Driving African development through gender equality and empowering women

Jun 3, 2013

Eritrean women work in fields and farms, alongside men. (Photo: UNDP Eritrea)

Africa’s first and only women presidents joined UNDP Administrator Helen Clark on Sunday in calling for women and girls to be front and centre in Africa’s development agenda.

“Women are at the center of our hopes for Africa,” said President Joyce Banda of Malawi, speaking at a panel hosted by UNDP at the Fifth Tokyo Conference on African Development (TICAD V). She was joined by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, who said African women and girls must not be regarded as disadvantaged, but rather seen as “the greatest opportunity for unleashing the full potential of the continent.”

The panel, “Driving African Development Through Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women,” also featured African Union Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is the first woman to hold that position, and President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who has put women at the center of his development agenda. President Kagame said that ensuring gender equality “is not just a moral issue, it is a rights issue and it is a shared responsibility that concerns every member of our society.”

“Africa’s women can indeed be the drivers of its development,” Kagame said.

Panelists, who also included UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osetimehin, UNWomen Acting Director Lakshmi Puri and Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida, underscored that there is a rich body of evidence that demonstrates how gender equality drives development. For example, countries that eliminate gender disparities in education will accelerate progress towards eliminating hunger and will improve child and maternal health, as educated women and girls are better able to make informed choices about family planning, nutrition, health, and education.

With the existence of international, regional and national frameworks and commitments that lay out both a promise and a plan to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, speakers said what is needed now is implementation of the commitments, as well as dedicated budgeting that supports the rights and needs of women and girls.

“In all our policies and budgets, we should make sure there is enough money that goes to women,” Dlamini-Zuma said.

Discussion focused on the necessity of women’s economic empowerment and how even small investments have tremendous multiplier affects across a range of development goals. When a woman has more income, for example, she is better able to feed and educate her children and ensure their health and well-being. President Banda argued that getting income into the hands of women is the best way to achieve the Millennium Development Goals target on girl’s education.

With women comprising the majority of the agricultural labor force in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as having the primary responsibility for feeding their families, there was a call for rural women, including those who work in fisheries in the “blue economy,” to be at the center of approaches to food security. Despite their significant work in growing and processing food, women face significant barriers in owning, inheriting and controlling land and accessing credit and technical resources. Leveling the playing field for rural women would have a profound effect on food security. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent, raising total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent.

Also discussed was the importance of promoting women’s participation in decision-making at all levels, addressing the challenges to maternal health, fighting violence against women and girls, as well as early marriage, and ensuring that responses to conflict and disaster have specific and targeted interventions to address women’s security.

Foreign Minister Kishida noted the importance of incorporating women’s perspectives in conflict prevention and peace building processes and involving women in the formulation of disaster risk reduction strategies.

In reporting on the results of the panel discussion to the TICAD Secretariat on Monday, Clark said that the discussion resonated with the debates now underway on the post-2015 development framework. Last week, a report was released by the independent High Level Panel of eminent persons appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General on the global development framework beyond 2015. It identifies the need to address violence against women and girls, empower women economically and to take on leadership roles in public life.

“Now is the time to move from rhetoric to action,” Clark said. “That will require concrete plans with measurable outcomes and sufficient funding.”

The report of the panel discussion will be used to inform UNDP, Japan and participating stakeholders in tailoring policy and actions towards gender equality and women’s empowerment in Africa.

TICAD is a summit meeting on African development co-organized by the Government of Japan, the United Nations, the World Bank, the UN Development Programme and the African Union Commission.

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