YOUNG married women in Africa “are the most invisible” in cross-country data on women and girls, a conference on gender equality on the continent has heard.
The question how gender equality might be achieved in Africa was the subject of the Big Debate event at City Hall in London, last week. It was organised by the international development charity Send a Cow.
More than 200 people listened to panellists from the UK, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States on the key issues curbing the development of women in Africa, including education, law, and domestic violence.
One of the panellists, Professor Cheryl Doss, a senior lecturer in development economics at the University of Oxford, said that the lack of data in the World Development indicators for women and girls in Africa, especially young married women, was hindering progress.
“We have real holes in our knowledge,” she said. “We need to make sure that these women have property rights, livelihood training, and skills so that if their husband divorces them or dies, they can take care of themselves.”
Joyce Majiwa, a Kenyan lawyer and trustee of Send a Cow Kenya, said that the key to equality was ensuring that women had equal rights in law: without this, women were vulnerable. ‘‘The chances of poverty are very real for women if they are not protected by law in property, particularly in the case of women who are divorced.”
The founder of the Global Women’s Institute, Dr Mary Ellsberg, agreed. Legislation must also address domestic violence, she said. Violence against woman had long-term physical, psychological, and emotional repercussions, and was therefore a key cause of poverty.
But, while legislation and government policy changes were key, the panellists agreed that it was a cultural change, including in the home and within families, that was most crucial to affecting gender equality. Ms Majiwa said: “We have to show men that there is more benefit in sharing power than fighting over power. Not only sharing words, but practically, sharing power and duties.”
She described Send a Cow projects in Kenya in which men and women worked together and benefited from increased income, more food, and clean water. “Men and women alike realised the positive benefits of shared power and responsibility,” she said. Two-thirds of the people supported by the charity are women.
Pindie Nyandoro, the regional chief executive of Standard Bank, which sponsored the event, agreed that African culture needed to be redefined to break down the barriers stopping women and girls reaching their potential. “It is important to unlearn those things drilled into us from childhood: for daughters, it is often to find a husband, but for sons, the world is their oyster.”
Minna Salami, a journalist and the founder of the feminist blog MsAfropolitan, suggested that culture and tradition were most oppressive when used “as a weapon” against women; this included denying women access to funding, land ownership, and technology. None the less, positive changes were taking place, she said, particularly within the African feminist movement.
The debate was chaired by the journalist Rosie Boycott, co-founder of the radical feminist magazine Spare Rib, relaunched as a collective in the 1970s.