Post-Covid: Time to address deep-rooted systemic barriers to gender equality

Renee Olende
By Renee Olende

Director of strategic advocacy and communications at Co-Impact. Prior to joining Co-Impact, she led teams at the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), informing parts of an ambitious philanthropic strategy for Africa, and at Greenpeace, heading environmental campaigns, supporting the delivery of beneficial social impact projects focused on climate change, plastic pollution, and food security.

Posted on Thursday, 2 December 2021 18:05

Climate Kenya Photo Gallery
Girls look after their family's camels as they drink from a water point in the desert near Dertu, Wajir County, Kenya Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

In March 2021, the World Economic Forum released the Global Gender Gap 2021 report which showed that closing the global gender gap would take an additional 36 years due to the impact of the pandemic.

Systematic gender equality is a global problem, with every country in the world affected to some degree. However, countries in the Global South occupy the lowest positions in The Global Gender Gap Index 2021 rankings and many of them happen to be countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA).

Women’s economic contributions to different sectors are substantial yet often overlooked.

Post-Covid-19 economic recovery is now a significant global theme that is seeing governments overhaul their economic systems, innovating to drive growth. This seems the perfect opportunity to centre gender in formulating new market strategies. Women’s economic contributions to different sectors are substantial yet often overlooked– especially across SSA where women make up 46.5% of the workforce.

‘Systemic barriers’

There are systemic barriers preventing women from participating and thriving in the formal economy. For example, society continues to champion informal work for women without considering the tools necessary to ensure that these same women do not remain in these positions forever.

If women continue to be the predominant drivers of the informal sector, we are presenting them with no real opportunity to grow beyond MSME entrepreneurship. Tackling the pathway from informality to formality and consequently introducing comprehensive social protection mechanisms is one of such systemic changes capable of lifting millions of women out of poverty.

Another systemic barrier is the lack of women in rooms where it happens – where decisions are made for and on behalf of women with little input.

Instituting unions and other collectives or workers groups will open the door for more women-led conversations mapping out their own needs and economic interests. Precedent has shown that where such women’s groups exist, women have leveraged them to advocate for increased power.

Across Africa, Rwanda is the only worthwhile example of gender parity in government.

We have strong examples, from Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, one of Nigeria’s foremost suffragists “no taxation without representation” movement spearheaded by the Abeokuta Women’s Union, to the Ivorian Women’s Defense League who continue to speak out against Gender-Based Violence in the country.

‘Importance of role models’

Achieving systemic change also means recognising the importance of role models. Representation matters, but for many women, young and old, the concept of career progression within their field or elsewhere does not occur to them because of a lack of female role models.

Across Africa, Rwanda is the only worthwhile example of gender parity in government. It is the first country in the world where the majority of seats in Parliament are occupied by women. For young Rwandan girls, the possibility of having a thriving career in politics will no longer appear unattainable because of gender-inclusive policy and the commitment to implement them.

While STEM is often highlighted for its lack of female representation, legal and financial sectors also lack female role models at the higher levels. Both sectors have wide-reaching influence across public and private and are often well paid–presenting an opportunity for improved social mobility.

Undoubtedly, the financial sector is uncompromising and given the time-consuming social expectations on women – such as the responsibility of child and home care – unsurprisingly, female participation is lacking. Gender parity policies, including child care and parental leave, would contribute positively to women’s professional trajectories.

Starting point

Improved education opportunities for young girls is the starting point for interventions – if political and economic equality is the goal. Ensuring equal access to education, as well as instituting programs that help inform young girls about their periods and menstrual health concerns which can cause school absences is key.

It is against this backdrop that Co-Impact recognises the need to support organisations involved in addressing these complex systemic challenges. The Gender Fund, alongside prominent partners, aims to raise and deploy $1bn over the next decade to support (predominantly) women-led Global South organisations.

The flexible funding will transform systems to be more just and inclusive, advance women’s power, agency and leadership at all levels, and shift harmful gender norms that prevent progress. The Fund will focus on health, education, economic opportunity and the professional domain of law and economics. Co-Impact will continue to accept applications until December 20 from initiatives focused on advancing gender equality and promoting women’s leadership across the Global South.

‘Addressing deep-rooted systematic issues’

Lao Tsu said that if you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day; but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. While gender equality projects are undoubtedly useful and have a legitimate place in closing the gender inequality gap, they often fall short in addressing deep-rooted systematic issues.

Co-Impact’s Gender Fund is committed to finding people who are willing to teach people how to fish. Women are an untapped powerhouse, and a mixture of the right policy and political willingness to implement effective gender-sensitive policy can shift prevalent perceptions and norms associated with women’s economic empowerment.

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