Every year, Women’s History Month is a chance to celebrate women of the past who have shaped the Africa we have become – and to highlight African women who are making history today.
History will look kindly on the women whose pioneering responses to the pandemic saved many lives. Women like Dr Tlamelo Setshwaelo, who modelled effective COVID-19 responses as part of the rapid response medical team at Sir Ketumile Masire Teching Hospital in Bostwana. Or Bhelekazi Mdlalose, a forensic nurse who become a contact tracer for COVID-19 in Gauteng, South Africa. Or leaders like Jane Karuku, Managing Director and CEO of East African Breweries who led Kenya’s National COVID-19 Fund, a private sector initiative to raise resources in support of the government’s effort to respond to the pandemic.
But as we honour today’s women history makers, we must ask: Are we doing enough to ensure more can step forward as leaders and as Africa’s history makers of tomorrow? The answer is “not yet” and we’d like to propose three for action: empower women in the economy, gather more and better data to see the full picture of women’s lives and promote women in decision making, policy and governance.
Women in Africa disproportionately suffered during the pandemic, and our hard-won economic and social advances of recent years are backsliding. In nearly every country, a greater percentage of women lost their jobs compared to men. In fact, globally over the past two years, women were nearly two times more likely to lose their jobs than men.
Millions of women across Africa had no choice but to draw down the few savings they had or sell any productive assets they had left. For example, according to UN Women’s Women Count program, more than 60 per cent of women and men in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa experienced a complete loss or decline in personal incomes due to the pandemic. With 92% of working African women in the informal economy, few had the job security or social safety nets to weather the storm.
Closing economic gaps and building economic resilience will require ensuring that stimulus efforts and social protection schemes are intentionally designed to reach women. Policy makers can look to countries like Togo for inspiration. Its Novissi programme channeled emergency cash subsidies directly to people in the informal economy, 65% of whom were women. The program reached almost 1.4 million Togolese enabling many women to invest in the health and economic wellbeing of themselves and their family.
The pandemic demonstrated how much we rely on African women – healthcare responders, volunteers and caregivers – in our communities. And yet, we’re woefully under-represented in decision-making processes and leadership positions. Only 24% of people serving on the 225 COVID-19 government task forces established in Africa and other developing countries were women[i]. We’re missing out on perspectives that would help us shape and respond to the needs of half of our continent’s population.
There have been positive advancements in recent months. The African Union elected its first female deputy chairperson and achieved gender parity in six recently established commissioner posts. Cameroon’s Vera Songwe, from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, put in place guidelines to make female empowerment a central pillar in the region’s post-pandemic economic recovery plans. This is the leadership we need.
A major challenge to effectively design initiatives that make a difference is accurately defining the barriers that African women face to help us determine how they can be overcome. Decision-makers require precise data that is disaggregated by sex and which include specific measures that paint a full picture of women’s health and economic lives. One promising initiative was the Kenyan Bureau of Statistics’s National Time Use survey. The first of its kind, the survey allowed leaders to develop data-driven policies that allocate services and resources where women need them most.
Women will play a central role in reviving African economies post-COVID-19. As we build a post-pandemic future for our continent, we must implement data-based policy solutions that address the unique challenges women face. After all, effective policies today will ensure women and girls can thrive tomorrow. They are an investment in a new generation of African women history makers who we can celebrate for decades to come.
Julienne Lusenge is a Congolese human rights activist and president of Female Solidarity for Integrated Peace and Development. Natalie Africa is Senior Advisor to the Director, Africa at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
[i] “Women’s absence from COVID-19 task forces will perpetuate gender divide, says UNDP, UN Women.” UN Women, 22 March 2021, https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2021/3/press-release-womens-absence-from-covid-19-task-forces-will-perpetuate-gender-divide
This article was first published on La Afrique Tribune and is reproduced with permission