Women are a cornerstone of African economic development. According to recent estimates, they provide approximately 70 per cent of agricultural labour and produce about 90 per cent of all food. Women’s economic activity rate, which measures the percentage of people who furnish the supply of labour for the production of economic goods, ranks highest compared to other regions of the world (including the OECD countries) with a value of 61.9. However, women are predominantly employed in the informal sector or they occupy low-skill jobs. This can be illustrated by considering the percentage of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector, which scores lowest among all regions of the world with a value of only 8.5 per cent.
The weak status of women in the formal economy of Africa* has many reasons. Insufficient access to key resources such as education and health are two important contributing factors. As is illustrated by the Gender, Institutions and Development Data Base (GID-DB) of the OECD Development Centre, primary education of females is still at a strikingly low rate of 67 per cent despite international endeavours such as the second Millennium Development Goals to achieve universal primary education by the year 2015 (men 72.6%). Unsurprisingly, illiteracy remains a major challenge with only 51 per cent of all women above the age of 15 being able to read and write (compared to 67.1 percent of all men). Improvements in maternal mortality also fall far short of international objectives. The African value of 866 deaths per 100.000 live births – partly due to dismal medical services which only guarantee 50.9 per cent of all births being attended by skilled health personnel – is alarming and far worse than in any other region of the world.
Apart from these relatively obvious factors, the GID-DB also helps to identify and understand more hidden reasons that obstruct the socio-economic development of women (Fig. 1). The comprehensive data base compiles for the first time in a coherent and systematic fashion information on inequalities that are based on social norms and traditions. The prevailing family code in many African countries, for example, discriminates against women in preventing daughters from having an equal share of inheritance or parental authority over their children after a marriage is broken. Similar to South Asian countries, girls often find themselves in arranged or even forced marriages, into which they enter at very young ages. Compared to an OECD average of 27.4 years, girls in Africa get married at only 21.3 years. What is more, 28 per cent of all girls before the age of 20 have been married at least once in their life.
Fig. 1: Gender Inequality in Social Institutions**
Note: gender inequality in social institutions is measured in four dimensions: family code,
ownership rights, physical integrity and civil liberties. Darker colors indicate a higher level of ineqaulity.
Polygamy is pervasive in many African countries and property rights over land are not granted equally to men and women. Although women may have the right to obtain a bank loan on paper, customs still prevent females to have equal access to credit in many rural areas in Africa. Other traditions such as female genital mutilation - which in some countries are reported to affect more than 95 per cent of all women (e.g. In Guinea, Mali, Egypt, Somalia and Eritrea) – are not only a violation against women’s basic human rights but also a heavy burden for their health status and consequent chances in the labour market. Highlighting the important impact of social norms and traditions may help to design better policies that can improve the socio-economic status of women in the long-run.
But there are positive examples as well. Especially North African countries have made some progress in reducing the impact of discriminatory social institutions and improving the status of women. Tunisia in the 1960s opened to the West and abolished many traditional practices under the presidency of the charismatic Habib Bourguiba. A similar movement has recently begun in Morocco with King Mohammed VI who changed the prevailing family code to allow more rights to women.
* averages apply to sub-Saharan Africa
** the depiction and use of boundaries shown on maps do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the OECD.