Africa is Walking Towards Gender Equality — It Needs to Run

By Lisa Kaestner & Paula Tavares

Woman works in a small shop. Ghana. Photo: © Arne Hoel/The World Bank

Despite decades of hard-fought progress towards the goal of gender equality, women today still enjoy only about three quarters of the rights afforded to men and often earn less than men for the same work.

These global findings, taken from the World Bank’s Women Business and the Law Report 2021, are sobering (if not entirely surprising) and come during a global pandemic that has stalled — or even reversed — the march towards equality in many countries.

The recently published report, the seventh in a series of annual studies measuring the laws and regulations that affect women’s economic opportunity in 190 economies, also highlights real successes that should be celebrated.

Despite COVID-19-related challenges, 27 countries made legislative improvements that contributed to gender equality. Sub-Saharan Africa was among the best reformers across the overall Women, Business and the Law Report indicators, a reflection of the regions’ growing regard — and appetite — for legislation that supports gender equality.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa reformed by removing constraints to women’s freedom of movement, by enacting provisions giving women equal access to employment, and by equalizing rights for men and women within marriage. Specific reforms in select countries included:

· Benin equalized passport application procedures for men and women.

· Ethiopia increased paid maternity leave from 90 to 120 days and introduced three days of paid paternity leave.

· Madagascar introduced legislation on domestic violence for the first time, establishing criminal penalties for different forms of gender-based violence and a process to obtain protection orders.

· Senegal enacted legislation prohibiting gender-based discrimination in employment.

· Sierra Leone introduced comprehensive definitions and penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace.

Governments across Africa should be applauded for these and other efforts over the past year. But they should also be encouraged to do more. Much, much more.

Workshops in Senegal. Photo: © Paula Tavares

The report revealed that in 39 African countries women cannot start and run businesses in the same way as men. Women’s access to assets, jobs and financial opportunities are among other key challenges across much of Africa. In 10 countries, for example, women are not entitled to the same ownership rights to immovable property as men; in another 10, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. In 23 countries on the continent, laws prohibit women from working in certain industries.

But why should Africa take gender equality seriously? Gender equality before the law is associated with a range of positive outcomes, including higher female labor force participation, more women in parliament, and a smaller wage gap. Equality of opportunity allows women to make the choices that are best for their families, their communities — and, most importantly, for themselves.

But even today, after years of progress, African women still struggle to find meaningful employment or start businesses because of laws that discriminate against them. Legal restrictions constrain women’s ability to make economic decisions — and can have far-reaching consequences. For example, women may decide not to work in economies where laws — and attitudes — make it difficult for them to do so, or where they are paid less than men for equal work.

IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, has long taken a holistic approach to reducing gender inequality in developing countries. Working with partners, IFC’s Women, Business and the Law Advisory Program is committed to helping governments level the playing field so women can seize economic and other opportunities.

The Program is helping narrow the legal gender gaps in Africa by supporting reforms that protect women from violence and discrimination in employment and help them access credit and entrepreneurship opportunities.

© 2018 DorteVerner-6054

Addressing gender inequality in Africa and elsewhere has become even more critical in the crucible of COVID-19. For several reasons, women are uniquely susceptible to the pandemic’s effects. They are disproportionately involved in vulnerable, informal, and unpaid care activities, and in sectors most affected by the crisis. They are also more likely than men to take leave from work or resign their positions to care for sick children or to homeschool them. In addition, women comprise the majority of frontline workers, including in health and social services, and are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence.

The pandemic has, therefore, intensified the struggle for equality — and risks reversing recent good progress achieved.

For Africa, the march towards true gender equality has been real — but also painfully slow. A stronger — and speedier — reform agenda, supported by the World Bank Group and other partners, will help Africa take concrete steps to reduce gender inequality.

March is International Women’s Month, which once again reminds us that the road ahead is long. Still, each small step, each reform or legal victory, can make a huge difference in the lives of millions of women.

Lisa Kaestner is Senior Manager, Creating Markets Advisory at the International Finance Corporation.

Paula Tavares is Senior Private Sector Development Specialist at the World Bank Group.

IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is the largest global development institution focused on the private sector in emerging markets.