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On March 15th, the Africa Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) hosted a presentation “Educational and Health Issues Affecting Today’s African Women and Girls.” Moderated by Africa Program chair and retired ambassador Charles A. Ray, it featured two panelists: former Ambassador to Burkina Faso and Uganda Jimmy Kolker and former Ambassador to Nigeria and the Republic of Congo Robin Renee Sanders. Ambassadors Kolker and Sanders discussed the barriers to education for African women and girls, as well as the current health issues that impede their economic, political, and social development. Below is a general summary of the presentation.
Women’s Issues and Development Issues – One and the Same
Mobilizing all of the resources of a country, especially its human resources, is the key to that country’s development. When more than half the population is marginalized, however, development becomes an unreachable goal. When that percentage consists of women and girls who, in Africa make up most of the agricultural workforce and are the ones responsible for the health and welfare of families, it is an especially acute problem. Our panelists at the current state of health and education for women and girls on the African continent.
“Sixty percent of Africa’s HIV positive people are women,” said Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, previously chief of the HIV/AIDS Section at UNICEF’s New York headquarters, and who currently serves as senior advisor to the Coordinator for Global Covid Response and Health Security at the US Department of State. Kolker went on to say that the growth of HIV infections among women is due to a number of factors. “Men’s unwillingness to be tested and treated and not being virally suppressed are passing HIV to their sexual partners”. In addition, Kolker maintains, a woman’s anatomy makes her more vulnerable to HIV.
The disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic in Africa on women and girls makes it all the more important to have education programs focusing on health and to target these programs especially to women and girls.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated a dire situation. “There has been an alarming increase in teen pregnancies and child marriages, especially in West and Central Africa during the pandemic” said Ambassador Robin Sanders, who is the CEO of FEEEDS & FE3DS, LLC During lockdowns in Kenya, for example, 152,000 Kenyan teenage girls between the ages of 9 and 18 became pregnant. “This”, said Sanders, “was a 40 percent increase in Kenya’s monthly pre-pandemic average”.
Closing the Education Gap
In order to address the myriad of development issues facing the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, it is essential to close the male-female education gaps, including addressing the literacy gap for all students. “In Uganda, for example” said Kolker, “Thirteen percent of third graders could not read or recognize a single letter of the English alphabet”. It is at this grade, Kolker said, that instruction in most African countries changes from local languages to English and the lack of progress from this point causes many children, male and female, to drop out of school.
Most governments in Africa have long acknowledged that a key contributor to economic development is empowering women and girls. But Africa has been much slower than other regions of the world in achieving this goal. Some countries are doing better than others. In Niger, for example, where the 7.6 children per woman is among the highest birth rate in the world, the government conducts ‘School for Husbands,’ which has family planning and reproductive health information delivered by trusted traditional community leaders. In Rwanda, improvements in land tenure security enabled women property owners to increase investments in land by 18 percent, twice the level achieved by men in the country.
Need for Targeted Development Assistance and Community Engagement
Women and girls in Africa rely more on development programs for critical education on health risks and to increase literacy than do men because of the limited opportunities afforded them by the societies in which they live. With women’s health in jeopardy due to the spread of HIV/AIDS, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other diseases, education is essential to providing life-saving health care to women and girls as individuals and to enable them to more care for others more effectively.
The introduction of development programs at the local level focused on women and girls can facilitate access to the highest attainable standards of health and well-being, which can in turn benefit the communities in which these women and girls live. As the old African proverb says, ‘if you educate a man, you educate an individual. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation.’ In rural areas that are far from a country’s urban centers, women are often the primary conduit of knowledge, the principal agricultural workers, and the ones responsible for the wellbeing of their villages. Establishing these targeted development programs at the local level will allow these isolated communities to receive education on health issues that might otherwise be denied to them.
Access to education is, according to Sanders, the key. “Less than fifty percent of African women have completed education above the elementary level,: she said. One way to address this problem, Sanders maintains, would be to register births more accurately in sub-Saharan Africa to enable complete documentation of the number of girls who will need to attend school. The educational programs need to focus heavily on health, in particular women’s unique health issues. Development personnel and policymakers need to engage with faith leaders, community leaders, and elders, to get their buy-n for focusing programs on women and girls, according to Sanders, and this is necessary across all regions of the continent, in rural and urban areas.
The women of Africa have been called by some ‘a powerful untapped economic force,’ essential to the continent’s development. On a continent that will have more than half the population of the world by 2100, continuing to ignore more than fifty percent of that population is not only unwise but dangerous. The largest challenge the countries of Africa face is the creation of enough jobs to absorb the population growth, and a critical component of job creation is the need to narrow the male-female job gap which will only continue to widen if the proper actions are not taken by policymakers.
Women in Africa currently face massive constraints from the cultural impositions of household or community to the public and governmental policies that restrict their access to education and jobs. This creates a major barrier to the economic development and growth of the continent. If the culture of gender inequality and patriarchal dominance is not addressed with an aim to create more gender-inclusive development in the private sector and more participation in policy making in the public sector, the situation will only worsen.
The future of Africa is inextricably linked to the future of women and girls on the continent. Harnessing the continent’s population growth and orienting it in a positive direction will not only benefit Africa and Africans, but the rest of the world. If, however, the entrenched power structures dig in their heels and leave the future of women dim, a shadow will continue to hang over the whole continent.
Women and girls in Africa have faced social and employment discrimination and inequality. This has not only hurt them but their families, communities, and countries as a whole. Poverty is a major problem in Africa and a driver of many of the continent’s other ills. Poverty will not be reduced nor will the other problems be solved until Africa has achieved true gender equality.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.