Historically, customs and traditional laws in Africa hindered women's access to education and development, while promoting, to a varying degree, a culture of male dominance across the continent. However, there is now growing recognition of the crucial role women play in overcoming the social, economic and political challenges faced by the continent. Policy changes for this purpose are now being widely advocated, although there is significant scope to progress women's rights and participation.
The democratization process has brought a timid but significant increase in the participation of women in politics across Africa. Women make up an average of 21.5% of representatives in national parliaments. While this figure clearly does not reflect equality in representation, it marginally outweighs the unimpressive 21.4% worldwide average. The number of women holding ministerial positions in Africa has also increased in recent years. In 2012 Africa welcomed Joyce Banda as its second female president, and the African Union voted Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as its first female chair.
Africa's upward economic trajectory means that women's participation in the economic sphere is also crucial. The rate of economic activity of women in Africa ranks the highest compared to other regions of the world. However, African women are still predominantly employed in the informal sector, and the percentage of women paid to work in non-agricultural sectors ranks the lowest in the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that although women often comprise over 55% of the agricultural labour force in sub-Saharan Africa, they represent only about 15% of agricultural holders.
Fighting gender-based discrimination can only be accomplished through policies that empower women's independence and education. National and international efforts to promote the enrolment of girls into primary education across sub-Saharan Africa are more concerted now than they have ever been, but half of all out-of-school children are in sub-Saharan Africa. Girls from the poorest families still face barriers to education.
An elite group of African business women has emerged in recent years, and African women have also become active in political and environmental activism. The Kenyan environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai, Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, are all recent Nobel Peace Prize winners – an acknowledgment of their contribution to sustainable development and peace.
While recognizing that women in Africa have come a long way, especially in the political sphere, more work is still needed to strengthen policies that empower women and offer equal opportunity to men and women in education, employment, business and technology. This will ensure sustained and equitable development and a further reduction in conflict across sub-Saharan Africa.
This infographic depicts the percentage share of formal firms that are owned by women in Africa. Data from the World Bank Enterprise Surveys (2006-10), and kindly republished from Ivan Colic's Afrographique.