Africa’s Prosperity Depends on Achieving Gender Equality

By Prof. Jane Mariara, PEP Executive Director 

Originally published on Project Syndicate and reproduced here with permission.

Copyright: Project Syndicate.

Childcare responsibilities significantly impede African women’s ability to realize their full potential, owing to regressive social norms that perpetuate gender disparities. Tackling this challenge requires a holistic, evidence-based shift to a care economy that empowers women to participate as equals in the labor market.

NAIROBI – Despite the progress made toward gender equality over the past century, women worldwide still lag behind men in pay and job quality. The global labor-force participation rate for women is just 53%, compared to 80% for men. This is not due to a lack of will or effort. Childcare obligations, limited access to education, and poor workplace and public-safety measures often curtail women’s ability to secure “decent” work.

For this reason, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to achieve “full and productive employment and decent work for all” by 2030 (SDG 8). But this objective cannot be achieved as long as African women face significant barriers to equal pay and job opportunities.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), “decent” employment implies fair wages, safe and healthy working environments, job security, and equal opportunities and treatment. While several African countries have made efforts to improve women’s access to decent work opportunities, recent research by the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) underscores the challenges facing policymakers.

The study, which involved researchers in six countries, covered two African states: Kenya and Senegal. In Kenya, researchers found that while more than 75% of women participate in the labor market, only 39% are employed in the formal sector. In Senegal, the study revealed that 70% of women have been engaged in vulnerable jobs over the past 30 years, with little to no improvement despite government interventions. Consequently, most women in both countries work in precarious jobs, mainly in agriculture, the informal sector, and domestic service, and often lack access to social benefits.

A separate study focusing on women’s integration into the labor market in eight Sub-Saharan countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone – found that, with the exception of Sierra Leone, women are less likely to be employed than men. Moreover, women are primarily engaged in insecure, low-paying, and informal jobs. On average, eight out of ten women in these countries hold vulnerable jobs.

Unsurprisingly, motherhood and childcare-related duties significantly impede women’s ability to realize their full potential in the labor market, owing to regressive social norms that perpetuate gender inequality. To address these disparities, public policies must be thoughtfully designed and tailored to specific contexts. For example, PEP researchers recommended that governments offer affordable, high-quality, and safe public childcare services. This includes establishing daycare centers within public schools and subsidizing private childcare services in countries like Kenya and Senegal.

A 2019 randomized control trial in Korogocho, an informal settlement in Nairobi, underscored the vital role of free childcare in boosting women’s participation in the labor market. The study pointed to cost as the main barrier to accessing childcare services, with nearly 25% of local mothers unable to afford them. Childcare subsidies, in the form of vouchers for daycare centers, resulted in a 17% increase in job opportunities for impoverished urban mothers with children aged one to three. Those who received these subsidies benefited from an average 24% increase in their earnings.

A 2018 ILO report, based on data from more than 90 countries, also highlighted the role of caregiving work in advancing women’s economic empowerment. Globally, 19.3% of women work in care jobs, compared to 6.6% of men. Given that the number of people who need care is expected to grow to 2.3 billion by 2030 (from 2.1 billion in 2015), the report advocated doubling investment in the care economy to $18.4 trillion. The ILO projected that this would create 269 million new jobs by 2030 and enable countries to meet multiple SDGs, including universal health care, education for all, gender equality, and decent employment.

But there is no one-size-fits-all model for creating high-quality care jobs. With this in mind, the African Population and Health Research Center assembled a team of international and regional experts to evaluate the early childcare and long-term care systems in Kenya and Senegal. Through an in-depth examination of indigenous expertise and the current support structures in these countries, the project aims to lay the groundwork for a care economy tailored to Africa’s unique needs.

Drawing on insights from Kenya, the researchers outlined several steps that governments can take to recognize, reduce, and redistribute unpaid care work among different stakeholders. These include investing in high-quality, affordable childcare services, particularly for early childhood; enhancing the capacity of county-level government departments to oversee unpaid caregiving through adequate budgetary support and intra-governmental cooperation; aiding local entrepreneurs who serve low-income women through public and private investment; exploring community-based models or those tailored to pastoralist communities; and recognizing long-term care for the elderly as an integral part of this work.

This study, which provides a template that could be applied across Africa, represents a crucial step toward gender equality on the continent. Its findings have the potential to influence the Kenyan government’s efforts to draft policy guidelines on unpaid care work as part of its Vision 2030 development initiative.

Among its seven core objectives, the African Union’s Agenda 2063 highlights the need to achieve gender equality and parity in the political, economic, and social domains. But this goal will remain out of reach until we develop a holistic, evidence-based, Africa-centric care economy that enables women to participate as equals in the labor market.


This commentary is published in collaboration with the International Economic Association’s Women in Leadership in Economics Initiative, which aims to enhance the role of women in economics through research, building partnerships, and amplifying voices.


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