Status Of Women In Africa

Status Of Women In Africa

African women have always been active in trade, agriculture and other economic pursuits, but a majority of them are in the informal labour force. In 1985, women’s shares in African labour forces ranged from 17 per cent, in Mali, to 49 per cent in Mozambique and Tanzania (World Bank, 1989). African women are guardians of their children’s welfare and have explicit responsibility to provide for them materially. They are the household managers, providing food, nutrition, water, health, education, and family planning to an extent greater than elsewhere in the developing world. This places heavy burdens on them, despite developments such as improved agriculture technology, availability of contraception, and changes in women’s socioeconomic status, which one might think would have made their lives easier. In fact, it would be fair to say that their workload has increased with the changing economic and social situation in Africa. Women’s economic capabilities, and in particular their ability to manage family welfare, are being threatened. ‘Modernization’ has shifted the balance of advantage against women. The legal framework and the modern social sector and producer services developed by the independent African countries have not served women well.

Most African women, in common with women all over the world, face a variety of legal, economic and social constraints. Indeed some laws still treat them as minors. In Zaire, for instance, a woman must have her husband’s consent to open a bank account. Women are known to grow 80 per cent of food produced in Africa, and yet few are allowed to own the land they work. It is often more difficult for women to gain access to information and technology, resources and credit. Agricultural extension and formal financial institutions are biased towards a male clientele’ despite women’s importance as producers (this has spurred the growth of women’s groups and cooperatives which give loans and other help). Women end up working twice as long as men, 15 to 18 hours a day, but often earn only one tenth as much. With such workloads, women often age prematurely. Harrison correctly observes that: ‘Women’s burdens – heavy throughout the third world – are enough to break a camel’s back in much of Africa’ (Harrison 1983).

Female education affects family health and nutrition, agricultural productivity, and fertility, yet there is a wide gender gap in education. Lack of resources and pressures on time and energies put enormous constraints on the ability of women to maintain their own health and nutrition as well as that of their children. As a result, women are less well equipped than men to take advantage of the better income-earning opportunities that have emerged in Africa. Although food and nutrition are women’s prime concerns in Africa, and they are the principal participants in agriculture, independent farming by women has been relatively neglected. Women’s family labour contribution has increased, but goes unpaid.

In industry and trade, women have been confined to small-scale operations in the informal sector; however vibrant these operations are and despite the trading empires built up by the most successful female entrepreneurs, women’s average incomes are relatively low. Women are also handicapped in access to formal sector jobs by their lower educational attainments, and those who succeed are placed in lower grade, lower paid jobs. Elite women who wish to improve their legal and economic status must expect to lose honour and respect (Obbe, 1980). There is often sexism in job promotions and unpleasant consequences if women stand up to men. There is often more respect for male professionals (even from women themselves) than there is for female. Women often suffer employment discrimination because they need to take time off for maternity leave or when a child is sick. Career women often have to work harder at their jobs to keep even with their male counterparts. Despite all these obstacles, women continue to move into different professions, including those traditionally seen as male jobs, such as engineering and architecture. Women can be found at senior levels in many organizations in many countries. They are also taking up various different professions, such as law, medicine, politics, etc. These women may be in the minority now, but things are changing all over Africa.

Social attitudes to women are responsible for the gender differences in both the education system and the labour force, as we will see below. Differential access to educational and training opportunities has led to low proportions of women in the formal sector and their subsequent concentration in low paid production jobs with limited career prospects. So, although women play an important role in African society, they suffer legal, economic and social constraints.


Culled From United Nations University Website

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