Mwanamke, Obinrin and Owesifazane: many ways to say "woman".

In Zulu, Yoruba or Swahili, it always has the same meaning.

Even talking about Africa and women creates incredible paradoxes. Maybe because in that countries women are more vulnerable and exposed to violence and poverty, having lower access to education than anywhere else. However women themselves bring growth and innovation to the continent. Different elements characterize women’s role in African regions, making difficult to describe the exact situation.


Concerning family, women's position has always been essential: they are caretakers of the progeny, responsible for family finances, education and food supply. However male figures have always had leading positions. Even if nowadays women have obtained new rights, men can often limit the enjoyment of these last. But female role in diversified African societies represents so much more than this: it is the real beating heart of the continent.

Economically, , African women produce approximately 60-70% of economics goods (including those deriving from the informal sector). They represent two thirds of the entire African agricultural labour and provide the most of consumed food. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in Africa, women furnish 70% of the agricultural production, 50% of animal husbandry, and 60% of the sale of products. Women also undertake about 100% of food processing activities. However , the main element inhibiting female enterprises comes from the need to find financial resources, and from the difficulty to obtain microcredit, because of cultural assumptions, legal barriers or lack of financial literacy.

In Uganda, women women possess 38% of all registered enterprises, but they only can get 9% of formal funds. In Kenya, although women direct 48% of small and micro enterprises, they only can receive 7% of credit.

Despite women detain an inferior social status, compared to men, many combined efforts paved the way to significant progresses that brought women to get higher recognition of their role and their contribution to socio-economic growth. But despite these developments, many obstacles remain, and they include: access to land, property, financing processes, production means, and markets.

- Oulimata Sarr, UN counsellor for Regional Economic Empowerment.

For example in Sub-Saharan Africa laws concerning land possession strongly exclude women from ownership and control. Women only represent 15% of land owners, less than 5% in Mali, and 30% in countries like Botswana, Cape Verde and Malawi.  


Beside agricultural matters, workforce participation rates are high all across Africa but Northern regions: they reach 85-90% in countries like Burundi, Tanzania and Ruanda. In many countries, such as Nigeria, Togo and Burundi, participation rates are equal (or nearly) for men and women. However job markets in Africa offer different opportunities according to gender, and women are often employed in low-income occupations. Women are more likely t work independently in the informal sector than earning a regular salary by holding formal professions.

The lack of functioning and efficient infrastructures across the continent also complicate the global situation, because it’s women that must spend most of their time (exactly one month per year) to recover resources like water and cooking fuel. In fact, throughout Sub-Saharan Africa few families have access to modern cooking fuels (in 11 countries, it’s only 1% of families).

The lack of access to information and communication technologies constitutes a further crucial element causing women marginalisation. On average African women have less access to radio, newspapers, mobile phones and Internet. They are 23% less likely to have a cell phone compared with men, and these last often control women’s access to technology. In this way lots of women miss basic information about services, market condition or just weather forecasts.

The up mentioned elements restricting women’s role in African societies are worsened by unequal access to instruction, even if women themselves have always had a key function in children education within their family and community.

Also, the lack of study opportunities has serious consequences for women. The long-lasting inequality concerns employment and earnings. Many African countries have now eliminated the gender gap related to primary education, but there is a need for many reforms linked to secondary and professional instruction.
The rate of girls in primary and secondary education has overall increased from 87% in 2005 to 91% in 2012.

Currently, private and public sector make joint efforts to promote access to education for girls. Innovating initiatives like #IAMTHECODE support girls and young women in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, art and design. Similar actions provide young women the access to planning, and allows them to become entrepreneurs and leading figures in digital fields.

- Oulimata Sarr

Legally, further distinctions exist. In nine countries married women can’t apply for a passport the same path as their husbands, and in 15 countries married women are not completely free to choose where to live, and in 35 countries married women are juridically forced  to obey their husbands. Informal laws can are sometimes reinforced or weakened by traditional customs, which keep women subordinated to men.  

The most of laws that regulate the economy of the African countries don’t differ according to gender, in theory. But in practice it’s not always exact: by law or by culture, only male family heads can sign contracts and acquire sole control over domestic finances.

Despite this social barriers to entry, African women are extending the crucial social role they always had, and that they never abandoned. Ruanda and Tanzania have introduced constitutional requirements to include female percentage in their plenary government bodies: in Ruanda women got more than 60% of seats in the national parliament.

In Liberia Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been the first Woman President of an African nation. Then the same office was held by Joyce Banda, in Malawi, and by Catherine Samba-Panza, in Central African Republic. Today women are represented in each African national cabinet and female proportion in national ministers augmented from 4% to 20%.

It is not about to search for people helping women to contribute to Africa’s development, it is about bring change in the African narrative, from dependence to self-determination through collaborative approach, in order to face new challenges in our home countries [...]. Women must have access to resources, chances and knowledge to have significant roles in the society.

- Wendy Luhabe, President of the "Women In Africa" Club

Author: Stefano Sartorio

Italian version: -Published on May 16.

Translated by Simona Maria Vallefuoco.

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  • L'Autore

    Stefano Sartorio

    Laureato in Scienze Internazionali e Istituzioni Europee e studente di Relazioni internazionali, mi piace indagare sulle cause delle problematiche e capire i fondamenti che caratterizzano le più odierne sfide globali.


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