Ending stereotypes about African women

On this International Women’s Day, March 8, we must ask ourselves questions without complacency about our views on African women, whether from outside or even within our continent. And to challenge certain stereotypes about them, because they simply do not reflect the facts.

Let’s start with the sensitive issue of birth rate. For the most part, if forced marriages are excluded, women fight to have families they love. Women in Africa have an average of 4.4 children. Urbanization and girls’ schooling have a structural impact on these declining figures.

Moreover, fertility rates appear – wrongly – out of control on the continent. Only Niger has had a peak in 2018 of seven to six children per woman according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), while entire regions are in the process of completing their demographic transition. The average number of children per woman no longer exceeds 2.3 in Southern Africa and 2.9 in North Africa (compared to 1.6 in Europe and 1.8 in France). These two regions are thus approaching the minimum threshold (2.1) required for population renewal.

Politically, several countries are among the most advanced in the world in terms of parity in parliament. Rwanda ranks first in the world with 61% of women parliamentarians, almost three times higher than the global average. Namibia ranks 7th before Costa Rica, South Africa (10th) and Senegal (11th) before Finland, Mozambique (17th) after France and Ethiopia (19th) after Argentina.

African women are also not lagging behind in their participation in the labour market. On the contrary, the employment rate for women in sub-Saharan Africa is the highest in the world, far ahead of Western Europe and North America. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), it stood at 64.7% in 2018, compared with a world average of 48.5%. They work for the vast majority in the informal economy, which does not necessarily mean that they are in weak positions.

As Bineta Diop, special envoy of the President of the African Union (AU) Women, Peace and Security Commission, reminds us, the women targeted by microfinance programmes say it loud and clear: “There is nothing micro or small about us!”. Their ambition far exceeds the amounts lent to them. The tontine, often the prerogative of women, sees large amounts of money being passed from hand to hand across the continent. Women do not wait to be employed, and they willingly take their destiny into their own hands. Thanks to the digital revolution, many of them are creating new services and offering new products in digital markets.

There is no shortage of success stories and sources of inspirations either. For the record, three African women have won Nobel Prizes: Nadine Gordimer for literature, Wangari Mathai and Leymah Gbowee for peace. In October 2018, diplomat Sahle-Work Zewde became President of Ethiopia. She joined a dozen women who have served as heads of state, including Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia), Joyce Banda (Malawi), Catherine Samba-Panza (Central African Republic) and Ameenah Gurib-Fakim (Mauritius).

In an article published by the Financial Times on 7 March, Sahle-Work Zewde said that much remains to be done in terms of equal pay, promotion to positions of responsibility and maternity leave… Africa is nevertheless recognised by the World Bank as the region in the world with the most reforms in favour of women. Another strong signal, according to the Ethiopian President, is that the African Union (AU) has been the first to recognize the importance of “patriarchal norms” in its roadmap to gender equality.

Other powerful women head major institutions, from the International Organisation of the Francophonie (OIF) to the International Football Federation (Fifa). The list would be too long of all those who hold important ministerial positions, manage large companies or have established themselves as opinion leaders. For example, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian novelist who has been translated into more than 25 languages around the world. They are champions not only in sport or the arts, but also in civil society, in cities and rural areas.

It is high time for our continent to awaken to the potential of its better half, and for the world to recognize it. My ancient and deep belief is that there will be no development without them.

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