Gender equality in West Africa

Gender equality in West Africa? The key role of social norms

By Gaëlle Ferrant, OECD Development Centre, and Nadia Hamel, OECD Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat 

Despite some progress, gender equality remains unfinished business worldwide, including in West Africa and particularly in the Sahel1. Such West African countries as Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, Senegal and Sierra Leone have closed the gender gap in primary school enrolment. However, youth (aged 15-24) illiteracy rate in Chad is still twice as high for women than for men. In Liberia, only one-third of girls were enrolled in secondary school in 2015. Women are increasingly represented in the Senegalese parliament, and the proportion of female MPs almost doubled in the last five years, from 23% in 2012 to 42% in 2017. Nevertheless, women’s equal political participation remains a major challenge throughout the region. Women in parliaments increased only marginally from 13% in 2007 to almost 16% in 2017, with wide disparities across countries ranging from 6% in Nigeria to 42% in Senegal.

Similarly, the basic rights of women and girls are denied. According to a report published by the Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat in collaboration with the Development Centre, one in four women lack reproductive autonomy or “the power to decide when, if at all, to have children.” This is due to unmet family planning needs along with low contraceptive use — 17% compared to 64% globally. Lack of basic infrastructure and public services exacerbates the burden of domestic and care work traditionally viewed as a female prerogative. On average, women spend six times more time than men on unpaid care work — cooking, cleaning, collecting water and firewood, and caring for children, the ill and the elderly. Again, ratios vary considerably across countries, ranging from 2 times more in Nigeria to 17 times more in Mali.

Confronted with these realities, one way West African governments are working to address gender inequality is by adopting national gender strategies and implementing legislative reforms. This is evident, for example, in the case of child marriage. All West African countries are signatories of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, the African Youth Charter, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. These commitments match the political will behind national campaigns and action plans to end child marriage. Gambia’s Children’s Amendment Bill (2016) criminalises child marriage and betrothal and sentences those convicted of such offenses to 20 years in prison. Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Women, National Solidarity and the Family created a road map to fight child marriage through co-ordination, follow-up and monitoring, social mobilisation and advocacy, capacity-building and multi-sectoral responses.

However, passing laws and devising national strategies are not enough. Legal loopholes and customary practices often weaken women’s rights. Girls can still marry under the age of 18 in 11 West African countries. Even when legislation condemns this practice, these laws are usually weakened by customary legal systems, as seen in Gambia, Ghana, Mauritania and Nigeria. The prevalence of this practice remains a major concern in West Africa, since the rate of child marriage is more than double the world average of 13%. Indeed, 30% of girls aged 15-19 are either married, divorced, widowed or in a religious/customary  union. In Niger alone in 2016, this percentage reached 76%. When women marry early, they don’t go to school anymore, start having children and cannot engage in productive activities.

The situation of denying women their fundamental rights is thus costly for all. Ending child marriage in Niger could save the country more than USD 25 billion by 2030. Delaying marriage would have a large positive effect on the educational attainment of girls and their children, contribute to lower population growth, and increase women’s expected earnings and household welfare. Moreover, closing gender gaps in labour force participation would have significant macroeconomic consequences, with substantial income increases ranging from 1% of gross domestic product (GDP) in Ghana and Liberia to 31% of GDP in Nigeria.

So what can policy makers and citizens do? They must embrace the challenge of transforming social norms and allow West African women and men to benefit equally from development opportunities and economic growth. Discriminatory social norms weaken the implementation and efficiency of gender-sensitive policies, exposing women and girls to ongoing discrimination. For example, despite huge investments to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM) in Burkina Faso, the rates remain notably high due to the practice’s social acceptance. Two-thirds of women have been victims of FGM, and while the majority of the population believes that this practice should be eradicated, 50% of men prefer marrying a circumcised woman.

Transforming discriminatory social norms requires a solid understanding of the political economy and territorial realities. These efforts must be endogenous: what we can do as outsiders is rather limited. Interventions are needed at regional, national and grassroots levels and require the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders, including men and boys, to change attitudes on gender roles. For example, nationwide awareness-raising campaigns to address social stigma, condemn victim shaming and support survivors of gender-based violence have proven efficient. Benin’s Ministry of Family and National Solidarity coordinated 1 600 awareness-raising actions throughout the country. These have helped decrease the acceptance of domestic violence amongst the population: in 2001, 60% of women and 31% of men agreed that domestic violence is justified on certain grounds, compared to 16% of women and 15% of men in 2012. Legal reforms to protect women’s land rights can also be backed by legal literacy programmes to help women, families and communities understand their legal rights to property. In Ghana, spousal transfer agreement templates were piloted to reduce intra-family conflicts regarding land transfers after the death of a husband and included training to improve women’s legal literacy. This has helped to clarify women’s inheritance rights and establish community dialogues around land tenure and spousal rights. Ultimately, women and girls play a crucial part in the ongoing transformation and should no longer be perceived stereotypically as “victims” but rather as powerful agents of change.

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1.This blog covers the 15 member countries of the Economic Community of West African States (Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Togo) plus Chad and Mauritania.