Executive summary

Women’s empowerment and gender equality is not a recent development priority for the African continent. National governments have signed and ratified international, regional and sub-regional agreements and instruments that aim to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. All African countries have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and 42 African countries have ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the “Maputo Protocol”). Furthermore, many countries have enacted legislative reforms in support of women’s empowerment by addressing gender-based violence against women, supporting women’s land rights and access to finances, as well as promoting women’s political representation. Nevertheless, progress in achieving gender equality has been uneven and slow across African countries.

African women currently face the highest level of discrimination in laws, social norms and practices compared to women in other regions of the world. Whereas wide variation exists across African countries, the region displays high levels of discrimination in terms of intra-household dynamics and caregiving roles, and the working environment, as well as pervasive and harmful practices including domestic violence and female genital mutilation. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost of discriminatory social institutions accounted for 7.5% of Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP). The COVID-19 crisis has considerably exacerbated the cost of discriminatory social institutions across African countries. The Africa region, which is easily affected by external shocks, experienced its first recession in 25 years. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has widened pre-existing gender gaps and reinforced gender inequalities. In this context, the SIGI 2021 Regional Report for Africa explores how discriminatory social institutions hinder women’s empowerment and gender equality across three crucial dimensions: physical integrity, economic situation, and political voice, leadership and agency.

Since 2000, women’s representation in politics has increased both globally and in Africa specifically. Temporary special measures such as quotas have played a pivotal role in promoting women’s representation on the continent. In African countries with quotas of any kind, women’s representation in parliaments is 10 percentage points higher than in those that have no quotas at all. However, progress towards gender equal representation has slowed due to the challenges presented by discriminatory norms and practices. In Africa, 28% of the population believe that men make better political leaders and should be elected rather than women. Furthermore, gender-based violence in the political sphere is a persistent practice that hinders women’s full public and political engagement. Political violence and the fear of such acts intimidates women and girls from pursuing leadership roles and exercising their voices in the public domain.

At the regional level, rates and acceptance of domestic violence have decreased slightly in the last ten years. Since the second edition of the SIGI in 2012, the percentage of ever-partnered African women who suffered violence from an intimate partner at least once in their lifetime has decreased from 41% in 2012 to 33% in 2018. Thanks to increased efforts to raise awareness of domestic violence and to encourage people to take action to promote social change, social norms are shifting and attitudes that tolerate or justify this practice are waning. For instance, between 2012 and 2018, the share of African women who considered domestic violence to be sometimes justified dropped by approximately 10 percentage points. These results vary across countries indicating the need to expand such efforts, both in scope and scale. At its root, gender-based violence stems from norms of restrictive masculinities that perpetuate male dominance in the private sphere and the acceptance and entitlement to perpetrate physical, sexual, psychological and economic violence. Discriminatory social norms also contribute to condoning or tolerating harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). For instance, in 2018, on average, 16% of African women aged 15-49 years considered that FGM should continue.

In 2020, the labour force participation rate was 20 percentage points lower for women than for men across African countries. Discriminatory social norms that confine women to reproductive and care roles are among the leading causes of this difference. In 2018, women spent, on average, four times more than men on unpaid care and domestic work, including raising children, caring for sick or elderly family members, and managing household tasks. In addition, biased perceptions of women’s abilities and discriminatory educational norms tend to prevent women from accessing decent work and confine them to specific sectors of the economy. At the same time, biases related to boys’ and girls’ abilities shape educational choices when accessing secondary and tertiary education – in particular regarding science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields – and thus accentuate gender-based segregation in the labour force. For instance, men account for more than 80% of workers in sectors such as construction, mining and quarrying or transport, storage and communication. Moreover, men’s traditional status and roles, household decision-making practices, and discriminatory inheritance laws and practices limit women’s ownership of agricultural land and constrain their economic independence. In some African countries, according to the law the husband is deemed the head of the family and the manager, administrator and owner of any assets and properties, including agricultural plots and land. Furthermore, discriminatory social norms and biases related to women’s access to markets, finance, training and networks also hamper women’s entrepreneurship in Africa. Strong social norms that view men as better business managers than women – and their internalisation by women themselves – also constrain women’s entrepreneurship.

Addressing discriminatory social institutions in a holistic manner is paramount to reinforcing and achieving the ambitious 2030 Agenda and Agenda 2063 in African countries over the next nine years. The following section outlines the main policy recommendations and develops them across five potential pathways to fully integrate gender equality into the region’s broader development strategies. African governments should take into consideration the following five paths:


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