African women and their potential contributions to economic advances, social progress and environmental protection have over the years been marginalized.  In failing to utilise the potential and talents of their female populations, African countries are under investing in the human capital needed to assure sustainable development. Utilising women’s potential could increase economic growth, reduce poverty, enhance societal well being, and help ensure sustainable development in Africa.

As stated by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr Ban Ki-Moon, “Women represent half of the world’s population … and should have their fair share in making decisions.” This view was reiterated by former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton who said “…no government can succeed if it excludes half of its people from important decisions.” During the recently held 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, UN Women called for the inclusion of and investment in women’s rights and gender equality in order to bring transformative change to women’s lives and enable real progress in the context of a future global agenda.

Africa is a growing economy and at the centre of this growing continent are women ready to make a difference.   Closing the gender gap would ensure sustainable growth for the continent.   In order to argue on behalf of African women, it is important to take into consideration the concept of political efficacy as explained by Anthony Birch (1993), which is a concept invented to indicate the extent to which citizens feel confident of their abilities to participate in the political process and to influence government policies.  African women continue to demonstrate their political efficacy through various women’s movements and affirmative actions aimed at attaining gender parity in politics.  These initiatives have taken many forms over the years with affirmative actions based on democratic principles of inclusiveness, equal political rights and equal political participation, to encourage and increase African women’s participation in the political decision-making process.

In the history of Africa there is a  number of unwritten and untold African women’s suffrage movement stories, which include the 100 women from 17 African countries who in 1911, (over 100 years ago) rose up to fight for women’s rights and the rights of their people.  These included the Queen Mother of Ejisu in Ghana, Yaa Asantwewaa who led an offensive against the British settlers in the War of the Golden Stool.  Later in 1929, Igbo women in Nigeria protested against the Warrant Chiefs in the Igbo Women’s War.  And in 1956, South African women marched on the Union Buildings of Pretoria to protest against the role of women in government.

There are also a number of matriarchal societies in Africa  where women rule their Kingdoms.  Although a man rules the kingdom in the Northern Province of Zambia that did not stop one woman to rise up and start her own church, where she gained a following of almost 200,000 people when Zambia only had a population of approximately 2 million people.  While only in recent years has the rest of the world been advocating for women to maintain their maiden names upon marriage as part of the gender equality fight, in parts of Zambia women have, since time immemorial, always retained their maiden names and never ever take up the name of the husband.  In fact, those women have their own identity from the time of birth and never take up their father’s name either!

In its quest to attain gender equality, the African Union in October 2008, officially launched the African Women’s Decade (2010-2020) with the sole aim of advancing gender equality through the acceleration of the implementation of global and regional decisions and commitments on gender equality and women’s empowerment.  The idea of the African Women’s Decade was conceptualized in 1975 by the United Nations at the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City.  Since then, African women have continued to participate in local and international consultations on various affirmative actions for women’s rights and gender equality. These affirmative actions have taken many forms  since the Women’s Suffrage Movement in the 19th Century; moving on to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) adopted by the United Nations in 1979; to the Beijing Platform for Action declared at the United Nations Fourth World Conference in Beijing in 1995, aimed at accelerating the implementation of the strategies for the advancement of women and to remove all obstacles to women’s active participation and equal share in the economic, social, cultural and political decision-making process.

At the beginning of the new millennium, the United Nations declared eight Millennium Development Goals, which included the Promotion of Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women” as Goal No.3.  However, with less than two years to go before the 2015 deadline of the Millennium Development Goals, gender parity in the political decision making process is far from being achieved.   Consequently, gender equality and women’s empowerment has once again been confirmed as a major focus for the Post 2015 Development Goals, with the UN Secretary General’s Report declaring that “The Post 2015 Agenda must ensure the equal rights of women and girls, their full participation in the political, economic and public spheres”.

As the Millennium Development Goals approaches its 2015 deadline, the post 2015 Development Agenda has been drafted to reflect new development challenges and is linked to the outcome of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development held in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in June 2012, with sustainable development at its core.  As stated by the Organisation and Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Report, sustainable development rests on maintaining long-term economic, social and environmental capital.  While the importance of investing in economic assets to assure progress has long been recognized, sustainable development brings attention to the ecological and human dimensions, which are also key to growth and development.

In order to effectively address the issue of sustainable development we need to consider how gender equality or its lack thereof, impacts on the three main dimensions of sustainable development  - Economy, Society and the Environment.

A number of studies have indicated that gender inequalities have led to high economic costs, social inequalities and environmental degradation around the world.  This has been attributed to the current economic model which is largely built on the ambitions and perspective of men, with the management and board of failed banks and financial institutions being nearly 100 per cent male.  It has been argued that the 2008 economic crisis led to heightened criticisms of the capitalist model, where growth is fueled by competition and the quest for profits without due regard to human and social consequences.

According to the OECD, the social dimension of sustainable development and its emphasis on equity and equality is the most politically sensitive of the three dimensions and thus the hardest to address.  It involves confronting negative social trends such as growing income disparities, rising unemployment and a persistent gender gap. The institutionalized form of gender discrimination embedded in the failure to adjust the male work model to fit the needs of women has led to the current economic and social problems around the world. Closing the gender gap depends on enlightened government policies, which take gender dimensions into account.

On the third dimension of the environment, the OECD studies of household behavior show that women are more likely than men to buy recyclable, eco-labeled and energy-efficient products.  While women account for approximately 80 percent of household purchases in developed countries, the eco-consciousness does not translate into more sustainable consumer choices as sustainable production does not follow directly from higher levels of sustainable consumption.

Women in Africa continue to be denied equal opportunity to participate in decisions that affect their lives, whether in the public or private sphere, from the highest levels of government decision-making to households.  In many countries in Africa, cultures and social conditioning have prevented women from unleashing their full potential, especially in leadership roles.  In most African countries women are culturally required to ask the permission of their husbands before engaging in any form of business, social or political activity.

In a surprising twist of fate, while the rest of the world have been suffering the negative impact of the global economic crisis, Africa has on the other hand been experiencing heightened economic growth with some African countries becoming top performers in the economic league.  Regrettably, it has become common place to find that while there has been accelerated economic growth in many African countries, there has at the same time been rising levels of unemployment and poverty in those countries, coupled with falling levels of health and education provision. As stated by the Africa Progress Report (2012), the overall objective of any economic planning for any country must be to improve the welfare of the majority of its citizens.  For any nation to make real progress, economic growth figures are not enough as high growth rates do not necessarily translate into better, more fulfilling lives for the majority of the people.    If the majority do not benefit, then growth figures become meaningless and this kind of growth can be counterproductive.

In the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, many married women lost their husbands as the country was left with a population that was 60 percent female and 40 percent male, with thousands more males jailed for war crimes or living as refugees in neighbouring countries.  Women who lost their husbands found themselves thrust into the role of bread-winners having to take on leadership roles in society, business and politics.   Like most African countries, in Rwanda women are culturally expected to ask the permission of their husbands before engaging in any form of business, social or political activity.  Prior to the genocide Rwandan women had weak property rights and female entrepreneurs were rare or unheard of.  In the aftermath of the genocide, reforms were passed enabling women to inherit property and Rwandan women found themselves involved in agriculture having to take over their husband’s, father’s, brother’s or uncle’s farms.

After the devastating genocide, Rwandan women have risen from the conflict stronger than any other woman in the world, taking up positions of power in politics, business and other walks of life.  In the recently held Parliamentary elections in Rwanda, women took an overwhelming majority in Parliament with 64 per cent seats.  Rwanda remains the only country in the world with a female dominated Parliament, having first achieved the feat in the 2008 polls when women took up 56 per cent representation in the House of Representatives. Observers attribute Rwandan women’s impressive performance in the elections to a decision by political parties to give both genders equal chances of making it to Parliament as opposed to past tendencies when men would largely occupy more strategic positions on party electoral lists.  Rwanda is also one of the few countries committed to Resolution 1325 of the UN Security Council adopted in 2000 with a view to enabling a greater participation of women at all levels of institutional prevention, management and resolution of conflicts and the special protection of girls and women from sexual and other violence.

In Rwanda, success in economics mirrors the rise of women in politics. Approximately 45 percent of Rwandan businesses are owned by women.  According to the World Bank, Rwanda has become the second-highest ratio of female entrepreneurs in Africa, second only to Ghana.  Just like other African countries, Rwanda has enjoyed a surprisingly fast economic recovery, despite the devastating genocide, which left many farms and businesses deserted, damaged or destroyed.  Rwanda’s economy has since tripled in size and has grown at an average of over 6 percent since 2004.  This has led to a shift in gender economics in Rwanda’s post-genocide society, and has altered the way in which young generation of males view their mothers, aunts and sisters.  The Rwandan Minister of State in charge of Agriculture asserts that, “Bringing women out of the home and field has been essential to our rebuilding.  We are becoming a nation that understands that there are huge financial benefits to equality.” Studies have also shown that when it comes to money matters, most men in Rwanda are reported to default on their bank loans after spending the money on women and liquor, while women maintain their repayments and use their loans to support their family, improve their home or send their children to school.

In their efforts to finance reduction of poverty in the developing world, many leading experts say that women simply make better investments.  A major study in Brazil showed that the effect of money managed by women in poor households was 20 times more likely to be spent on improving conditions in the home than money managed by men. It should therefore, come as no surprise that women have been key in reconstructing Rwanda.  The Rwandan economy has risen up from the ashes of the genocide and prospered greatly on the back of women.

Africa is a growing economy and at the centre of this growing continent are women ready to make a difference.  While most Africans countries are enjoying high economic growth this does not trickle down to the majority of its citizens most of whom are living in abject poverty despite the reported high rates of economic growth.  The rise in economic growth has been overshadowed by a rise in poverty and unemployment as well as lack of education and health care provision.   This has been attributed to the fact that the African economy is mirrored on the global male economic model which is focused on competition and profits without due regard to social and human consequences. As demonstrated in the case of Rwanda, women who have taken over businesses are using the money to improve their homes, to combat poverty and to pay for the education of their children.

For Africa to be an effective player in a future global Agenda with sustainable development at the core of the Post-2015 Development Agenda, the continent needs to close the gender gap and ensure that the potential of every woman and girl in Africa is fully utilised.   African women and girls should be allowed to play an integral part in the remarkable growth, opportunity and promise for development that is currently being experienced in Africa.  The unprecedented economic growth brings with it emerging challenges related to sustainable development and women should therefore, be involved in addressing these challenges, which include widespread and extreme levels of poverty and its feminization; heightened human and food insecurity;  rising unemployment for a growing youth population; falling levels of education and health care provision; as well as conflict and instability.   The gender equality and women’s empowerment strategy for Africa must be premised on women as key and indispensable actors and leaders in accelerating economic growth and in achieving socially and environmentally sustainable development.

References and Further Reading

  1. Africa Progress Panel, 2012.  Africa Progress Report:  Jobs, Justice and Equity. Available at:
  2. African Business, 2012.  Africa’s Growth: Danger Signals Ahead, IC Publications, London
  3. African Union, 2010.  Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: African Women Decade.  Available at:
  4. Birch,1993.  The Concepts and Theories of Modern Democracy, London, Routledge
  5. MBABAZI, 2013: Vision News,  Rwanda: Women’s Post-Genocide Success. Available at:
  6. OECD , 2013. Gender and Sustainable Development:  Maximising the Economic, Social and Environmental Role of Women.  Paris. Available at
  7. OECD, 2013.  Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI). Paris. Available at
  8. Okoth, 2006. A History of Africa: African Nationalism and the Decolonisation Process. East African Educational Publishers Ltd,  Nairobi.
  9. The Voice News Magazine, 2011: ‘Engage women more in North Africa development’.  Available at:
  10. UNDP, 2013.  Rwanda: Country Context. Available at:
  11. United Nations, 1995. ‘The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women: Platform for Action’. Available at:
  12. United Nations, 2000-2009. ‘Convention on the Eliminations of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women’. Available at:
  13. United Nations, 2012 .  Millennium Development Goals and Post 2015 Development Agenda. Available at:
  14. United Nations, 2013.  Millennium Development Goals and Beyond 2015. Available at:
  15. World Bank, 2009. Gender Equality as Smart Economics. Washington, DC.  Available at
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