Investing in Women’s Education in Africa

For basic historical literacy, everyone should know about influential women leaders in Africa - queens, pharaohs, and empresses. Hatshepsut was a woman pharaoh (ruler) of Egypt, one of the very few women to hold that title. Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of Egypt and the last of the Ptolemy dynasty of Egyptian rulers. As she tried to keep power for her dynasty, she made famous (or infa- mous) connections with Roman rulers Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. In Ethiopia, there was the legendary Queen Eyleuka (Dalukah) of Ethiopia who reigned from BCE circa 4530-3240, before the flooding of the world, and the legendary Queen Nehasset Nais of Ethiopia who reigned from BCE circa 2585-2145, after the flooding. Other parts of Africa saw several women leaders. A few examples are Queen Regnant Nyilak of Alur (Ugan- da-1365-90), Queen Sukda of Mandara (Cameroon- Circa 1500), Iye Oba Idia of Uselu (Nigeria- 1507-?), and Queen Regnant Rafohy of Hova /Imerina (Madagascar -1530–40. The list goes on and on with female leaders contributing to human development, peace and stability of their com- munities and the entities that they ruled.

The picture is different today as traditions shifts and times change. In modern Africa with 55 independent states, only 2 are currently ruled by women. Of these only Pres- ident Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia has ever been elec- ted to the highest office in the country through a general election and by popular vote. One other female head of state in Africa is Catherine Samba-Panza of the Central African Republic. There is Rwanda, on the other hand, where an incredible 64% of elected Members of Parliament are women. Africa has made good use of quotas for women in parliament. African heads of states elected the Chair of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, By Lawalley Cole who is a woman.

The gender gap remains wide.

As recently as 2012, an in-depth global analysis of gender equality showed that women in Sub-Saharan Africa faced the highest level of discrimination in the world.

They continue to face major challenges with gender inequality. These could be with issues in the private sphere such as domestic violence, marital rights, inheritance and female genital mutilation (FGM). There are also issues in the public sphere such as lack of access to education, espe- cially higher education, health- care, public space and political power. Africa still ranks lowest in the global gender equality index, have some of the highest num- bers of domestic violence, and still the largest number of FGMs and other harmful traditions.

At the international level, education has remained the key to effect positive changes for the betterment of the greater half of humanity.

The best way to empower women - particularly in Africa - is to invest in their education.

It is a well-established and simple fact that countries that promote girls’ education, and especially secondary education and skills training, tend to have higher rates of employment, higher wages, and lower maternal and child mortality. Better health, better jobs, and better businesses are all easier goals to reach if priority is given to getting girls in schools and giving them a good education.

Fifteen years after many countries in sub-Saharan Africa gained their independence, the United Nations (U.N.) designa- ted 1975 International Women’s Year. In that same year, the U.N. General Assembly organized the first World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City. After the conference, the U.N. expanded the recognition of International Women’s Year by declaring 1976-1985 the U.N. Decade for Women. This factor highlighted the need for women’s rights and asserted a U.N. commitment to equality. The UN also established a Voluntary Fund for the U.N. Decade for Women, which became UNIFEM, to further work on women’s issues.

The World Conference on Equality, Development and Peace that was held in Copenhagen in July 1980, iden- tified three spheres of intervention, in terms of access to education, employment opportunities and adequate health care services. In 1985, Nairobi hosted the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the Decade. This conference recognized gender equality as an issue that encompassed all areas of human activity. It also identified new ways of overcoming obstacles for achieving the objectives of the Decade. These included constitutio- nal and legal measures, equality in social participation, and equality in political participation and decision-ma- king. The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, went a step farther than the Nairobi Conference. The Beijing Platform for Action asserted wo- men’s rights as human rights and committed to specific actions to ensure respect for those rights.

Following the Millennium Declaration of the September 2000 Millennium Summit, gender issues were integrated with many of the subsequent Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These were explicit in Goal No. 3 (“Pro- mote gender equality and empower women”), and Goal No. 5 (“Reduce by three-quarters the maternal morta- lity ratio”). On 2 July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly unanimously voted to create a single UN body tasked with accelerating progress in achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment. The new UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women – or UN Women – merged four of the world body’s agencies and offices. UN Women became operational on 1 January 2011.

In the case of Africa, the African Development Bank has attested to the fact that no nation can power its economic growth without empowering its women. According to the Bank, “it is like trying to succeed in an increasingly competitive world with one arm tied behind your back”. Both the World Bank and the African Development Bank have over the past three decades repeatedly tried to prove to Africans and others that investments in the education of girls and women do not just benefit the women themselves, but their families and their com- munities as well. In effect, empi- rical evidence has shown that an educated woman would allocate more resources to nutrition and children’s health and education than a man would do. It has now become common knowledge that educated mothers are more likely to educate their children and that can have carry-on effects for generations. The African Development Bank says that educating women make good business sense. The more education a woman has, the more likely she is to be more productive in her work and, one hopes, to start her own business. A good education increases the chances that women entrepreneurs will make the transition from start-ups to established businesses.

As we wind up the millennium development goals and await the new Sustainable Development Goals,

the international consensus must be that investing in women’s education should be given top priority for all countries and a goal for the post 2015 development agenda.

This must include measures to measure progress, and as part of an accountability framework that is now being proposed for the continent. Increasingly, the momentum continues to grow for the Improvement of the amount and quality of data.