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How Women’s Empowerment Will Aid in Africa’s Poverty Elimination

For years, African women and girls have been subjected to workplace sexism and disparities that have harmed not only them, but also their families, societies, and countries as a whole. One thing is evident as we begin 2015, the African Union’s Year of Women’s Empowerment: we will not be able to reduce poverty unless we strive to achieve gender equality.

While most African governments recognize that empowering women and girls is critical to economic development, the fertility transition in Africa has been much slower than in other parts of the world, which is a key factor in long-term economic growth. Women’s economic opportunities and fertility decrease as they have access to family planning and reproductive health services, as well as girls’ education. Some African governments are looking for new ways to speed up the demographic change.

In Niger, for example, where the fertility rate is among the highest in the world (7.6 children per woman), “School for Husbands,” an education program delivered by trusted, conventional community leaders, is thriving across the region, emphasizing the importance of family planning and reproductive health.

Girls who are healthy, trained, and have fair access to opportunities will grow into successful, intelligent women capable of leading their countries. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is in charge of Liberia’s Ebola response, is an example. Women in positions of leadership will also contribute to the development of policies that benefit women and girls, as well as seek to provide more opportunities for employment, education, and health care. A rise in the number of female legislators in countries like Rwanda and South Africa has aided the passage of legislation supporting gender equality, such as granting women equal land rights and ensuring reproductive rights. In Rwanda, improved land tenure protection prompted women landowners to increase their land investments by 18 percentage points, more than double what men did.

Though Africa has one of the highest rates of female labor participation in the world (second only to Asia), vulnerable jobs (such as unpaid family work) remains the standard. African women work longer hours than men and are responsible for the majority of (unpaid) household chores. According to research, women work nearly 467 minutes per day on average in agricultural work in four Sub-Saharan African countries, compared to 371 minutes for men.

Despite the fact that women farmers account for nearly half of the continent’s agricultural workforce, their production is substantially lower than that of their male counterparts. A recent study in Malawi, for example, found that plots managed by women are 25% less efficient than plots managed by men. However, it is estimated that 100-150 million fewer people would go hungry every day if women had equal access to productive resources (seeds, fertilizer, and extension services, to name a few).

The important contributions that African women make to regional trade, crossing country borders to exchange products, services, and skills where they are required, are often ignored. However, obstacles such as nontariff barriers that limit imports limit their ability to contribute significantly more, not only regionally, but globally. Women account for 70% of informal cross-border trade, which brings in an average of $17.6 billion a year to the 15 member states of the Southern African Development Community.

The majority of women in non-farm labor are self-employed in the informal sector and lack access to capital to expand their businesses. Women are often relegated to less productive sectors due to gender segregation. According to a recent World Bank report, women in male-dominated industries earn three times as much as women in conventional female employment in Uganda.

Gender disparities in education are just as widespread. Despite a substantial rise in primary school enrollment rates for girls in Sub-Saharan Africa, boys are still 1.55 times more likely to complete high school. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to drop out if they are able to complete high school. Poverty and domestic demands frequently prohibit girls from attending school in Eastern and Southern Africa, a trend that is exacerbated by child marriage. Girls enroll in primary school at a lower rate than boys in Angola, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Mozambique, and secondary and tertiary enrollment rates are even lower. The bottom line is that as more women and girls are educated, poverty decreases: secondary education raises girls’ potential earnings by 10-20%. Women are therefore more likely to spend money on activities that help girls, increasing their chances of good health and financial security.

In Order to Close the Gender Gap, Evidence is Required

The World Bank has prioritized pursuing gender equality. The Africa Gender Innovation Lab was founded in 2013 to resolve the root causes of gender inequality by conducting comprehensive impact analyses and identifying ways to close the gender gap. According to evidence from Uganda, the right combination of vocational and life skills training will significantly boost the livelihoods of teenage girls. Our researchers discovered in Burkina Faso that financially supporting teenage girls and their families has an important and positive effect on their sexual activity and health.

President Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank announced $1 billion in funding for countries in the Great Lakes Region in May 2013, with a particular focus on women, who are among the region’s most vulnerable groups. The Bank approved $107 million for Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda to combat gender-based violence as part of that commitment. The initiative, which is the first of its kind in Africa, provides survivors of sexual and gender-based abuse with comprehensive health and therapy services, as well as legal assistance and economic opportunities.

Through the $170 million Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographics Project, we’ve also increased our emphasis on women in the Sahel. This service complements the Bank’s current commitments in the Sahel for maternal and child health programs. The project would increase the accessibility and affordability of reproductive health services in the country. It will also reinforce existing training centers that provide midwifery/nursing services in rural areas, as well as pilot and share information on initiatives for teenage girls.

Women are critical to eradicating poverty in the world. This is particularly true in Sub-Saharan Africa. The continent will be transformed if women’s positions as leaders, entrepreneurs, consumers, and economic stakeholders are strengthened. It’s for the best.

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