opinionBy Michelle Bachelet
In the last decade, Africa is the second-fastest growing region in the world. There is great reason to be excited about Africa's economic future. Strong economies rely on stable, well-paying jobs and rising living standards that make recovery fuller and faster.
As Africa emerges from the global financial crisis, it faces a new challenge for the years ahead: how do we make growth more inclusive to benefit all members of society?
Sustainable growth, more jobs, higher wages, and better futures are all possible for more Africans.
But it is only possible with the full and equal participation of Africa's men and women.
The new African labour force is young and growing.
In the next 10 years, Africa's labour force is expected to expand by 122 million.
If in that 122 million, both men and women can participate as equals in the economy, Africa will enjoy more talent, creativity and growth than ever before.
By unleashing the full economic potential of women, Africa can boost productivity and growth, create more jobs and opportunities and improve the lives of all Africans.
The goal of reaching the world's top 20 economies by 2020 is achievable if Africa takes advantage of both halves of society.
We are all aware of the role that women play as innovators and entrepreneurs in Africa, especially as heads of small and medium-sized businesses.
We know that women own one quarter of such businesses in sub-Saharan Africa.
We know that women shoulder the burden of caring for children and running the household.
We know that more women than men are working in jobs that pay little and offer no security.
And we know that women form the majority of people living in poverty.
Overall, women face barriers to participating fully in the economy: many women lack the right to own or inherit land, their access to bank loans is limited, and discrimination prevents women from gaining equal footing with men in the workforce.
This isn't just holding back women. It is holding back their families, their communities, and their countries.
Studies show that closing the gap between male and female employment rates can boost GDP.
And not surprisingly, countries--and companies -- with greater gender equality register the highest performance and growth.
Women reinvest up to 90 percent of their income into their children and families. This multiplier effect results in better health, better education, and improved well-being for families and future generations.
Leaders in the private sector can make a real difference. You can help to remove the barriers to women's participation.
You can lead by example and promote women based on merit to management positions.
You can ensure equal pay and benefits to all women and men employees, including more flexible work options.
You can invest in training and capacity-building for women employees to advance within the company. And you can create a safe environment and a zero-tolerance policy towards all forms of violence in the workplace.
These are the some of the key goals of the Women's Empowerment Principles, practical steps based on input from businesses around the world and spearheaded by UN Women the UN Global Compact. So far some companies in Africa have signed on.
Women leaders such as Ms. Oputu, as the first woman Managing Director of the Bank of Industry, set the example, and are role models for young women in Africa to aim high for their futures.
The voices of women leaders carry influence to call for industry-wide standards for gender equality.
UN Women believes strongly in a comprehensive approach to women's economic empowerment that engages many sectors.
We can make a far greater impact when we work together for a common cause.
There is a new image of the young woman in the 21st century: She is well-educated, prepared to take on a steady job with fair pay.
She is free to make important decisions, like when and whom she marries, and when and how many children she has. And she's active in her community and in public life.
This is the image of half the young labour force to promote in Africa, and in all of Africa: women and girls who are counting on a future of economic opportunity, ready to keep Africa growing and moving forward.
We look forward to a future in Africa with strong, stable and inclusive economic growth to lift up all its people and rise to the top of the world's economies. The top 20 by 2020 is within reach: with 50:50 rights, opportunities, and participation for men and women in Africa.
The Writer is First Executive Director at the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.