A tale of two female citizens

By Mary Waithiegeni Chege, Founder and Principal, EMSI & Associates

The African Union (AU) is very clear in its identification of infrastructure as the bedrock for development in Africa. In fact, sound infrastructure has been identified as a major contributor to economic growth, poverty reduction and attainment of the sustainable development goals. While gender equality is enshrined in the AU’s constitutive documents, recognised in all the goals of Agenda 2063 and has been prioritised through the AU’s Strategy on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment (GEWE), achieving these objectives requires an understanding of the multi-faceted nature of women’s poverty and how gender-responsive infrastructure can play a pivotal role in its alleviation. The AU’s Strategy for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment specifically notes that as the continent embarks on major infrastructure projects, the coming decade offers the opportunity to open up infrastructure to greater inclusion of women in the design, implementation and benefits that ensue.    

A joint report by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and Oxford University demonstrates that infrastructure can positively influence the achievement of 92% of the targets across all 17 sustainable development goals. With 73 AU-driven priority projects spread across the transportation, energy, transboundary water and ICT sectors for implementation between 2021 – 2030 at a staggering US$270 Billion (PIDA PAP II), it is imperative that we choose to challenge the inequitable participation of women across infrastructure design, implementation and value chain operation and life cycle. The underlying driver of these projects is to promote an integrated, multi-sectoral corridor approach that is employment oriented, gender-sensitive, climate-friendly and that connects urban and industrial hubs with rural areas. Indeed, our time is here. Or is it?

“We have women whose jobs were identified by the ILO as being 19% more vulnerable than men’s jobs, and who, while making up only 39% of global jobs, accounted for 54% of job losses.” #DevMatters

Despite the mounting body of evidence demonstrating that promotion of gender equality is smart economics, public sector expenditures continue to lag behind in addressing issues around gender mainstreaming.  It has been proven that policies (including for infrastructure) that target women’s economic empowerment have the potential to contribute to not only narrowing the gender gap in earnings but also enhancing overall economic growth and development, adding up to US$28 trillion (or 26% increase) to global GDP by 2025.  Further, a McKinsey report notes that taking action now to advance gender equality could add a further US$13 trillion to global GDP in 2030 compared with the gender-regressive scenario.

Moreover, COVID-19 has brought to the fore a glaring disparity between two groups of women across the globe. On one hand, we have those who, according to a KPMG Survey on female leadership, said that they did not think the crisis will influence their next career step, with 51% of this group suggesting that the pandemic could be a catalyst for gender equality, at least in the long term.  On the other hand, we have women whose jobs were identified by the ILO as being 19% more vulnerable than men’s jobs, and who, while making up only 39% of global jobs, accounted for 54% of job losses.

So while it is commendable that gender will now carry some weighting in PIDA PAP II projects, there needs to be a substantial number of women in roles of influence to champion the implementation of gender-responsive infrastructure, if it is to play a pivotal role in the attainment of gender parity.  However, one of the key challenges to the successful planning and implementation of gender responsive transport infrastructure is evidenced by the low number of  female transport and infrastructure ministers – 9 out of 59 member states of the OECD’s International Transport Forum. 

With the recent operationalisation of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which covers a free trade zone with a combined GDP of US$3.4 trillion, it is hoped that we will see a reduction of tariffs and non-tariff barriers, the facilitation of free movement of people and labour, right of residence, right of establishment as well as investment across the African continent. It is important to highlight that 70% of movement across African borders is comprised of informal traders with a majority of these border crossings made by women. Freight trucks account for only 30% of the movement. To therefore ignore the participation and needs of the majority of the end-users of transport infrastructure is to fail to recognise their financial contribution to cross border trade within the continent.  

Small adjustments can be made at the planning phase to improve the quality of travel by recognising the inherent human right to dignity through simple matters such as accessing safe and secure washing facilities across transport corridors. Other gender-responsive measures in the transport sector include the use of inclusive, mixed land use planning that broadens the definition of project affected persons to include not just land owners who are predominantly male, but also those persons who work on the land and make a living – no matter how small – from it. And yes, the majority of the latter category are women. By offering compensation for loss of land and not for loss of livelihoods, we continue to further entrench gender inequality in infrastructure development.  

“With over 600 million people still lacking access to electricity on the continent, the burden falls largely on women to collect biomass fuels – such as wood, dung and crop residues – for cooking.” #DevMatters

Finally, ensuring clearer lines of sight in public spaces such as stations, improving lighting on streets and walkways while making them wide enough to accommodate women travelling with strollers and young children, and enhancing security through the installation of CCTV surveillance systems, are a few other initiatives that demonstrate commitment to gender responsive infrastructure that allows a larger percentage of the population to fully utilise it.  A collaboration between transport, security and public health leaders could ensure that women can travel safely. 

Beyond transport, lack of access to electricity has a considerably greater health and time use impact for women than men. With over 600 million people still lacking access to electricity on the continent, the burden falls largely on women to collect biomass fuels – such as wood, dung and crop residues – for cooking. Much has been written about the average 18-hours spent a week on these activities as well as the adverse impacts on health due to indoor air pollution caused by the use of unclean, combustible fuels for household energy.  As COVID-19 has highlighted, access to clean water and sanitation infrastructure is critical for protecting human health and reducing women’s unpaid work. Like energy, gender-blind water and sanitation infrastructure can have significant adverse impacts on women’s time poverty, health and even access to education particularly in relation to menstrual hygiene management, pregnancy and childbirth. 

Access to financing remains a bane for the majority of women across sectors. National and regional banks that play a key role in financing infrastructure have taken significant steps to mainstream gender into their business. These include building financial products to promote gendered financing solutions, embedding gender mainstreaming into their loan approval process, entrenching gender into their operational culture as well as building partnerships to promote gender equity and catalyse gender financing solutions. Product solutions will need to continue being structured to meet the particular needs of women across the entire infrastructure value chain. This starts at the project preparation and due diligence phase right through to financial close. 

At the national level, initiatives to mainstream gender across the infrastructure value chain are limited in their effectiveness because they are marginalised in national and subnational structures. Many efforts are completely stymied by lack of financial and human resources and insufficient political support. Women in leadership should choose to challenge the lack of resources for these initiatives and actively promote gender responsive budgeting if the potential economic benefits are ever to be attained.

Finally, leaders in the private sector have long understood their pivotal role in galvanising social change. According to a KPMG 2020 CEO Report, 65% of CEOs said that the public is looking to businesses to fill the void on social challenges. 76% agreed that as leaders, they are personally responsible for change on social issues. This means that leaders, and women leaders in particular, have a moral obligation to ensure that the role of women as users and contributors to gender responsive infrastructure is enhanced over the next decade. With the long operational life of key infrastructure projects, failing to plan for half of the population further prolongs and reinforces the adverse impacts of gender inequality, wasting limited financial resources and putting lives continually at risk for several decades to come.  It is my hope that the next decade will indeed see us achieve a more sustainable, equal and truly inclusive world with economic and social benefits for all categories of female citizens.