Gender equality in the labour market is not only a fairness issue; it makes good economic sense. And the international disaster that is COVID-19 has driven home the crippling inequalities in African societies that, if left unaddressed, will see women suffer long-term setbacks – both in terms of their place in the workforce and their income.
According to a 2015 McKinsey report, looking ahead to 2025, if women were to play an identical role to men in the labour markets, up to US$28 trillion could be added to the global annual GDP. Meanwhile, in Africa specifically, Foresight Africa, a 2020 Brookings report, observes that the continent could have seen an additional 44 million women actively participating in its labour markets in 2018 if female-to-male participation rates were equal to those of more advanced countries.
This untapped potential of women, within the context of ‘gender equality is smart economics’, remains a lost opportunity for economic growth and development that Africa can ill afford. Now, as COVID-19 accelerates the crisis, respected organisations including UN Women and the WEF caution that the pandemic has the potential to reverse decades of hard-won battles around gender equality, as well as women’s economic rights.
And there are very good reasons to be concerned. The Foresight Africa report points to the fact that women constitute more than half the productive population on the continent. It concludes that countries that fail to improve gender equality in labour markets in the next decade stand to lose out on significant gains in economic growth. Potentially, according to Andinet Woldemichael, principal research economist at the AfDB, GDP gains could range from 1% for Senegal to as much as 50% for Niger. Unfortunately, he stresses, the progress being made in gender equality in Africa, compared to global labour markets, is more limited due to the dual impacts of high levels of poverty and gender discrimination.
His view is echoed by Zimbabwean sociologist Martha Mutisi, one of the co-founders of the Women, Peace and Security programme at the University of Columbia in New York, who says the coronavirus has exacerbated a host of risks to which women are already exposed, including poverty and gender-based violence.
The closure of schools and universities across the continent in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus threw Africa another curveball. The education of girls is viewed as critical in the struggle to balance the economic gender divide. But the AU International Centre for Girls and Women’s Education in Africa warns that the COVID-19 crisis is now discouraging education, with girls and young women facing heightened pressure from their parents to drop out of school, enter the (unskilled) labour market or marry.
Rita Bissoonauth, who heads the centre in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, applauds the efforts by AU member states to ensure that girls continue learning during the pandemic. But she stresses the need for more sustainable measures that go beyond simply accessing education. These must, into the future, address the obstacles faced by women and girls in terms of accessing quality education and of completing the school cycle.
UN Women advances the argument for girls’ education, saying that it, along with upskilling and reskilling – especially to keep pace with rapid technological and digital transformations affecting jobs – is critical for women’s income-generation opportunities. It is also vital if women are to take their rightful place alongside men in the formal labour market.
Companies, the organisation adds, also benefit enormously from increasing employment and leadership opportunities for women, a scenario that has been proven to boost organisational efficacy and growth. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Gender Equality in Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship report, ‘it is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all dimensions of organisational performance’.
Meanwhile, in the real world, a UN Women online report on the economic toll of COVID-19 on women highlights estimates suggesting that 11 million more girls – in addition to the 130 million already not attending school before the onset of the pandemic – will leave school by the end of the coronavirus crisis. The report attributes this forecast statistic to the unprecedented disruption of education, with poor countries and regions worst impacted.
This ‘alarming’ number threatens decades of progress, but also puts girls around the world – including Africa – at increased risk for adolescent pregnancy, early and forced marriage, and violence. On its website, Unesco sums it up: ‘For many girls, school is more than a key to a better future. It’s a lifeline.’
In the same way, girls’ education is a lifeline for African economies. Put simply, girls’ education is a strategic development priority. As stated on the World Bank website, better-educated women tend to be healthier, participate more in the formal labour market, earn higher incomes, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and their children are usually healthier. ‘All these factors combined can help lift households, communities and countries out of poverty.’
Silvia Montoya, Director of the Unesco Institute for Statistics, writes in a Unesco blog that the average time girls spend in school has more than doubled in North Africa (from 5.3 to 12.7 years) and in sub-Saharan Africa (from 3.3 to 8.8). Montoya acknowledges the achievement, but points out that sub-Saharan Africa is still far off the goal of providing 12 years of universal primary and secondary education as part of Sustainable Development Goal 4, which aims to ensure ‘inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all’.
Taking a deeper look into the country data, she illustrates that while a girl in Burkina Faso might have received an average one year of education 50 years ago, today that average is 8.7. In Morocco, school-life expectancy for girls has soared from about 2.2 to 13 years since 1971, while the number of years that girls spend in school tripled in Rwanda (3.5 to 11.2) since about 1970.
Montoya adds that girls are, however, still struggling to even secure a place in primary school in countries such as the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali and Niger, where more than one-third of girls of primary-school age are out of school. Out-of-school rates for girls are also at a very high 72% in South Sudan and 64% in Liberia.
She credits governments, educationalists and campaigners for enhancing access to education for millions of girls who had no school to go to half a century ago. They have also had to overcome entrenched social norms and hard-wired attitudes that have kept girls out of school – and which continue to exclude many today.
This is a crucial hurdle if girls’ education goes hand-in-hand with securing a prosperous economic future for African nations. Sophia Sprechmann, Secretary-General of Care International, writes on the WEF’s COVID Action Platform that, before the pandemic, the WEF had predicted it would take 257 years to achieve economic parity between men and women. She adds that it was both ‘devastating and frustrating that this figure has been set back by generations more [by COVID-19]’.
Female entrepreneurs have overcome so many barriers to get their businesses thriving and to overcome poverty. Looking ahead, Sprechmann believes it is these same women who hold the power to tackle the gigantic task ahead. ‘We’ve seen it with the Ebola crisis, with women from war-torn countries, and we know we will see it after this pandemic. Women can and will elevate their communities back out of poverty, rebuilding what they have lost,’ she says.
However, they need urgent help and support to do so. A McKinsey report on COVID-19 and countering its regressive effects on gender equality concludes that the evidence is clear – what is good for greater gender equality is also good for the economy and society as a whole.
‘The COVID-19 pandemic puts that into stark relief and raises some critically important choices: act now to remove barriers to greater female labour-force participation and a bigger role in society and reap the economic and social benefits; delay and still benefit but to a substantially lesser degree; or allow the disappointing status quo to prevail and slide backwards, leaving massive economic opportunity on the table and negatively affecting the lives of millions of women.’
Parity, the report states, is powerful. And now is the time for policymakers across the continent, along with business leaders, to ‘step up and make it a reality’.