Driving Empowerment By Redefining The Role Of Women In African Societies


A decade ago, women’s economic participation grew in many countries and Africa was making significant strides in closing the gender gap. Since 2016, however, a wave of macro-economic challenges, followed by the Covid-19 pandemic, has caused women’s economic participation to decline more in Africa than in other parts of the world. 



While structural change is important, closing the gender gap will only be possible if the social norms and the narrative around women’s role in society are changed, according to a new report by Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Titled African Women’s Voices: Reframing the Narrative on Women’s Roles in African Societies, the study is based on a survey of 6,000 women and men in urban areas across Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria and South Africa to better understand their views regarding the major roadblocks to women’s economic empowerment and the roles of women in their societies.

Together these countries represent 60% of Africa’s GDP. From 2010 to 2016, Africa was closing the gender gap faster than any other region in the world. In 2016, that rapid pace slowed owing to a commodity crisis, followed by the global downturn and the onset of the pandemic.

“Women’s economic participation, as measured by labour force participation rates and wage levels, began declining in Africa, and the continent’s gender gap soon went from among the fastest improving to one of the slowest worldwide,” says Nomava Zanazo, consultant at BCG, Johannesburg.

As the world returns to normalcy, following the COVID-19 pandemic, the continent needs to intensify its efforts to close the gender gap. “By our calculations, if African women’s economic participation were to resume the pace of 2010 to 2016, the continent could close the gap 60 years faster than it is likely to do now,” says Zanazo.

BCG’s analysis of African women’s educational attainment and economic participation found that countries can be grouped into three archetypes, each with its own distinct profile.

  • Predominantly Southern and Eastern Africa (excluding Ethiopia) 

When it comes to women’s economic empowerment, this segment has made significant progress not only because of consistent efforts to promote girls’ education but also because of various initiatives and programmes that support women workers and entrepreneurs. However, women in this archetype still face significant roadblocks.

Nearly 75% of the women in this segment said they face gender-based violence, and over 30% face violence at home (compared with 25% and 4%, respectively, in North Africa). Over 60% of teenage girls reported facing harassment at school, which is a primary reason for dropping out. To help women keep moving toward economic empowerment, the narrative needs to keep evolving as well. Economically empowered women need to be seen as critical for a better socio-economic life for all, not a threat to it.

  • Predominantly Central and Western Africa

Women in countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia have extremely low levels of education - the lowest in Africa as well as globally. Forty percent of girls drop out after primary school, some 50% leave school before the age of 18 (compared to 30% and 20% in North and Southeastern Africa, respectively), and only 5% manage to reach university.

Girls are more likely to drop out of school because of financial constraints - 70% of women in this segment said that they dropped out to provide additional income for the household. So, although over 80% of women in this segment are employed, their lack of education limits them to very low-paying jobs and provides little in the way of economic empowerment compared to women in other parts of Africa.

To help women become economically empowered, the narrative needs to shift. Instead of being viewed solely as guardians of the household, women need to be seen as independent and economically empowered individuals.

  •   North America

Over the past 20 years, countries like Morocco and Egypt have significantly expanded girls’ access to primary and secondary education. Yet women remain largely outside the workforce and the key obstacle appears to be deeply rooted beliefs about the role of women in society, equally for men and for women.

Approximately half of the survey respondents from Morocco and Egypt – both women and men – said that women should not work if the husband or the father earns enough income to cover household needs, whereas on average only 12% of sub-Saharan women and 15% of men have this view. Nearly 90% of the men we surveyed in this segment said that women should go to school to be educated and respected, not to be financially independent. 

To enable women in this segment to become economically empowered, the narrative needs to expand beyond the emphasis on women as mothers. They need to be valued as educated individuals who contribute economically to the household and the country at large.

Addressing gender-based violence

While the challenges that women face vary in different parts of Africa, violence and insecurity exist everywhere, affecting women of all ages, incomes, and levels of education.

In South Africa, 84% of women surveyed highlighted domestic violence as the number one roadblock they face, followed by safety and security in public spaces (51%), employment and career opportunities (29%), and a lack of independence (27%).

Legislation can help combat violence against women; gender-based laws can mandate police forces to create departments devoted to gender issues and to dedicate resources to education, training and awareness-raising programmes.

Changing perceptions about women’s role in society

Currently, most national investments and international aids for women’s empowerment in Africa target infrastructure needs like health, education and jobs. While these levers are indeed important, voluntary actions addressing social norms and women’s role in society are also vital.

Legislation is a powerful means for addressing social norms. In addition to enforcing different behaviours, it generates debates in communities and raises awareness. For example, laws that establish targets have proven quite effective - Spain’s Equal Representation law made the country the world leader in gender parity for professional and technical workers in 2022, with women constituting 50% of this workforce.

Educational initiatives can help change gender stereotypes if the formal curriculum for boys and girls as well as teachers’ training emphasises gender equality and non-stereotyped gender roles. “This approach can be particularly effective in Africa, given the high proportion of youth and the focus of many governments on education as a national priority,” says Zanazo.

Media, both traditional and especially social, which is now used by more than half the African population, have the potential to impact society’s perceptions and beliefs about women enormously.

Africa’s path to empowerment is a long one and countries need to continue working to expand women’s access to education, job opportunities, healthcare, transport and childcare support. They must also make a concerted effort to address social norms systematically, so that both men and women take part in the journey.





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