Women are Africa’s economic engine

2011-07-02 14:25

Hillary Clinton’s speech was met with silence from the male-dominated envoys at the African Union as she criticised the continent’s aging autocrats. The mood changed when the US secretary of state turned her attention to women.

“The women of Africa are the hardest working women in the world,” said Clinton, addressing the 53-nation body in Addis Ababa in June.

Interrupted by loud cheers from the visitors’ area in the upper gallery in the back of the hall, she exclaimed: “If all the women in Africa, from Cairo to Cape Town, decided they would stop working for a week, the economies of Africa would collapse.”

If African women were given as equal access as men to vocational training and technology, the continent’s economy would expand by at least 40%, according Calestous Juma, a professor of international development at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The disparities are most evident in agriculture, which accounts for 70% of employment and 30% of the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa.

About 100 million women in Africa use only rudimentary farm tools. That limits them to cultivating at most a hectare of land, which they spend almost 2 000 hours a year weeding.

“Weeding is literally breaking the backs of African women,” said Juma author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa.

After all that, as much as 45% of what they produce is wasted because they cannot store their crops or access markets, Juma said.

For Clinton, the plight of women has helped drive an aggressive travel schedule that her office says has clocked up more miles than any of her predecessors.

She’s gone about 900 000km, visiting 85 countries in 232 days on the road since taking office in January 2009.

In Zambia, which hadn’t hosted a secretary of state since Henry Kissinger in 1976, Clinton was met by a singing and dancing chorus of local businesswomen who had taken part in a US-funded programme to train female entrepreneurs on how to tap financing and export their goods.

“Have you been to a market? Have you looked at fields being tilled? Have you watched children being raised?” Clinton asked her hosts at a meeting in Lusaka, Zambia to discuss a US trade agreement with 37 African countries.

“Women are holding up half the economy already.”

Women make up almost 50% of the agricultural labour force in sub-Saharan Africa, though they still tend to be segregated into lower-paid jobs and have less access to land than men, according to a report published in March by the Rome-based Food and Agricultural Organisation.

For developing countries where the organisation was able to obtain data, in some places as little as 3% of landholders are women.

“In too many places, it is still too difficult for a woman to start a business,” Clinton said.

“Cultural traditions may discourage her from handling money or managing employees. Complex regulations may make it hard for her to buy land or keep land or get a loan.”

– Bloomberg 

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