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International Women's Day: a chance to reflect on achievements and barriers to gender equality in Africa

by Toyin Saraki
Wednesday, 8 March 2017 14:30 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Three months in to 2017, and the outlook on gender equality is seemingly bleak – according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, the gender gap actually worsened during 2016, and at this rate, global gender equality will not be realised for another 170 years. Considering how far gender equality has come in just one century, the prospect of waiting another two for full parity seems as outlandish as it does daunting.

As a Nigerian, I understand the struggle for gender equality in an African context. Although the general continental trend in recent years has been towards gender parity, there remain vast structural and attitudinal barriers that must be addressed.

Some major hurdles have been overcome in Africa, and it is now better to be an African girl than ever before. For example, the gender gap in primary school enrollment has nearly fully converged in most African nations. However, education accounts for just a fraction of what it truly means to be a girl, and inflictions such as child marriage, lower pay, and restrictions on access to capital, for example, remain very much prevalent. It is time to ask ourselves: what is holding women back?

100 years ago just 7 of the world’s nations allowed women to vote. Since this time legislative progress has been significant and widespread in gender rights. Yet we have so far to go.

In March last year, the Nigerian Senate rejected the Gender Rights Bill, which proposed providing women with the same marital rights as men, on the grounds of irreconcilable differences with Nigeria’s cultural and religious traditions. Since then, the Bill has been restructured and reintroduced to the Senate floor, but faces the same archaic opposition. Nigeria, divided between Christians and Muslims almost equally, is subject to intensely entrenched social values, many considered incompatible with the modern interpretation of gender equality. We need to apply greater pressure on governments to make female voices heard, and ensure that fair legislation is implemented.

Despite some clear shortcomings, vast legislative improvements have been made throughout the continent. What is more pressing, and more challenging to overcome, is the system of archaic practices and beliefs that override legal structures to consolidate a woman’s status in society as second class. For example, although female genital mutilation (FGM) has been criminalised in most countries, the practice continues unabated in regions all over Africa, and leads to a host of complications throughout life. Last year, public outcry on FGM sparked action across the world, greatly raising the profile of the practice, but there is still a long way to go before it is eliminated entirely.

Child marriage and distrust towards family planning are also fuelled by traditional beliefs. Shockingly, pregnancy and childbirth complications are the second leading cause of death among 15 to 19 year olds globally. Additionally, reproductive rights are denied in various forms across various countries, stripping women of decisions over their own bodies. Better health safeguards must be put in place to ensure that young girls can give birth in clean and safe conditions, and have access to family planning and contraception.

Women also suffer from financial barriers to equality. Women have limited access to financial services and capital in many countries and on average receive lower wages. It is a telling indicator of the sorry state of affairs that 2 out of 3 poor people in the world are women. Studies show that women are far more likely to spend a family’s income on poverty alleviation, while men tend to spend it on personal goods. Poverty plays to violence against women, domestic abuse, and marital rape, and as a result exacerbates gender inequality at a basic level.

The absence of government funding in sectors that affect women, particularly maternal health, is dangerous and also perpetuates gender divisions around the world. Women, as the child bearers and traditionally carers, are consistently subjected to elevated risks during pregnancy and childbirth, due to a lack of government funding in primary healthcare and maternal health. Nigeria alone accounts for 14% of maternal deaths worldwide, largely due to the deficit in maternal health funding. Sound primary healthcare is paramount in achieving gender equality – in its absence women are subject to heightened risk of maternal mortality and malnutrition, and lack the information to provide their child with the best and healthiest start in life.

At the Wellbeing foundation Africa, of which I am founder and president, we provide training to midwives across the country so to ensure that women have access to quality care during and after pregnancy and childbirth. We also distribute MamaCare packs to assist in the birthing process. We have trained thousands of midwives in Nigeria who have assisted hundreds of thousands of women.

It is comforting to know that since 1990 maternal mortality has been reduced by an astonishing two thirds. The fruits of the labour of so many have been borne, saving millions of lives in the process.

I am a gender parity optimist, and firmly believe that global gender parity can and will be achieved within the lifetime of my children. But measures in place, although effective, are insufficient on their own. Women must be treated as equals for society to progress – the barriers to equality must be addressed.  Today on International Women’s Day, we recognise the plight of women around the world to make their voices heard. Now it is time for the world to listen. 

Toyin Saraki is the founder of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa