Joaquim Chissano870x370

One headline after another has hailed Africa’s dramatic economic growth at a time when the global economic picture has darkened. Sub-Saharan African economies have outperformed many in the world for the past decade, and average growth is expected to rise to 6% in 2014.

Africa’s situation is, of course, far more complicated than enthusiastic press coverage might suggest, and no single narrative can encapsulate the enormous challenges and disparities we face.

The key question is whether or not Africa’s economic growth can be sustained when so much of it is based on extractive resources? And also whether it can make a significant dent in the inequality that still leaves so many people in Africa far behind?  The answer is a qualified ‘yes’; we can have inclusive and sustainable growth – but only if we build the African economy on a solid foundation, and that foundation requires the unleashing of the tamped down energy, resourcefulness and power of Africa’s women and girls.

Women and girls are Africa’s greatest untapped resource, and it is they, not diamonds or oil and minerals, that will be the foundation for solid, sustainable and equitable progress. Health and development experts, economists, non-governmental organisations, UN agencies and even banks agree that expanding the freedoms, the education and opportunities for women holds the key to kick-starting inclusive economic growth. This is true the world over, and particularly true for Africa.

Let’s start with agriculture. Food security and self-sufficiency is essential for the still largely rural African continent, where women are half the agricultural workforce. They are intimately involved in all aspects of food and nutrition: growing, selling, buying and preparing food for their families. They manage this, along with their unpaid work of raising children and caring for their families, in spite of discriminatory laws and practices that restrict their access to land, property, inheritance, credit, technology and decision-making. And also despite disparities in girls’ education and in defiance of gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health challenges that affect them so disproportionately.

Gender equality is a key determinant of food security. Studies across many countries suggest that increasing women’s access to productive resources to equal that of men would increase farm yields by 20-30%. Extra yields of this magnitude will be needed to offset expected losses from drought and other consequences of climate change. With education, capital, and access to markets and technologies, women could turn commodity surpluses into profits by processing, packaging and marketing products, especially for Africa’s growing middle class.

“Africa is urbanising rapidly, and as it does so, greater participation by women in male-dominated occupations or sectors could increase worker productivity by up to 25%, according to some studies”

Africa is urbanising rapidly, and as it does so, greater participation by women in male-dominated occupations or sectors could increase worker productivity by up to 25%, according to some studies. Greater participation by women in politics can also lead to improved governance and services. That’s what has been happening in India, and promising reports about women’s increased leadership and political engagement in such countries as Liberia, Malawi, Rwanda and Senegal, suggest we could expect the same across Africa.

So where do we start the process of empowering women and girls? It always pays to start with the basics. For women generally, this means advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights, an area where Africa has some of the worst indicators. Sexual and reproductive rights simply means granting everyone the freedom and the means to make informed decisions about such basic aspects of life as one’s own sexuality, health, and if, when and with whom to have relationships, marry or have children, and to be able to do so without any form of discrimination, coercion or violence. This implies convenient, affordable access to quality information and services and to comprehensive sexuality education.

Sexual and reproductive health problems exact a huge yet largely avoidable toll on African girls and women, along with the families they care for, the communities they serve, and the wider economies they contribute to. These costs usually hit women and girls when they are in the prime of their lives and their productivity, with consequences that affect them thereafter. Pregnancy and childbirth kill more than 400 African women every day, with each death leaving a wound in a family that never really heals. Surviving children languish and economic hardship often ensues.

Many of these deaths are due to unsafe abortions, numbering some 5m a year in sub-Saharan Africa. Families are then forced to spend $200m a year treating complications from unsafe abortions, which generates losses to societies as a whole in the order of nearly $1bn in foregone income from death and disability. This is another travesty, because when performed by qualified practitioners, abortion is one of the safest medical procedures. As virtually all deaths from unsafe abortions take place in countries that have restrictive laws, African leaders need to consider reforming these laws as a matter of common sense and social justice.

We Africans also need to pay more attention to the situation of adolescent girls. More than a third of girls in Africa are married before reaching the age of 18 – often at the expense of their education, health and social aspirations. Adolescent girls are far more likely to die from childbirth-related complications than older women, and face greater risks of abuse and of contracting HIV. Africa’s political leaders need to find ways to enforce laws that are already on the books in most countries against the early and forced marriages that violate the human rights of girls.

Africa remains the region in the world most affected by HIV and AIDS, which afflict our women and girls so disproportionately. The sobering fact is that 90% of all pregnant women and children living with HIV in the world are in Africa. In spite of notable reductions in HIV transmission, adolescent girls are more than twice as likely to carry the virus as are boys in the same age group. Yet barely a third of young Africans know how to prevent HIV effectively – another reason to embrace comprehensive sexuality education.

Africa’s other epidemic is the scourge of violence against women and girls, all too often perpetrated with impunity. Beyond the horrific use of sexual violence as a tactic of war, violence against women is so routine that 37% of African women have been abused by an intimate partner. It is even culturally sanctioned in the case of female genital mutilation and child marriage. Gender violence is a deeply entrenched problem, and we need to, at a very minimum, provide supportive services to all survivors of gender-based violence. We Africans also need to revise the laws, judicial systems and attitudes that exonerate the perpetrators.

Imagine what these millions of African women and girls  could accomplish if their full capacity were unleashed, if  barriers to education, health, rights, decision-making and full participation were removed. Women are at the very centre of sustainable development. When empowered, they can produce a cascade of positive changes, with benefits that go beyond simple economic growth. Studies show that women invest their earnings in the well-being of their children to a far greater extent than do men. Their empowerment therefore tends to have an inter-generational impact on health and education that benefits societies for generations to come, while bolstering the much-needed human capital that countries need to overcome poverty and social exclusion.

As women’s educational attainment and prospects improve in Africa – and as they control decisions about their lives and gain access to health services like contraception and HIV prevention – they will tend to have smaller, better educated and healthier families. This is especially crucial for those of Africa’s poorest and least developed countries unable to invest enough to meet the needs of populations likely to double by 2050. These are, of course, the countries being left behind in Africa’s economic boom.

Contraception was once a contentious issue, but today nearly every African leader I know is committed to it as one of the most important and cost-effective investments possible. Meeting the demand for family planning in 16 countries of sub-Saharan Africa could save the education sector over $1bn, while reducing maternal deaths by a third. It could save developing countries as a whole some $5.7bn in maternal and new-born healthcare costs.

Such substantial savings can be channelled into the range of pressing development priorities that desperately need outside financing. Regrettably, though, the percentage of global development assistance going toward reproductive healthcare and family planning fell by half between 2000 and 2010, in spite of support given by many European donors and development partners.

These are extremely relevant issues right now. The international community is in the process of deciding on development priorities for years to come as they craft the new framework to replace the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. Ensuring that sexual and reproductive rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment are explicitly given priority in this new agenda is a human rights imperative. It is the right thing to do, and would be one of the smartest investments possible for Africa’s future.

Photo credit: USAID Africa Bureau