Gender equality in East Africa

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) acknowledged that today East African countries can implement better policies to deal with gender inequality and move women into the workforce. In its new report “East African Community Regional Integration: Trade and Gender Implications”, UNCTAD analysed regional integration impact on employment and on the quality of life of women in East African Community countries (EAC). The key advice is to fill the gender gap in the field of education and to improve skill formation so that women can fight more for more gainful jobs.

According to an ILO report, informal enterprises (non-agricultural business unregistered at the local or national level), which experience a reduced level of protection, are mostly run by women. This happens because those realities tend to concern informal sectors themselves, or because they are short of capital useful for registration and, above all, since they are managed by women.

The smaller size of WOEs (Women-Owned Enterprises) is caused in part by barriers women face in the work market. More limited access to wage employment – for example, in Uganda only 13,8% of working women are in paid employment (…) – means women are more likely to be pushed into self-employment as a survival strategy”.

ILO report “Engaging Informal Women Entrepreneurs in East Africa: Approaches to Greater Formality” ( )

A further objective would be to create a regional credit mechanism to support women entrepreneurs. Even though economy already moved from agriculture to services and, to a lesser degree, industry, women still working in the agricultural sector represent about 96% in Burundi; 76% in Kenya; 84% in Rwanda; 71% in Tanzania and 77% in Uganda. Women also constitute a bigger share in activities related to household and to the care of the elderly and children, something that reduce their availability and flexibility in wage employment. Women landowners represent a small fraction: only 35% in Kenya and Uganda, and 46% in Rwanda.

The number of women holding political office increased considerably at regional, national and international level. According to the last World Bank report, Rwanda stands out for its female representation in parliament, up to 64%. Elsewhere, female representation rate is much lower, and it accounts for: 37% in Tanzania; 31% in Sudan; 29% in Sud Sudan; 34% in Uganda; 20% in Kenya; 39% in Ethiopia and 36% in Burundi. Moreover, women are increasingly undertaking ministerial positions and portfolios, previously reserved for men, including foreign affairs, defence, finance and, in certain countries, the vice-presidency. For example, in Kenya women are holding both the portfolios of defence and foreign affairs.

However, as it stands right now, the national governments are yet to effectively implement the promotion and protection of women rights in their respective countries”. Rose Sikhoya, Humanitarian Leadership Academy 

Kenya also set up strengthening economic programs to push forward women wellbeing. Rwanda has made progress in promoting gender equality, mostly under governmental guidance. This improvement enabled it to move into second place in the Global Gender Gap Index, following Sweden. Gender equality is enshrined in the Constitution and Rwanda was the first country to have more than 50% of female members in Parliament.

Despite these developments, challenges abound. The region is still dealing with deeply rooted structural inequalities having an adverse impact on girls and women. The political space is wrecked by a growing militarization that prevents women from finding an election office because of this high level of violence. For instance, the role and position of women in Sudan are affected by the history of the conflict that involves the country and by extremely high levels of violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors.

In Uganda, women still have to face discrimination, low social status and lack of economic self-sufficiency. According to the United Nations, violence against women remains endemic in the region because of negative cultural norms and practices. Available data outline that one in four women has experienced physical or sexual violence in her lifetime.

On the economic side, the debate on the neoliberal economic policies adopted by the region’s governments is ongoing. The difficulty of access to essential goods and services, like food and water, has a negative impact on girls and women who are subject to discrimination in favour of men. Moreover, years of under-investment in agriculture had destructive consequences on small farmers, mostly women. Discovering gas, oil and extractive natural resources worsen the actual challenges in the field of rights, access to land, environmental protection and food safety; girls and women of the communities are bearing the disproportionate burden of these negative effects.

In the context of social rights, the region continues to suffer adverse impacts arising from child marriages, female genital mutilations, violence against women, the burden of disease, illiteracy, poverty and social exclusion. The State’s rigid control on humanitarian organizations, associations and on the voice of women has seriously jeopardized their ability to engage in civic space.  

Such regulations are increasingly expanding to include political association and commitment in the civil society. The law on public order management in Uganda and several proposals for the control of non-governmental organizations (ONGs) in the region are regarded as the most dangerous. The continuous erosion of the State as a secular space exacerbates the process in which these discriminating laws are developed. Similarly, the efforts of groups of women, co-operating enterprises, associations, ONGs and alliances to move forward women rights have been eroded by a sharp fall of funding. 

In 2013, for example, only 0.5% of the budget of the Official Development Assistance (ODA) for OECD contributed funding these fights for gender equality (with a 1.2% drop compared to 2002). This fall in supporting women rights organisations shows a steady trend: these realities have been constantly and systematically underfunded, limiting their ability to take care of their agendas oriented to push forward women rights in the East African countries.

Despite a strong growth in the advancement of gender rights in the region, the focus must shift to the current challenges that women keep dealing with: today they are rewarded by a strong push for the promulgation of egalitarian laws, but the social and mediatic struggle remains a fundamental point, central to achieve full gender equality and the elimination of economic inequalities.

East African womanhood is a minefield between the region’s war zones and too-simple Western understanding thereof. The experiences of women from Ethiopia and Somalia serve largely as a barometer of the nations’ violence. But our foremothers taught us resistance long before we had a name for it. Their stories alchemize the violence that forced them out of the arms of their families and toward countries that don’t recognize their strength”.

Hannah Giorgis, Safy-Hallan Farah, writer and cultural critic for BuzzFeed News.

Italian version by Fabio Di Gioia 

Translated by Elisabetta Castellotti

“East African womanhood is a minefield between the region's war zones and too-simple Western understanding thereof. The experiences of women from Ethiopia and Somalia serve largely as a barometer of the nations' violence. But our foremothers taught us resistance long before we had a name for it. Their stories alchemize the violence that forced them out of the arms of their families and toward countries that don't recognize their strength.” Hannah Giorgis, Safy-Hallan Farah, una scrittrice ed una critica culturale per BuzzFeed News.


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  • L'Autore

    Fabio Di Gioia

    Dottore in Scienze internazionali ed istituzioni europee, attualmente si sta specializzando nel corso di laurea magistrale in Relazioni Internazionali. Presidente del Collegio dei Revisori dei Conti, co-ideatore del progetto TrattaMI Bene e autore in quest’ultimo e nella sua rubrica Dŏmĭna.

    Doctor of International Sciences and European Institutions, he is currently specializing in the Master's degree course in International Relations. President of the Board of Supervisors, co-creator of the project TrattaMI Bene and author in the latter and in his column Dŏmĭna.


From the World Africa Sections Human Rights


East Africa rights gender equality

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