The years 2010-2020 marked the African Women’s Decade. As we take stock of the last ten-plus years, it is clear is that we have not kept the promises that were made to the women and girls of our continent. Our words and good intentions have not translated into tangible change for our mothers, sisters, daughters, and ourselves.
Looking back, it is worth noting that the first UN Decade for Women was launched in 1975. More than 46 years later, despite our commitment to achieving the Millennium and Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular those on gender equality, we have not made the necessary progress that turns our commitments into reality making a difference in the daily lives of women in the world and in Africa.
And yes, there are those who say some progress has been made. It is true that there are cases where women have reached the highest levels of government, but they are still a minority amongst the 55 countries that make up the African Union. Unfortunately, conferences, declarations, and resolutions have not been able to reverse this century-old inequality. Yet, we cannot give up and we must recommit ourselves to make a real difference in the lives of women of our continent.
So where do we start? What do we need to do differently to avoid the pitfalls of recent years and past initiatives?
Any effort to improve the role of women and girls in society must be systemic, multi-sectoral, and integrated. While isolated initiatives can make a difference in some areas of women’s lives, they are not enough to bring about broad and lasting change. What we also know is that change will not happen overnight – it is a lifelong journey and there will be many hurdles on the road to achieving our goal of equality of opportunity, equal impact, and recognition.
For example, studies show that in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, maternal undernutrition has a major impact on reproductive health, and plays an important role in pregnancy and birth issues, often with devastating effects on the health of mothers and children. Similarly, malaria infection during pregnancy poses substantial risks for mothers, their fetuses, and newborns.
That is why we must invest in Universal Health Coverage (UHC), the principle that everyone has access to necessary health services without creating financial hardship for those who receive them. UHC is essential for building inclusive and sustainable growth for the people of our continent. Yet, most of our health systems are not able to cope effectively with the epidemics that plague our countries and the growing burden of chronic diseases, such as diabetes. The COVID-19 pandemic is also a stark reminder that viruses and diseases know no borders. Only by investing in immunization and public health will we be able to defeat many preventable diseases. When we do, the ripple effects are enormous – every dollar spent on children’s immunizations in Africa provides $54 in economic benefits.
Similarly, studies show that adding just one year of schooling will yield a return of investment of 12.4 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, well above the global average. This is especially true for girls with returns on investment of 14.5 percent, compared to any other region in the world. Educated girls and women have better opportunities to enter the workforce and break the cycle of poverty.
In many African countries, 75 to 90 percent of non-agricultural employment is informal and low-paid work. Women are three times more likely to be employed as family workers than their male counterparts. This means that, in addition to having to care for their children and the elderly, women are often unpaid and vulnerable to exploitation. It is only at a higher level of education and income for women that we are beginning to see the gender gap in employment close. This is further evidence that investment in girls’ education is essential to lift entire populations out of poverty.
Empowering women in the economy will also be essential for a faster and more equal economic recovery across Africa after the COVID-19 pandemic. This means giving women access to modern digital financial systems and tools, such as digital payment and identification systems; tools that accelerate women’s financial inclusion and enable them to contribute fully to their country’s economies. We must strive to remove all barriers that prevent us from achieving women’s empowerment that will benefit all our societies as a whole.
To do this, we will also have to fight the silent epidemic of sexual and gender-based violence that has developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In times of social distancing and often social isolation from families and wider communities, women have had fewer opportunities to escape violent partners, and reported cases of violence are increasing. To combat this, we need to re-establish the role of women in conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and post-conflict reconstruction. If governments are to ensure lasting peace, they must ensure that women participate in all key peace negotiations at all levels. They must remember that women are the central pillars of families. Everyone is affected when women are excluded from peace-building processes because women are peace advocates, mediators, and humanitarian workers, all at the same time.
No single intervention alone can change the lives of women in Africa. Only by tackling each of these issues in a systemic way, we can make a difference for all the citizens of Africa, both women, and men because our lives are interdependent. As we all strive to promote an African Renaissance, an Africa of the people for the people, we must place equality and women’s empowerment at the heart of everything we do. We, as well as our mothers, sisters, and daughters, deserve no less, but so do our fathers, brothers, and sons.
As women born on this continent, we cannot tolerate that we have not been able to keep our promises so that every girl born in Africa can reach her full potential and contribute to all aspects of the society in which she lives.
It is a monumental task, but together, and in partnership, we can achieve it.
Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi is the First Lady of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Julienne Lusenge is a Congolese human rights activist and founder of Fonds pour les Femmes Congolais (FFC), who has just received the 2021 International Women of Courage Award issued by the US State Department