Breaking the Bias

As ACET launches its new Gender Equality program, our Executive Vice President Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi explains how gender equality and economic transformation are inseparable.

How would you assess progress on gender equality in Africa today?

Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi: There is a striking disconnect between the large amount of evidence on the impact of gender equality on economic transformation and the minimal progress that has been achieved. A large number of governments and businesses have not implemented gender equity policies at scale. With the exception of countries such as Rwanda, the implementation of policy recommendations has been ad-hoc and not deliberate. The limited focus on gender equity in micro- and macro-economic policies across the continent is noticeable.  The 2020-2030 AU Decade of Women’s Financial and Economic Inclusion offers a real platform for us to strongly advocate for the adoption and implementation of gender-equal policies and to hold governments to account. Having a region-wide accountability mechanism that ‘names and fames’ and ‘names and shames’ should hopefully incentivize governments and businesses to pay more attention to this critical issue.

Why does this gap between recommendations and actions persist?

Owusu-Gyamfi: When most governments committed to improving gender equity, they did so through dedicated ministries, like a Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs. These ministries are often poorly financed, heavily donor-dependent and more focused on children’s issues than gender equality. They often do not have a strong voice in cabinet and their priorities get little traction. Another reason is a lack of leadership. Beyond the rhetoric,  there are very few Presidents and Ministers of Finance actively prioritizing gender equity and placing it at the heart of their national plans. Where we have leaders in government and business prioritizing gender equity we are seeing progress towards gender balance in parliaments, cabinets, boards, and in the C-suite.   We strongly believe that closing the gender gap on the continent needs to be a team effort and requires economists to collaborate with anthropologists, gender specialists, feminist groups, grassroots women’s groups, and other stakeholders to find the most effective ways for Africa to make the transition towards action at scale. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, all of us will need to work together to end gender inequality on the continent. In developing our upcoming African Transformation Report on Gender Equality and Economic Transformation we will explore this question further by examining all the binding constraints to gender equity and identifying how they might be addressed in partnership with a wide network of stakeholders.

Are there any examples of African governments that have successfully implemented policies that combat gender inequality?

Owusu-Gyamfi: To transform economies, governments need to be focused and deliberate. I believe it is the same with gender equality – change will need to begin with Presidents, Ministers, and CEOs, and it has to be an integral part of decision-making at all levels. Some countries have already adopted this approach, and we can see the results. In Rwanda, for example, government budgets have to be submitted with a gender assessment, demonstrating how the money spent at the ministerial level will contribute to tackling fighting gender inequity. The country has made real progress towards closing gender gaps in a number of areas such as politics and education. In Ethiopia, the President’s intentional focus on gender equality led to the appointment of a cabinet that included an unprecedented 50% women. Following Zambia’s adoption of a gendered approach to extension services provision in the agriculture sector, there was an increase in productivity from female farmers. The government of Senegal recognized the exclusion of women in the ICT sector, and ICT budgets and policies are now deliberately focused on facilitating the effective inclusion of women in the sector. And in South Africa, fiscal frameworks and tax processes include an evaluation of the way any new tax empowers or disenfranchises women, which allows policymakers to counteract negative impacts with, for instance, social protection components. While these are all excellent practices, moving from these individual initiatives to a general trend change on the continent should be the ambition.

How has COVID-19 impacted gender inequality in Africa?

Owusu-Gyamfi: In Africa and around the world, women took the brunt of the pandemic at several levels, and COVID-19 exposed and exacerbated deeply ingrained inequalities. Firstly, women make up most of the frontline workers in the medical field and in the retail and food industries, who all had increased exposure to COVID-19. Secondly, women-owned businesses, especially informal SMEs, were also the most badly hit, many reporting over 50% loss in revenue, according to the IFC. Lastly, even women who could work from home ended up taking on the higher burden of the increased unpaid labor in the form of child care, supporting children with schoolwork, elderly care, and other unpaid labor demanded by traditional expectations. However, as we readjust to the new normal, countries like Ghana have seen women workers in the informal sector bounce back first and fastest, even though they were hit the hardest. Imagine how much quicker African countries would bounce back if all women had equal access to education, services, and opportunities.  This underlines the importance of countries ‘building forward better’ because what we had before was just not good enough. Everything we do as we advance should be about putting fundamental systems in place to transform our economy so that we can better withstand shocks. Gender equity is a critical part of that equation.

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