By Connor J. Wangler
They make up half of the world’s population and yet, for hundreds of years, have been removed from the economic processes of much of the globe. Women are now, at last, being recognized for their potential in driving economic growth; not just a basic human right, but now seen as a critical component of development. Unfortunately, women still face constraints on their economic participation in many parts of the world, notable Sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these stem from cultural and institutional hurdles that remain the norm in several African countries.
In many cases, women are still treated as the lessers of men, which has had enormous effects on their economic agency. Firstly, this view of women has led to their exclusion in the labor force. Womens’ role in marriage keeps many at home to care for the family where they are unable to access employment or education opportunities. In many cases, when these opportunities are opened up to women, they face sexual harassment and discrimination that greatly limits their ability to achieve their full economic potential. Also, institutional arrangements and government policies often favor men over women, especially when it comes to economic participation. For example, in many countries, women have difficulty in achieving true property ownership because of lack of access to government services or because of discriminatory laws. This prevents them from accessing trade and capital markets. Here is an interview with Anne Kamau, a Fellow at the Brookings Institution, that further explores challenges faced by African women in accessing economic opportunities.
When these obstacles to womens’ participation in developing economies are addressed, society stands to gain greatly. Increasing the amount of properly trained women in the labor force of African countries can potentially lead to a twenty percent increase in worker productivity, according to some studies. Improving property laws can lead to an increase in the amount of female-owned agricultural businesses. For example, in Rwanda, a land-title law reform lead to an increase of nearly twenty percent in female-registered farms. Women also represent an interesting opportunity for developing economies to tap into innovative entrepreneurship. Bethlehem Tilahun, the founder of SoleRobels, built a footwear business focusing on locally made shoes using recycled materials. The business has been hailed as a huge success for African female entrepreneurs, notably for her revamping of customer service operations to incorporate Ethiopia’s culture of hospitality. Ventures such as this show a huge opportunity for African economies to access businesses that are unique to their communities and highlight each countries’ cultural resources.
Clearly, challenges to women’s achievement of total economic potential exist and must be addressed. Without taking on the many hurdles women face, the benefits that global economies could enjoy will be left ignored. It is not simply a human rights issue, ensuring equal treatment of men and women, but it is an opportunity to alleviate poverty and build stronger, robust economies. Women are the future is not just a fancy slogan, it is a fact.