Gender equality in West Africa: Actions speak louder than words
Julia Wanjiru, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club (SWAC) Secretariat
Respect of the fundamental rights of women and girls remains a serious, sometimes life-threatening, concern in many developing countries. Several decades of gender debates, special events and development goals dedicated to the empowerment of women, add up to only modest improvements on the ground.
Let’s look at a few examples from West Africa.
Child marriage. Seven West African countries rank among the top 20 countries in the world with the highest rates of child marriage. In Niger, three out of four girls marry before their 18th birthdays, contributing to the fact that Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world (7 children per woman in child-bearing age). Nigeria is among the top 20 countries with the highest absolute numbers of child marriages, with 1.2 million married girls. By depriving its girls of the chance to develop their potential, the region is collectively losing a huge amount of human capital.
Female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). FGM/C remains a widespread practice in West Africa, even though its prevalence varies considerably from one country to the next—ranging from 2% in Niger to 97% in Guinea. Many initiatives are working against this practice and some countries have passed laws to formally forbid female circumcision (Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, etc.). However, law enforcement has trouble cracking down on these deeply rooted traditions and mentalities. According to WHO estimates, more than 3 million additional girls worldwide are cut each year—mostly by elderly women.
Educational gaps. Huge strides have been made in getting more girls into schools, but when it comes to assessing educational outcomes, the results are much less impressive. The net school attendance rate for girls from 2011-2014 was about 50% for the poorest performing countries like Chad, Mali and Niger. These countries also have the lowest literacy rates for girls (15% in Niger and 34% in Mali—far below sub-Saharan Africa’s 2015 average of 69%). The gender gap is progressively closing, but no country in sub-Saharan Africa is projected to achieve gender parity in primary and secondary education. The most persistent barriers to girls’ education are: early marriage and early motherhood, traditional seclusion practices, the favouring of boys when it comes to family investment in education and the gendered division of household labour.
Ensuring equal opportunities for women and men, girls and boys in Africa will take time, massive educational efforts and profound changes to existing ways of thinking. Those changes might be supported by more exposure to external influences; the diaspora and media sources like TV series and movies can help accelerate these changes.
The legal frameworks, policies and strategies are hard to find, but they do exist. Since the mid-2000s, almost every West African country has created a national gender policy or strategy. Regional organisations like ECOWAS, UEMOA, CILSS and the African Union have all adopted gender policies and they are increasingly mainstreaming gender issues in different policy sectors. But, in practice, gender is still considered mostly as an afterthought and gender policies are often not implemented effectively. Ministries in charge of gender issues have usually very large portfolios— ranging from youth, sports, CSO, employment and drug control. They are often understaffed, under-funded and not taken seriously. Budgets allocated to gender-specific issues within sectoral policies remain tiny; disaggregated gender data is missing. To make some decisive progress, strong political will must come from the very top level, including from key ministries such as economic affairs, budget and strategic planning.
The weak implementation of gender-focused policies is, however, not just a funding problem. There are many other obstacles and risk factors: strong individual and institutional resistance to gender initiatives, deep-rooted cultural issues and traditions, general under-representation of women in the public sphere, illiteracy, etc.
Much of the gender debate seems to take place in a bubble, with gender experts mostly preaching to the choir. We cannot make headway on gender equality by having discussions that are mostly made up of women and gender experts. Moreover, women’s affairs are often associated with charities and are promoted for example, by African first ladies and many other famous female ambassadors—sometimes very successfully but a large number of initiatives are also instrumentalised for political ends. How many of their male counterparts are active in promoting gender equality? As long as the gender debate remains solely a women’s issue, it won’t move far.
It should not be forgotten, that gender is not just a matter of achieving equal opportunities for women and men. Gender equality is an economic development issue. Here again, the message is not new, but it still has not been sufficiently brought to the attention of all policy-makers. How can a country voluntarily deprive itself of the human potential of half of its population? The economic cost is enormous.
To reduce gender inequality more effectively and achieve sustainable development, we need to get more men on board. We also need to invest more in the education of girls and boys. Everywhere in the world, education has been a key driver of gender equality. An educated girl is better equipped to defend her interests and choose the life she wants. Education can also raise boys’ awareness of gender issues and make them less prone to seeing gender equity as a loss of privileges for themselves. Men could become true allies in building a society based on equal rights and opportunities.
But education alone is not enough. How many educated women and men still face pressure from their communities to conform? Girls’ education, beyond a certain level, is still seen by many as a “waste of time.” A 30-year old unmarried woman is not a “respected woman,” no matter how successful she might be in her professional life; she is seen as having failed to fulfil her “true mission” to be a wife and mother.
In order to change these deeply rooted prejudices, more effort must be made to target opinion leaders and traditional chiefs who set the agendas within their communities. The chiefs could play a much more active role in helping their communities move away from gender stereotypes, or at least, to not deepen them. For example, Muhammadu Sanusi II, the Emir of Kano in northern Nigeria (population around 15 million), just announced a proposal to outlaw forced marriage, make domestic violence illegal, and impose minimum financial conditions upon men who want to marry a second wife. The proposed law does not exactly promote gender equality, but Kano state is taking a concrete step forward in a way that will make a difference in the lives of millions of women and children.
This year, International Women’s Day will again be marked by declarations of good intentions and statements—including mine. What should count, though, is not the number of commitments we make, but the true progress we achieve on the ground. At the end of the day, African girls and women will need to tell their own stories, fight for their own rights and work to achieve equal representation. If men were ready to help them, things would move much faster.
Maps & Facts:
Au Sahel, au-delà de la Journée des droits des femmes, des fillettes interdites d’enfance [Girls robbed of their childhood in the Sahel] Laurent Bossard, Director, SWAC Secretariat in Le Monde
International Women’s Day at the OECD:
- Development seminar on women’s economic empowerment
- Conference on business, finance and gender
- 17h-18h: Webinar on Gender differences and PISA
Friday, 14-17h, Seminar on gender equality before the law
 UNESCO (2015): Gender and EFA 2000-2015: achievements and challenges, http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0023/002348/234809E.pdf