“Women’s rights are human rights” these words were spoken by Hilary Clinton in her powerful speech in 1995 at a UN meeting in Beijing in which she highlighted the atrocities committed against women and girls. She talked about how the many contributions that women make, often times go un-noticed because of the low value placed on the roles women play. It is now almost 20 years since that speech was made and many activists are asking themselves as well as those around them whether progress has been made.
Many individuals who follow women’s rights activism in Africa, are aware that momentum is growing as the voices of grassroots women continue to rise. Non-governmental organisations have been instrumental in mobilising women and advocating for change. Issues regarding equality among the sexes are now a frequent topic of discussion in a good number of communities in comparison to a decade or two ago. Digital connectivity is enabling women living in far flung areas of the continent to connect with other women in developed countries and become empowered in the process.
These positive developments are juxtaposed by laws and conventions in society that overwhelmingly work against women. A close look at the way societies operate on the continent, clearly shows that the value placed on roles individuals play, is a determining factor as to what rights they have as well as the authority they hold. The status of women in most African societies does not enable them to take part in decision making and this has a ripple effect in other areas such as the ability to access resources that can allow them to become socially mobile.
Inadequate Property Rights
Women for the most part continue to be marginalised because of the gender perceptions and practices that disempower them socially, politically and economically. The property rights of women are violated on a massive scale in many countries. They lose their homes, land and other property because of discriminatory laws and customs. According to a 2003 report by Human Rights Watch, the New York based international organisation, “women’s rights to own, inherit and dispose of property are under constant attack from customs, laws and individuals, including government officials who believe that women cannot be trusted with or do not deserve property”.
Despite this, there have been some positive changes in Rwanda for instance, were modifications were made in 1999 to the Marital and succession law, which gave women more property rights. In 2005, the non-discrimination principal and rejection of customs that exclude women from land ownership was introduced. The positive legal reforms in a country like Rwanda do not come as a surprise. The country is known to be one of the best countries in Africa to offer women the most expansive rights, with more than 30% of women in parliament and also holds the world record with 48.8% of women in the lower house of parliament.
For most part, laws that pertain to the inheritance of property for people who die intestate (without a will) in other countries across the continent, operate in a way that is seemingly unfair particularly to women. In Zambia, the Intestate Succession Act of 1988 which was passed in response to calls for protection of surviving spouses and children from property grabbing has not been effective. Women are still known to be put under pressure with threats of violence if they do not surrender the property they jointly purchased with their husband.
The abuse of property rights has largely contributed to the inequality that women face in many other spheres including the business world. According to the Africa report, women in Africa are constrained by policies and other harsh socioeconomic realities. The lack of access to finance, information and formal networks often pushes women into the informal economy, where their capacity for growth is limited.
With little or no property rights to enable them to secure loans from formal institutions such as banks, many remain trapped in a cycle of poverty. The World Development report of 2011 by the World Bank highlighted the fact that productivity could increase by up to 25% in some countries if discriminatory barriers such as inequitable property and inheritance laws, cultural practices, lack of access to formal institutions and time constraints due to family and household responsibilities are tackled.
Intervention By Policy Makers and Financial Service Providers
There is a role that policy makers, regulators and service providers can play in working towards financial inclusion for women in Africa. A report by the United Nations in 2009 titled “Women’s Control Over Economic Resources and Access To Financial Resources, Including Microfinance”, highlighted the need for improvement in macroeconomic policies when it was stated in the report that “macroeconomic policies impact on gender equality through markets and state interventions which distribute key economic and financial resources. Gender equality perspectives have, however been largely ignored in formulation of macroeconomic policies”.
Despite this damning report on the inadequacies of macroeconomic policies, there has over the past few years, been some progress with more service providers such as micro-finance institutions, launching programmes aimed at bridging the gap between the formal and informal sector in financial literacy. Gaining knowledge about services that may be available to them through micro-finance, has allowed a good number of women to work towards economic independence and an improved standard of living. Micro-finance is however, not a “panacea to eradicating poverty” but it has certainly proved to be a useful tool.
More deliberate interventions are needed by policies and law makers to creative an environment that will encourage economic empowerment of women and promote sustainable economic growth in Africa.