The 23rd World Economic Forum on Africa (WEF) themed ‘Delivering Africa's Promise" ended on 10 May in Cape Town. The three-day forum provided a platform for regional and global leaders from business, government and civil society to expand Africa's integration agenda and renew commitment to a sustainable economic growth path. After the conclusion of the WEF the question remains: Whose promise does it aim to fulfil?
The WEF identified economic diversification, boosting infrastructure and unlocking Africa's talent as the key points of address for accelerating and achieving success. However, a critical factor for achieving economic prosperity, reducing inequality and improving unemployment is missing from this equation: Addressing gender inequality and women's equal access to economic opportunities.
Prior to the WEF, the African Women's Development Fund (AWDF) convened a two-day meeting on Women's Economic Empowerment and Livelihoods of which 18 African organisations participated. The meeting expressed doubts that the current WEF agenda will address women's needs in Africa:
"We remain sceptical that real progress for Africa's one billion people - the majority of whom are women - will change radically through policies centred unremittingly on markets and profits, and based predominantly on the extraction of mineral resources. African people's needs and interests, particularly those of women, are not part of this narrow economic vision."
The AWDF meeting urged political and business leaders to acknowledge that aligning production systems to the requirements of external powers and profit devalue African women's economic contribution. The focus on the formal economy and traditional business models relegates women's skills and knowledge to the ‘informal economy'.
Despite widespread acknowledgement of the links between economic development and gender equality, few countries in Africa consider gender dimensions in economic policies. Women are an integral part of economic production and yet their contribution to economic development is not recognised.
Women invest more than 90 percent of their earnings in their families' health, education and their communities. The unpaid care and the non-market processes of where women predominate, contributes to the healthy functioning of the economy.
AWDF communications specialist, Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah said AWDF is hopeful that the WEF heard and heeded their key concerns, explaining that Dr Frannie Leautier, the executive secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF) voiced the issues at the WEF. Sekyiamah emphasised the need to "place African women squarely at the centre of initiatives to realise Africa's promise".
In her address to the WEF, Malawian President, Joyce Banda said, "You can never consider yourself a leader if you do not reach out and empower women." With constitutional reviews taking place across the region and elections coming up in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique and Swaziland, governments and business leaders must pay due attention to Banda's statement as they play a pivotal role in determining the road ahead.
Unlocking the human potential of half the region's population can only be a win-win solution and this demands the empowerment of women in all social, political and economic spheres. No economic strategy will be successful if they do not look at prioritise women's participation and access to development and economic decision-making.
Furthermore, equality of opportunity is not the same as equality of outcomes. Progressive policies, laws and marginal representation remain mere tokens, unless they make a real and substantive difference in the lives of women at a grassroots level.
African leaders must recognise and regulate the effects of macroeconomic policies on microeconomic performance and they must harness the potential of the informal sector by linking it to the formal economy.
We are in the African Women's Decade (AWD) - a decade in which organisations and political leaders should aim to reduce poverty and promote economic empowerment of women through a grassroots approach to gender equality.
Members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are signatories to a wide range of international and regional commitments to achieve gender equality including the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development. Thirteen countries in SADC have signed the protocol, which sets 28 targets to be achieved by 2015, one of which aims to ensure equal participation of women and men in policy formulation and implementation of economic policies.
Until leaders align the targets of the SADC Gender Protocol with the economic strategies and outcomes of forums such as the WEF, gender inequality will severely impede Africa's economic growth and development.
African business and political leaders must assume their responsibility to economic justice and realise that ‘Delivering Africa's Promise’ will demand a shift of focus from Africa's mineral resources as key to transforming the continent and instead to acknowledging that women in Africa form one of the fastest-growing markets with the greatest purchasing power.
- Donna Godfrey is a freelance producer and writer based in Cape Town. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.