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COMMENT: Empowering the other African economy

Why giving more women access to male occupations can raise productivity by 25%

COMMENT |Graça Machel| Julius Nyerere, the founding president of Tanzania, once said that “unity” will not make Africa rich, but “it can make it difficult for Africa and the African peoples to be disregarded and humiliated.” But, two decades later, Africa remains divided along a key fault line: gender. To realise Nyerere’s vision of a strong, dignified continent, Africa needs a new era of liberation, one that is fueled by the economic empowerment of the continent’s women.

Although projections by the consultancy McKinsey anticipate that by 2040, Africa will have the world’s largest labour force, with more than 1.1 billion people of working age, more than 60% of Africa’s current population still survive on less than $2 a day. It is obvious that while many Africans have benefited from political emancipation – the legacy of Nyerere’s generation – poverty remains a significant obstacle. Unleashing the employment potential of African women is the best way to overcome it.

As it stands, Africa’s women continue to be underrepresented in key industries and executive roles, owing to workplace discrimination and patriarchal expectations at home. Unless barriers to entering the formal economy are removed and women are presented with options that enable them to realize their full potential, Africa’s socioeconomic development will continue to be impeded. But while women are essential to the continent’s progress, they are still too often regarded as being secondary. Women must therefore claim their right to sit where decisions are made, and to shape the policies, plans, and strategies that will affect their lives and the lives of Africans for generations to come.

Studies have shown that if more women had access to male-dominated occupations in Africa, worker productivity would rise by as much as 25%. That would be good for the overall economy, but also for women in general, as it would open up new avenues for social empowerment. When women participate in the job market and engage actively in business or political decision-making, patriarchal power dynamics shift, elevating the social status of women. Economic equality also challenges accepted beliefs, and dispels harmful myths that perpetuate narrow definitions of gender norms. In other words, bringing more women into the workplace leads to an emancipation of mindset – in men and women alike.

What Nyerere so eloquently said of Africa as a whole is no less true for its women: unity is the key to realising our potential. When we come together as generators of wealth, it becomes impossible for us to go unrecognised for our economic contributions and marginalized in our entrepreneurial endeavours.

At the Graça Machel Trust, we are joining together with civil-society actors, the private sector, and governments across the continent to lead a new economic liberation movement for women. Divided, we are weak, but together, Africa’s women have the ability to confront and overcome the barriers that have kept us from full participation in our respective economies.

There is power in networks. My organisation’s approach to economic advancement is to establish and strengthen informal and official networks, through which women can, in time, increase their participation and visibility in key sectors. That is why we are launching the “Women Advancing Africa” initiative, which is part of our ongoing effort to amplify the voices of Africa’s underrepresented and to establish a pan-African women’s movement, in which women can come together to transform the continent.

The inaugural Women Advancing Africa Forum in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, convened more than 250 women leaders from across the continent. Under the overarching theme of “Driving Social and Economic Transformation,” the Forum focused on three strategic goals: promoting financial inclusion, increasing market access, and driving social change. The aim was to emerge from the Forum with a common agenda for our participation as full economic actors.

It has been just over 20 years since Nyerere encouraged us to work toward African unity. Today, Africa’s women are helping to shape the policies and practices that will bring about economic and social liberation in their respective countries. We have some way to go before African unity is fully realised. But enabling women to become full partners in Africa’s economic future, is among the best ways to ensure that we succeed.

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Graça Machel, the founder of the Graça Machel Trust, is a member of the Africa Progress Panel and The Elders. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

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