Why empowering West African women is not just right, but makes economic sense

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by Emanuele Santi 

On Sunday, March 8, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. As a lead up to the event, the African Development Bank dedicated an entire week to raising awareness on gender issues.  

At many such events, the gender issue is often displayed with its full breath of physiological, societal and human right dimensions. Yet only a few voices are emerging on the economic cost of gender discrimination. Nevertheless there is mounting evidence that empowering women is not only right, but it makes economic sense both globally and in our region in particular. A recently released report by IMF sheds light on the massive economic loss gender inequality represents.

This is particularly true for West Africa and the data is quite unequivocal. A cross-country study on the aggregate costs of gender gaps revealed that in Niger, for instance, the gender gap cost the economy over 23% of its GDP. Economic cost of gender inequality is estimated to be 13% of Burkina GDP, whereas Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Senegal lose nearly 10% of their income due to an uneven playing field between men and women.

Across the world and in West Africa in particular, women’s lack of access to land, finance and inputs is a major limiting factor for enhanced livelihoods, despite considerable empirical evidence that women manage resources effectively. Data shows that closing the gender gap can lead to 20-30% increase in yields of women’s farms, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). FAO also points out that an increase in women’s income leads to 10 times better nutrition for a family compared to a similar increase in a man’s income. Women simply invest a higher share of their income on their families’ well-being than men do.

Nevertheless, legal restrictions hinder female labour force participation, but also prevent women from taking a more prominent role as entrepreneurs, as shown by a recent report by IFC, which monitors legal impediments and progress along a wide array of dimensions, ranging from discrimination in the workplace to access to land and credit. 

Unlocking such restrictions has high potential to spur growth and increase income not only of women, but of the West African population at large.

The IMF report mentioned earlier also speaks about signaling effects, whereby women in leadership positions serve as role models for other women, leading to an increase in female labour force participation. Again, there is no other region where this is so visible. The election of Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, the first female head of state in Africa, sent shockwaves across Africa and her presidency not only led to numerous women in leadership positions in the Liberian Government, but also acted as powerful demonstration to young women that they can achieve anything. Furthermore it increased momentum on factors underlying gender inequality such as improved education and combatting gender-based violence. She pushed for legislation on rape and for the establishment of a special court to try cases of sexual violence. In Côte d’Ivoire an innovative 2013 family law recognized for the first time the status of women as possible heads of households. In Guinea-Bissau, while a law against domestic violence and female genital mutilation (FGM) was passed in 2011, cases were brought to court only starting in 2014. However, much remain to be done as an estimated 50% of women aged 15-49 still undergo these practices. Despite some advances, gender-based violence is still prevalent in the region, as shown by a recent report by the International Rescue Committee on domestic violence in West Africa. In addition, as noted in a forthcoming AfDB/UN Women gender study on Guinea-Bissau, crisis and instability disproportionately affect woman and girls.

Much remains to be done also in service delivery, particularly in terms of health. As our latest West Africa Monitor points out, the region lags behind all other regions of Africa in terms of women’s health. Gender-disaggregated indicators show that the status of women has improved only marginally. The region still sees early marriages, teenage pregnancies, a low level of education among women and girls, high fertility and weak health services. On account of these factors, the vast majority of women do not have access to professional medical care during pregnancy and delivery. The region also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world as shown in the chart below.

Aside from the sad human toll, the economic cost of the loss of so many income earners and caregivers is significant.

In various blog posts, we have talked about the great economic potential of the West Africa, arguably one of the fastest-growing regions in the world, but, as an economist, I can hardly think of a better recipe to accelerate growth and make it more inclusive than by enabling women to take a more prominent role in their countries’ economic development. 


Luutu Moses - Uganda 03/04/2015 03:25
Agreed.We need a greater number of women in top leadership positions.Sirleaf has done well and it is a disgrace that Ms Grace Banda of Malawi had such a short tenure as president. It is the women who best appreciate"their " plight. Please let us let our mothers take the lead.


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