My passion for gender equality has always been an essential part of my life and career. Qualifying as a medical doctor and getting involved in politics allowed me to combine my interests in global health, advocacy and development. Strengthened by these experiences, I have dedicated myself to improving the rights of women and girls in Africa.
Across the continent today, women and girls continue to face inequalities, and the pace of progress remains far too slow. It is estimated that in Sub-Saharan Africa, it will take a further 121 years for women to be on equal footing with men. COVID-19 has only exacerbated this pressing issue, with 120 million African school girls out of education because of the pandemic. Not only has this impeded their learning and development, but the pandemic has also led to a sharp rise in domestic abuse, reducing progress towards ending gender-based violence in Africa by one-third. This is unacceptable.
Voice, decision-making and leadership are essential to women’s empowerment and to the realization of our Sustainable Development Goals. We can be proud of the great strides achieved in female representation in Africa over the last 20 years. Currently, the regional average for women in parliament throughout Sub-Saharan Africa is around 24.9%, significant progress from the mere 9% that was recorded at the start of the millennium. The importance of this cannot be overstated. A key factor that restricts the rights of women across Africa is the entrenched nature of gender discrimination in many of our social institutions, but policymakers can change this situation through law. As female policymakers are better positioned to understand the hurdles associated with gender discrimination, they are also better equipped to fight against them.
My home country of Senegal has gained international recognition for its efforts towards gender equality. In 2010 the government adopted the Gender Parity Law, which obliges equal representation of men and women on the electoral ballot. The impacts of this breakthrough law had a sizeable effect; the proportion of seats held by women in national parliament increased from 23% in 2007 to 43% by 2012. Today, it has the seventh-best female parliamentary representation in the world. Senegal’s progress over these two decades illustrates the impact one law can have on female representation in politics – now other countries must follow.
As well as national governments, civil society organizations (CSOs) play a pivotal role in decision-making processes and African politics at large. Collectively, CSOs represent a wide range of interests and individuals, including non-governmental organizations, and most importantly, community-based groups. CSOs ensure that local voices on the ground are heard and factored into policy making decisions. It is therefore integral that young girls and women are involved with local organizations, as CSOs have a meaningful impact on changing the national policies that affect them the most.
That is why the Voix EssentiELLES initiative is so important. Launched on the side-lines of the Generation Equality Forum in June, managed by the advocacy tank Speak Up Africa, and supported and co-funded by Fondation CHANEL and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, this project seeks to enable the significant participation of women and girls’ community-based and grassroots organizations in decision-making platforms.
Voix EssentiELLES strengthens women and girls’ competence and skills, enabling them to influence policies and programs that affect their health, wellbeing and livelihood, such as improvements in reproductive rights, support against gender-based violence and greater access to education.
As we celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child, I call for increased representation in political systems, and for more women to get involved in grassroots politics; allowing them to play a role in the wider decision-making process and creating a brighter future for African girls. It is these women who know the problems African women and girls face across the continent, from menstrual hygiene management to education inequity, and so they are best placed to shape the policies that will enable them to thrive.
Despite the shift marked by the fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing 25 years ago, we’re still moving far too slowly on this crucial issue that is gender equality. We can no longer continue to leave behind half of the world’s population. Together we must work to build inclusivity and equality – the future of girls around the world and the future of all of us depend on it.
Opinon by Professor Ndioro Ndiaye