EDITORIAL: Putting Women and the Girl Child at the Centre of Africa’s Development

Rosemary Ogu, Friday Okonofua


Recent United Nations reports1,2 indicate that progress has been made globally in key components of the MDGs since 2000. These include significant reductions in levels of extreme poverty, enrolment of children in schools, improvements in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, expanded access to clean water and increased access to information and communication technology. However, progress made has been highly uneven between and within countries.  Sub-Saharan African has had the slowest rate of growth in these indicators, with marginalised groups and populations in countries within the continent experiencing the slowest rate of improvement in these indicators.

Although many African countries have witnessed high economic growth rates during the past ten years fuelled largely by foreign direct investment, open markets and development assistance, only a small proportion of the population has been able to take advantage of this growth. A large proportion of the gains of economic growth remain concentrated in few urban centres, with benefits accruing only to a few high profile individuals.  By contrast, in many parts of the continent, very limited efforts have been made to spread the gains of economic growth and to engage grassroots in participatory development.  Throughout Africa, evidence now abound indicating that women and girls have witnessed the most severe forms of denial of opportunities related to the implementation of the MDGs3.  For example, while the indicators of maternal and child health in the MDGs have remained largely unmet in the continent, women and girls continue to suffer various forms of inequities including lower level of literacy and education, higher rates of physical and psychological violence, lower levels of social and political representation and highest levels of poverty as compared to men.   

It is within this context that we see it as salutary the current framing of the post-2015 development agenda around tackling inequality that exists in many parts of the world4.  Inequality is an important developmental challenge in subSaharan Africa that has tended to limit the overall attainment of the MDGs in the continent.  For Africa, an important form of inequality is that between countries, with evidence indicating that workers in African countries have lower incomes as compared to those in other parts of the world.  This has tended to promote cross-border transfer of skilled workers from Africa to the global north.  And with increased globalization and the use of technology leading to a decline in the number of available jobs in the western countries, the overall effects of international migration on Africa’s development has tended to be negative rather than positive.  

When assessed at national levels, African countries are some of the most unequal societies in the world. Apart from differences in income levels, the structural differences that exist between women and men are the most glaring forms of inequality that exists in most parts of Africa.  Gender inequality is clearly the most profound form of inequality in Africa buoyed largely by Africa’s patriarchal, cultural and religious experiences and tendencies3. To date, women remain under-represented in economic, social and political spheres in many African countries, as compared to their male folks.  As a corollary, the girl child continues to suffer collateral damage, with the same negative cultural and societal attitudes being visited on the girl-child, while there continues to be preference for the male child throughout the continent.


With the post-2015 developmental agenda focusing on addressing inequality, an important concern is how this would work for the African continent.  Efforts to address gender equality and build agency for the girl child in the ICPD and MDG frameworks, have had limited success in the continent due largely to systemic factors.  Some of the international agreements reached over the past two decades aimed at promoting gender equality and removing discrimination against women were never fully implemented in many African countries.  For example, since the 1990s, a country like Nigeria has failed to domesticate CEDAW, an international instrument for systematically eliminating discrimination against women through appropriate legislation5. Also, the Prohibition of Violence against Persons bill (VAPP bill) has not been passed by the Nigerian National Assembly over the past several years due to lack of official interest.   

There is a growing acceptance of the notion that the current MDGs do not properly address inequality, and that the post 2015 development agenda must be poised to tackle inequality differently --- for economic, political, ethical and even security reasons.  Within the perspectives of African countries, it is evident that any strategies designed to deal with inequality that does not include the promotion of gender equality will be a wasted effort.  However, there are ongoing debates as to how to reflect inequality in the post-2015 development framework.  This could be either be as a stand-alone goal or by mainstreaming pertinent indicators across different goals.  Arguments in favour of mainstreaming have been built around its ease of implementation and possibly greater political acceptability. By contrast, there are political issues to contend with when it is positioned as a stand-alone goal as it might be perceived as threatening to establishments and entrenched elites.  There is also continuing debate as to how inequality might be measured and reported in a standalone goal.   Regardless of what is finally decided, it is important to ensure that mainstreaming it will not make it disappear from the post-2015 agenda.  Adequate preparatory plans and identification of key indicators for measuring progress as well as financing must be included to track the performance of African countries on women and girl child inclusion policies and programs during the period.  

Putting women and the girl child at the centre of Africa’s development after 2015 is not only an ethical and moral issue; it is also the right choice.  Africa’s development will not be achieved unless women and girls are mainstreamed into all aspects of development. The extent to which African countries promote equality of access to resources between women and men, will determine the extent to which they promote inclusive growth needed to accelerate their pace of development.  Appropriate principles and policies on gender equality and gender equity must be integrated into all development milestones, and African governments should be made aware about the rationale and methods for doing so.   It must not be “business as usual”.  Being that previous efforts to promote gender equality have been more rhetorical than pragmatic, detailed implementation plans for engendering development in Africa must be prepared and disseminated throughout the African continent in the coming years. Strong political will and ownership at international, regional and national levels will be essential to promote the needed social change for women and girl child emancipation and social development. And high level advocacy and partnership building must be part of efforts to ensure that this happens. The long years of denial of the human rights of women and the girl child in Africa remains a “black box” and a developmental quandary. The time for real change is now.   

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