21 May 2014

Rwanda: Women's Role in the Next 50 Years - the Africa We Want

THIS WEEK thousands of decision makers have gathered in Kigali to join the African Development Bank in discussing the future we want for Africa.

In this process it is important to acknowledge the contribution of women to Africa's development and to highlight their importance in building an even stronger and more successful continent in the future.

The significance of Rwanda hosting the meetings should not go unnoticed. Rwanda as a country has come far in its work towards gender equality and the empowerment of women.

The country is internationally known for having the world's highest percentage of female parliamentarians, occupying 64% of the seats in the Lower Chamber, but also for its progressive policies in advocating for women across all social and economic sectors.

We should all take inspiration from this when we look towards the future and how to ensure that the future will be inclusive for all.

The African continent continues to be one of the fastest growing developing regions in the world and hosting six of the world's fastest growing economies, we see great prospects in agriculture, the extractive industry and a growing service industry.

The critical question is whether this growth trend, currently over 5% per annum, compared to the global average of 3% (IMF 2013), will be sustained if the potential of more than half of the population, that is, women and youth is not fully harnessed.

While this impressive growth and improving business environment on the continent is attracting a lot of foreign direct investment, it is not translating into poverty reduction and increased well-being across the continent. Africa therefore still holds 30% of the world's poor the majority of whom are women (World Bank 2013).

While much progress has been made to enhance gender equality and the empowerment of women, we must admit that unless radical efforts are made, women will remain behind in this growing and prospering continent which will, in turn, affect the ability of the continent to achieve its full potential.

Poverty on the continent is feminized. Although there is a reduction in maternal mortality, it is still unacceptably high at 640 deaths per 100,000 live births (WHO 2012).

The proportion of women infected with HIV remains higher than that of men and the negative impact on their health, economic and leadership opportunities is higher due to their roles as carers.

Violence against women, which affects one in four women in some countries, is still accepted as the norm in many African societies, despite presence of strong laws. Conflicts are displacing women and children and making them vulnerable to abuse as they seek safety. Access to justice in these circumstances is minimal.

A recent joint study of the UN Economic Commission for Africa and UN Women has found that violence against women, particularly intimate partner violence, is costing our governments 1-3% of GDP.

As we all work towards our African Union Vision 2063, of an integrated, peaceful and prosperous continent, driven by its citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena, we have critical questions that need true answers: "how can women be part of the citizenry that is driving the continent, when they are the least employed, least empowered, least healthy and least food secure?" And on the other hand, how can Africa fulfil its potential and become a dynamic and credible force in the global arena when more than half of its population is disempowered?

African women have, over the past year, defined the Africa they want. I add my voice to theirs:

- Women of Africa want to live in a peaceful continent in which there are no widows as a result of senseless killings and war, a continent in which they are not sexually abused and violated and in which suffering is not caused by the self-interest of a few corrupt and power hungry leaders. Instead, they want to be a force that creates cohesive and peaceful societies; that builds generations of prosperity and welfare for.

- We want an Africa which is a common and equitable market place, where laws of the market are not manipulated but shaped to permit entry and benefit for all. A continent where women are empowered to transform their subsistence farms to businesses that supply food, income and enable them to create wealth, assets and move into business leadership.

- African women want to be recognized, not as vulnerable members of society in need of charity but as a formidable force that needs to be released, empowered and massively invested in to fulfil their potential, drive growth, development and food security to phenomenal levels and ultimately reach their destiny. Women want to be an equal part of the force that makes decisions in social, political, economic and cultural affairs.

- The young women of Africa want to be considered not just as leaders of tomorrow but leaders today, with the ability to champion innovations in technology, agriculture, industry and societal welfare.

- We want Africa where Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment is recognized as an important agenda for all, not just for women. Remember, when women are empowered, their husbands, sons and daughters and even their communities are empowered.

- We want men to commit to and join us in finding solutions that will make the 21st Century a century in which gender-based discrimination is truly eliminated.

UN Women works hard to turn these hopes into reality. The participation in this week's meetings is further cementing the fruitful collaboration between UN Women and the African Development Bank in enhancing gender equality and the empowerment of women in key sectors of the economy and society. I believe that it is time for us to cease taking Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment as a side issue that must be integrated or mainstreamed, but as central to the ability of our countries and continent to prosper.

Every woman and girl must be given the opportunity to fulfill their destiny and build their families, communities, countries and continent. It is my hope that we do not need to wait until 2063 to celebrate a truly transformed Africa.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is UN Women Executive Director

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