The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports that girls’ enrolments rise relative to boys as the proportion of female teachers increases.
Numerous other hurdles continue to hamper the expansion of education in Africa. Austerity programmes introduced in many countries during the 1980s constrained educational spending. Governments had little money to maintain existing schools or build new ones. At the family level, households that became poorer often faced the stark choice of deciding whom to send to school – and often it was the girl who stayed home.
As with a range of other historically male-dominated subjects, an International Labour Organization (ILO) survey shows that women are starkly underrepresented in technical programmes in African colleges.
Many now acknowledge that to enable women to escape poverty, development policies should place more emphasis on their contributions to the economy. Even though women make up a significant proportion of the economically active population, their contribution is not fully recorded because they are mainly engaged in family farming or in the informal sector.