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Status of women

Women have fought to achieve equal rights in many parts of Africa. But as in other regions of the globe, a woman’s status varies by country and region.

Equality needs time

It took 703 years for the UK to progress from the Magna Carta (1215) to the first votes for women (1918). A further 57 years elapsed before the sexual discrimination act (1975). Since few African countries have been independent for more than 60 years, it is unsurprising women's legal and cultural status lags behind countries like the UK.

In some countries, women are still not equal in law. Even where they are legally equal to men, it is common for decisions to be taken by male heads of households or male local chiefs and leaders.

It is often the case that traditionally women have fewer, if any, rights of inheritance. This leads to difficulties accessing land or finance. But there are exceptions, such as in northern regions of Mozambique, where certain groups are matrilineal – see Mozambique People & Culture.

Traditional responsibilities

The pay gap

Where women undertake paid work, there is often a wage gap between their earnings and those of men. With jobs mostly entailing the same work, this gap can only be attributed to gender discrimination. In certain sectors, women also face barriers to joining trade unions or doing business as self-employed individuals.

In some places, women are regarded as being the equals of men, but their roles are nevertheless different. So, women traditionally look after the homestead, while men find jobs outside the home.

Women frequently have a high amount of work, such as gathering firewood or tending family fields. Household chores can be a huge burden, limiting a woman’s ability to take on paid employment.

The care of children, the sick or the elderly is generally viewed as the responsibility of women. With poor access to childcare facilities or health and support services in many regions, caring for family members can take up a lot of a woman’s time.

Educating girls

Girls' school attendance

In sub-Saharan Africa, 81% of boys were enrolled at primary school during 2005-2009, compared to only 77% of girls (UNESCO Institute for Statistics – UIS).

Though many governments are committed to providing equal education for girls, in practice girls are more likely to drop out of school than boys.

The reasons for girls’ lower enrolment in primary and secondary schooling include:

  • the tendency of poor families to spend available money (needed for school fees or the costs of books and uniforms) on the education of boys, because males are viewed as the future breadwinners
  • the expectation that girls will carry out domestic and household work
  • the pressure in some cultures for girls to marry young, particularly where they are seen as an economic burden on families
  • the lack of separate toilet facilities for girls in many schools.

But providing girls with a good education is vital for a country’s development. When women are equipped with learning and share decisions about families and livelihoods, the productivity of a society rises.

The health of a nation also improves with the education of girls. When women are aware about good nutrition and diet, the benefits of breastfeeding and the importance of hygiene, the risks of disease and illness in families is much lower.

Health challenges

Early marriage

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that two-fifths of all African girls are married before the age of 18. In some countries the proportion is much higher. For example, in Chad and Niger, a third of young women (20-24) said they were married by the age of 15.

However, women are sometimes affected by health issues which are harder for them control. In some cultures, there is a tradition of performing genital mutilation/cutting on girls. The practice can cause significant long-term damage and raises the risk of complications during childbirth. Millions of girls across Africa are still affected, though the practice is thankfully declining.

Women are also more likely to face difficulties in childbirth when they marry at a young age. The bodies of young teenagers are not as mature to cope with pregnancy, increasing the risk of complications.

The risk of death is even higher where girls do not have access to trained medical assistance, as is often the case in Africa. Many countries have a severe shortage of doctors/midwives and fewer than half of all births in Sub-Saharan Africa are attended by a skilled birth attendant.

With just 11% of the world’s population, Africa accounts for more than 50% of maternal deaths. The probability that a woman will die from a maternal cause is 1 in 31 in sub-Saharan Africa compared with 1 in 4,300 in developed regions (World Health Organization, 2010).

Women in power

Laws to protect women

The high number of women in Rwanda’s parliament (in 2011, Rwanda was the only country where women outnumbered men in government) has facilitated the passing of certain laws, such as stricter punishments for those committing violence against women.

Thanks to a greater awareness about such life and death issues, women are taking charge of public health campaigns in many nations, at both local and national levels.

The increasing number of women in government positions is also of significant benefit in effecting change on vital issues. Some nations – such as Rwanda and Tanzania – have created a constitutional requirement for the government to include a certain number of women.

Even where there are no quotas, African governments are beginning to include more female politicians. In Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, became the first woman to be President of a modern African nation. In 2012, Joyce Banda (pictured below) became Malawi's first female President.

This shows societies are changing. African women are increasingly able to choose their own course in life. It is no longer uncommon to find women running successful businesses in Africa alongside having a family. These women are happy to embrace a new set of challenges brought by such freedom.