Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Overall status of women in Africa

Overall status of women in Africa

African women have always been active in agriculture, trade, and other economic pursuits, but a majority of them are in the informal labour force. In 1985, women's shares in African labour forces ranged from 17 per cent, in Mali, to 49 per cent in Mozambique and Tanzania (World Bank, 1989). African women are guardians of their children's welfare and have explicit responsibility to provide for them materially. They are the household managers, providing food, nutrition, water, health, education, and family planning to an extent greater than elsewhere in the developing world. This places heavy burdens on them, despite developments such as improved agriculture technology, availability of contraception, and changes in women's socioeconomic status, which one might think would have made their lives easier. In fact, it would be fair to say that their workload has increased with the changing economic and social situation in Africa. Women's economic capabilities, and in particular their ability to manage family welfare, are being threatened. 'Modernization' has shifted the balance of advantage against women. The legal framework and the modern social sector and producer services developed by the independent African countries have not served women well.

Most African women, in common with women all over the world, face a variety of legal, economic and social constraints. Indeed some laws still treat them as minors. In Zaire, for instance, a woman must have her husband's consent to open a bank account. Women are known to grow 80 per cent of food produced in Africa, and yet few are allowed to own the land they work. It is often more difficult for women to gain access to information and technology, resources and credit. Agricultural extension and formal financial institutions are biased towards a male clientele' despite women's importance as producers (this has spurred the growth of women's groups and cooperatives which give loans and other help). Women end up working twice as long as men, 15 to 18 hours a day, but often earn only one tenth as much. With such workloads, women often age prematurely. Harrison correctly observes that: 'Women's burdens - heavy throughout the third world - are enough to break a camel's back in much of Africa' (Harrison 1983).

Female education affects family health and nutrition, agricultural productivity, and fertility, yet there is a wide gender gap in education. Lack of resources and pressures on time and energies put enormous constraints on the ability of women to maintain their own health and nutrition as well as that of their children. As a result, women are less well equipped than men to take advantage of the better income-earning opportunities that have emerged in Africa. Although food and nutrition are women's prime concerns in Africa, and they are the principal participants in agriculture, independent farming by women has been relatively neglected. Women's family labour contribution has increased, but goes unpaid.

In industry and trade, women have been confined to small-scale operations in the informal sector; however vibrant these operations are and despite the trading empires built up by the most successful female entrepreneurs, women's average incomes are relatively low. Women are also handicapped in access to formal sector jobs by their lower educational attainments, and those who succeed are placed in lower grade, lower paid jobs. Elite women who wish to improve their legal and economic status must expect to lose honour and respect (Obbe, 1980). There is often sexism in job promotions and unpleasant consequences if women stand up to men. There is often more respect for male professionals (even from women themselves) than there is for female. Women often suffer employment discrimination because they need to take time off for maternity leave or when a child is sick. Career women often have to work harder at their jobs to keep even with their male counterparts. Despite all these obstacles, women continue to move into different professions, including those traditionally seen as male jobs, such as engineering and architecture. Women can be found at senior levels in many organizations in many countries. They are also taking up various different professions, such as law, medicine, politics, etc. These women may be in the minority now, but things are changing all over Africa.

Social attitudes to women are responsible for the gender differences in both the education system and the labour force, as we will see below. Differential access to educational and training opportunities has led to low proportions of women in the formal sector and their subsequent concentration in low paid production jobs with limited career prospects. So, although women play an important role in African society, they suffer legal, economic and social constraints.

African women and education

Women's participation in national educational systems is again biased due to the sociocultural and economic environments. There is also a lack of genuine political will to ensure that girls are given equal access to education in Africa. More than two-thirds of Africa's illiterates are women. Women are regarded as inferior to men and are not expected to aspire as high as men, especially in what are considered as 'male' fields (engineering, computing, architecture, medicine, etc.). It is largely assumed that educating women would make them too independent; in other words, they would not do what they are expected to do - look after the house, bring up children, and cater to their husband's needs.

In poor countries, extending access to education and training is often difficult when the cultural and monetary costs are high or the benefits are limited. When families face economic problems they prefer to invest their limited resources in the education of boys rather than provide what is considered as 'prestigious' education for girls who would eventually marry and abandon their professions anyway. Nevertheless, girls are increasingly getting some limited education, and the focus of concern is gradually shifting to providing access to the same range of educational opportunities open to boys. In poor families, boys are often given first claim on whatever limited educational opportunities are available, although the global policy climate today is more supportive of measures designed to expand the educational horizons of girls than it was twenty years ago.

Even when parents can be persuaded of the value of sending their girls to school, there remains the problem of helping the girls to complete their studies. Drop out rates in the primary grades are higher for girls than for boys in many African countries. In Tanzania, for instance, half of the school dropouts each year are girls of 12 to 14 years who have to leave school because of pregnancies. Such early pregnancies are often blamed on the absence of family life education and the imitation of foreign life styles.

Very few schools allow pregnant girls or young mothers to complete their education. The other half of the Tanzanian pupils who drop out do so for a variety of reasons, including poverty, traditional norms, increases in school fees and deterioration in the quality of learning. Child marriages are also very common in Africa: although the law in many countries does not allow girls under 16 to be married, parents marry their daughters at an early age so they have one less mouth to feed.

Differences in national and regional educational patterns are in part due to differences in population pressures and resource availability, but they have also reflected differing policy priorities. But there have been signs, in recent years, of a growing international consensus on the importance of investing in education for the quality of life in society and for national development generally (UNESCO, 1991). Table 12.1 shows that, in Africa, as in South Asia and the Arab states, the general literacy rate for women is much lower than for men, and that the gap is not expected to narrow rapidly. The differences between these three regions and the rest of the world may be due to differences in enrolment levels, government expenditure on education or the general sociocultural and economic environment.

The enrolment ratios for both men and women also show some differences (see Table 12.2). Although the number of females who have been continuing on to the secondary level in Africa has increased, and the gap between male and female enrolments is narrowing, the increase in the number of women continuing to tertiary education has been minimal. The figures for Africa are the lowest in the world. As mentioned earlier, in most developing countries, the opportunities for girls to advance beyond the first level of formal education are still significantly less than for boys.

Overall status of women in Africa

Public expenditure on education in Africa is, in dollar terms, the lowest in the world; not surprising considering Africa's economic situation. However, if we consider expenditure as a percentage of GNP, there is not that much difference between all of the developing nations. Women's enrolment rates are lower in Africa, but the female literacy rate is similar to that for women in the Arab states and South Asia. Such discrepancies might be due to differences in government policies or in the sociocultural environment in these countries.

No statistics are available for the number of women who attend computer science courses in Africa, but it is known that few women in tertiary education are in technical courses. Table 12.4 presents figures from a project carried out by the ILO in association with the Commonwealth Association of Polytechnics in Africa, and summarized by Leigh-Doyle (1991). These figures show the poor enrolment ratios for women in technical programmes.4 There are marked differences between countries, in both women's polytechnic attendance and in their enrolment in technical programmes in particular. The share of women in all polytechnic courses ranges from 40 per cent in the Gambia to just 2 per cent in Zambia. One striking observation is that 30 per cent of all those attending polytechnics in Ghana are women, yet only I per cent of those attending technical programmes are women!

Overall, the figures for women attending technical programmes are low in most of these countries. When the author was teaching computer science to final year degree students at the University of Zimbabwe four years ago, there were only four female students out of a class of 30. The figures for female enrolment ratios in many of the other universities and polytechnics offering computer science or related courses in the East and Southern African states the author has visited were not very much different - around 10 per cent. The female enrolment ratios in some of the private sector training programmes were much higher, nearly 40 per cent, although many of these women were from the ethnic minorities. Although no figures are available, a number of women are also trained privately by their employers in various areas of IT and a few privileged women also obtain their 'computing' qualifications abroad, mainly in the USA or the UK. These numbers are small although they may not be insignificant.

Overall status of women in Africa

If the figures are to be believed, the 10 per cent female enrolment in African institutions is not that much different to some developed countries such as the UK. The Women in Information Technology (WIT) Foundation of UK found that female enrolments in university computer science courses had dropped from 25 per cent in the 1970s to 10 per cent in 1991 (Classe, 1992). This is very low compared to 45 per cent in the USA and 56 per cent in Singapore, and the figure is difficult to believe from my experience of such courses at universities and polytechnics in UK. The reasons for such a drop, if there is one to begin with, are not clearly stated.

It has often been said that, if there were more female teachers and lecturers who could act as a role model to girls, there would possibly be an increase in the number of girls attending such establishments, especially from the Muslim community. However, we can see from Table 12.5 that there are very few female staff in many of the African polytechnics. The number of women teaching technical programmes varies from country to country. In Nigeria and Tanzania, a large proportion of the female lecturers are teaching technical programmes whilst in Malawi the figure is much lower.

Statistics show that the overall share of females in vocational and technical education in thirty-nine sub-Saharan countries increased by only one percentage point in the period 1970 to 1983, from 27 to 28 per cent of all participants (World Bank, 1988). Few employees in the modern economic sectors in Africa are women, and their participation is linked to their level of education. In industry, women generally hold low skill, low paid jobs with limited opportunities for promotion. Very few women are managers, and although more women are now in senior scientific and professional positions, they still represent a very small proportion of those employed in this category. Science and technology has generally been dominated by men, and women everywhere have found it difficult to make it to the top. The differences in the numbers of women working in technical fields can be ascribed to a variety of causes, rooted in the culture and history of each country.

A number of studies have been done on women's under-representation in the scientific and technical fields worldwide, by ATRCW (1986), Harding (1987), Lockheed and Gorman (1987), Byrne (1988), Anker and Hein (1985), Leigh-Doyle (1991), etc. Some of the factors which they state influence women's participation (not in order of importance) are: prejudices about women's abilities and attitudes; their roles; their behaviour and aspirations; culture, politics and society; absence of role models; macho image of science; parental expectations, beliefs, attitude and home environment; teacher attitudes and behaviour; curriculum; career guidance; employer attitudes; lack of education and training facilities; lack of quotas; lack of exposure to technically oriented subjects; group pressures at home and at school; classroom interactions between girls and boys; lack of school books and resource materials; and lack of confidence to try new things. This list is long, and further research would be required to find out exactly which factors influence women's participation in technical fields in Africa.

Overall status of women in Africa

The under-representation of women in technical education, training and employment is not unique to Africa. The situation in Africa must be seen in the context of the serious economic and developmental problems facing many African countries (Leigh-Doyle, 1991). This, together with the societal attitude to women in general, is responsible for the gender differences both in education establishments and in the workforce. Differential access to educational and training opportunities have led to low proportions of women in the formal sector and their concentration in low paid production jobs with limited career prospects.

However, as elsewhere in the developing world, things are slowly changing for women in Africa. More women are joining the formal sector of the economy (especially the public sector), more girls are continuing to higher education and joining technical courses, more women can be found in the management hierarchy, more women are moving into professions so far dominated by men, and more women are becoming self employed. In the years to come, we will see many changes, although the poor economic situation in Africa will not provide many job opportunities. There will be more competition for jobs and women may lose out, especially where there are domestic and family demands placed on them.

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