Is Africa Rising With Its Women?
By Ritah Namwiza
For some time now, Africa has been branded as a continent on the rise. In 2015, the World Bank reported that six of the world’s fastest-growing economies were in Africa— Ethiopia, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Mozambique, and Tanzania.
The continent is enjoying relative peace although with sporadic terror activity and civil strife as seen in Somalia, South Sudan and Burundi. This relative peace, coupled with investments in infrastructure and large deposits of natural mineral resources has boosted trade and contributed to a major reduction in poverty. The numbers of Africans who are poor have also reduced from 56% in 1990 to 43% in 2012.
Despite this rosy picture, African women continue to lag behind in many aspects which beg the question of whether there is sufficient commitment to ensure that women are not left behind in the ‘Africa is rising’ narrative.
According to the World Bank, more than half of Africa’s population is female, an indication that women in Africa are inextricably linked to the continent’s growth. It also means that women have a critical role to play in advancing Africa’s development agenda.
According to Forbes, only two of the 24 African Billionaires are women—Angolan investor Isabel dos Santos and Nigerian oil tycoon Folorunsho Alakija. Relatively, out of the 54 African states, only two have been led by women—Liberia and Malawi.
Women health indicators on the continent continue to be a source of concern. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that Africa accounts for more than half of global maternal deaths and, more than 80% the global burden of disability and ill-health due to HIV/AIDS. Four of the top ten worst countries for women according to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report are on the continent.
Social-Cultural Drivers of Women Disempowerment
Gender inequity remains a major challenge that many African women have to deal with every day. Cultural beliefs and practices that exclude women from owning property, taking up leadership positions and getting formal education increase their social and financial vulnerability. Attitudes that make the position of women inferior in society make it harder for women to demand and lift themselves and their children out of poverty and ill-health.
Some traditional practices result in bodily harm. One such is female genital mutilation. The World Health Organisation estimates that 92 million African women and girls above ten years live with the consequences of female genital mutilation. Even though several countries have outlawed this practice, an estimated three million girls in Africa undergo the cut every year.
Natali Robi, an End FGM Champion based in Kuria-Kenya decries the practice which exposes young women to infection, infertility and even death.
“For a young girl subjected to Female Genital Mutilation, the pain does not end with the cut of the blade. She relives the trauma for her entire life, the scar left is not just physical, it is emotional,” she told Rural Reporters.
Natali Robi is one of the few lucky young women in Kuria that have been saved from genital mutilation. Her community has one of the highest FGM prevalence rates with eight in every ten girls as young as eight being cut every year.
Such recurring inhumane practices and deprivations prevent many of Africa’s women from reaching their utmost potential and can have adverse outcomes for individuals, families, communities, and nations. A woman who is physically or emotionally maimed is denied the chance to fully exploit opportunities around her; loses valuable time recovering from injuries and in worst case scenarios, may not fully recover to lead a normal, productive life.
Resilience Amidst Challenges
Amidst it all, women continue to challenge norms, practices, and beliefs. They continue to question the status quo and are championing interventions to lift, not just themselves out of these dire circumstances but also fellow women.
In the case of Natali Robi, she recently founded Msichana Empowerment Kuria, a Community Based Organisation that works to end Female Genital Mutilation in Kuria. The organization also seeks to promote and support the empowerment of young women to contribute to the development of their communities meaningfully.
She says, “I want to help girls to have a chance to live. I want to see girls realizing their potential in an environment free from violence.”
From coast to coast, African women are re-writing history, venturing into fields that their predecessors could only dream of. They might not be rising in tandem with the continent, but they are on a very likely trajectory, something to be proud about.