What defines an African woman?

The definition of African woman can be described in a different context from different countries in Africa. An African woman is more favorable in southern countries than in northern Africa countries.

Africa is a continent in rapid transformation. Its population growth is the highest in the world: today, 1.1 billion people live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and, according to estimates of the United Nations (UN), in 2050, the population will double and then reach almost four billion fifty years later. This type of demographic growth, together with growing economic and political prominence, prepares Africa to be a significant player in the future.

Analyzing the demographic aspects of Africa is, therefore, the starting point for understanding the broader and deeper transformations affecting the societies of the continent. One of the protagonists of these changes is women.

For this reason, we define an African woman with demographic data and analysis of various aspects of the lives of African girls and women, ranging from health to education, from the world of work to politics.

Different countries with different contexts

It is complicated to talk about the condition of women and gender inequality on the African continent since the data and information on this subject can vary considerably if we consider different countries with different contexts.

In fact, while the countries of southern Africa: South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, among others, represent relatively positive environments for women, on the other hand, some countries of western and eastern Africa: Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Djibouti, Chad and Ivory Coast, to name just few-are areas where gender equality and opportunities for economic, social and human development for them are scarce.

Different opportunities are also found between rural and urban areas. In rural areas, where cultural factors mostly dictate rules, women have, on average, only primary education and limited access to employment opportunities outside agriculture. Women represent a high percentage of the workforce in these areas, but they are concentrated in informal activities or subsistence farming.

Outside of rural settings, however, women’s participation in education and work is higher. With schools closer to home, the presence of sanitation and running water, and a lower frequency of arranged child marriages for girls, access to education is easier. However, women have lower-paying jobs than men or “self-employ” in informal occupations in the labor market.

Although with more or less marked incidences, it is nevertheless possible to find commonalities involving the different contexts of the continent.

African women in family contexts

One of the first things that come to mind when discussing the topic of the condition of women in Africa is the role of women in family contexts. Due to mostly cultural factors, and especially in rural contexts, the placement of women in domestic roles is a well-established thought.

In fact, according to data released by UN Women, the average age of marriages for women is low: 22.1 years. This figure is “compounded” by information about marriages at a very young age: according to 2020 data, 12% of girls married before the age of fifteen and 37% before eighteen, often to older men or in polygamous marriages.

What defines an African woman?

In many cases, the poverty of families pushes them to marry off their daughters at a very young age to have fewer children to feed and educate or obtain economic resources in exchange for giving their daughter in marriage. Although many African countries have established eighteen years as the minimum age for marriage and prohibit forced marriages, the rules are often not enforced or contain exceptions, such as parental consent or court approval, that allow them to occur.

Likewise, the fertility rate (average number of children per woman between the ages of 15 and 49) for girls and women in Sub-Saharan Africa remains very high: in 2020, a woman had an average of 4.6 children, almost double the global average. Not only that, almost a third of these women had a child before they turned eighteen.

During pregnancy and childbirth moreover, a critical issue is the difficulty in accessing health care. In fact, in Sub-Saharan Africa, approximately half of all global cases of postpartum death occur, mostly due to lack of hygiene, complications, and lack of qualified personnel.

In addition, three out of four people infected with HIV/AIDS in the 15-19 age bracket are women, and around 90% of pregnant women with HIV come from Sub-Saharan Africa, where the risk of mother-to-child transmission is high, and the possibility of using antiretroviral drugs is limited.

How family context can affect women’s status

Such early marriages and births often lead women to concentrate on family and domestic life, thus neglecting education and work. In this case as well, although there are many differences, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the exclusion of girls from education reaches high percentages. Today, 23% of girls on the continent do not attend elementary school, while in the case of secondary education, the exclusion rate rises to 36%. This causes widespread illiteracy, which then has repercussions on work and social opportunities.

Let’s look at the world of work, in fact. Although there are encouraging improvements in political representation and high-level administrative positions in companies, in other sectors, the situation is stagnant in numerous countries on the continent, despite the fact that there are positive examples, such as South Africa. Overall, women occupy around a third of the total workforce in the tertiary sector, while they represent almost all of the workforce in the informal sector.

Comparing Africa with the West

In some cases, African countries can develop adequate demographic surveys, while in other cases, the lack of personnel, technology and skills does not allow for consistent surveys at regular intervals. Therefore, many of the demographic data to which we will refer throughout this project and which concern, for example, health, education, the world of work and political representation, come from surveys conducted by the UN, other international players such as the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the World Bank, and the Demography and Health Analysis Program (DHS Program) funded by the United States Agency for International Development.

However, it is important to pay attention to how the statistics are read and be careful to make comparisons with Western values that are not misleading. Often, a negative image is created because African data are compared directly with those of the western world, without understanding whether, in the African context, transformations are underway.

For this reason, it is important, first and foremost, not to report only the absolute number of events but always provide a reference parameter for understanding the evolution of the phenomena. A useful example is maternal mortality. As already mentioned, the number of deaths in Africa is very high: according to WHO, 196,000 women died in 2017, compared with 1,500 in Europe and North America. However, considering the number of deaths per 100,000 live births, it can be seen that in Sub-Saharan Africa, between 2000 and 2017, there was an average annual decrease in deaths of 2.8%, while Western countries stopped at 1.9% per year.

Another caution that must be taken when analyzing African data is to consider the time span over which the phenomena are assessed. In fact, the fertility rate is still high (on average, a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa today has 4.6 children during her lifetime). Still, after reaching its peak in the second half of the 1970s (almost 6.8 children per woman), the value began to drop. Therefore, a long-term look makes it possible to see positive developments that otherwise would not be considered.

Looking at African data with awareness makes it possible to grasp the evolutions affecting the continent and highlight the dynamism of African societies. To a greater or lesser extent, changes can be induced in different ways: mobilizations by African civil society itself, legislative initiatives or constitutional modifications and projects by NGOs or international players.

Social mobilizations and pan-African networks have proven to be fundamental in spreading information among the population, as in the case of HIV/AIDS in southern Africa, or in bringing certain issues to the attention of political decision-makers, such as the lack of measures to combat maternal mortality and limited access to education for girls.

Legislative initiatives and constitutional amendments, on the other hand, are the preferred tool in the attempt to combat domestic violence, genital mutilation and promote gender equity in various sectors, first and foremost the world of work and political representation.

Finally, development cooperation projects and programs of international organizations, carried out in collaboration with local society, are often aimed at facilitating female entrepreneurship, equal access to quality education and adequate health care, especially during pregnancy and childbirth.

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