Graça Machel: ‘All of us must work for women’s empowerment’

By Graça Machel

Posted on Monday, 27 July 2009 15:58

Women are one of Africa’s greatest assets. To many of us, this is self evident. But resources need to be put in place and practical solutions found to banish gender inequality.

The lack of equality for women in Africa is not only unjust, but deeply damaging for the continent’s prospects. For Africa’s political, social and economic health and progress depend above all upon the empowerment of women.

In my lifetime, there have been both extraordinary breakthroughs and heartbreaking setbacks for women. Who could have imagined a few decades ago that we would have a female head of state or be the first continent with a parliament where women are in the majority?

The number of female chief executives in business, the public sector and civil society is increasing, and women’s organisations are becoming more assertive and vocal in every walk of life.

But these achievements serve to highlight an unacceptable and unnecessary reality. Across the continent, women continue to be repressed, oppressed, disempowered, marginalised and subject to discrimination.

Women in conflict situations are particularly vulnerable, but even in peaceful societies, women find their talents blocked by formal and socio-cultural barriers.

Compared with men, women work longer hours, are paid less, have less access to economic opportunity and have fewer legal rights, including over their bodies, their land and their property.

Only about half of the continent’s women are literate (compared with two-thirds of men) and only a minority have access to adequate health services and information. Maternal mortality rates in Africa are scandalous.

Compounding matters, information and data regarding both the plight and the economic and social contribution of women is lacking. The bald facts might jolt leaders out of their complacency.

Instead, unchallenged prejudices, traditional customs and practices can serve to camouflage the suffering that hundreds of millions of women endure, in silence.

The good news is that in many countries, legislation and policies are being put in place to fight discrimination and challenge mindsets. Over the last decade, the role of women in Africa has been receiving growing political recognition.

The African Protocol on the Rights of Women and the African Union’s adoption of the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa in 2004 were major breakthroughs.

But getting laws passed and policies approved is only a beginning. Resources are needed to put in place the practical means to address gaps and inequalities in access to land, the law, education, health, employment, credit, information and political participation.

The personal example set by political and business leaders is critical.

Women’s health remains under-prioritised and under-funded. HIV/AIDS has been the greatest disaster to affect our continent in the last half century.

With some 60 per cent of new infections now among girls and women aged between 15 and 24, only by focusing on young women can we hope to overcome it in the next 50 years.

Education for girls is the best investment any society can make. It has a multiplier effect on all aspects of life, from the reduction of child mortality and disease prevalence to empowerment, entrepreneurship and economic performance.

It improves the quality of life for both men and women now and for future generations. Despite real progress in increasing the number of children in school, Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region not on track to meet Millennium Development Goals on gender parity in primary and secondary school enrolment.

Women have come a long way in the last 50 years. Much of this has been achieved despite, not because of, the attitude of powerful men.

Where and when men and women truly come together around an agenda for women’s empowerment in every sphere of life, underpinned by equal access to education, the scope for progress is unlimited.

Fulfilment of Africa’s vast potential depends upon such an alliance. All of us must work to make it happen.

Graça Machel is a member of the Africa Progress Panel

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