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To shape a fairer Africa in the next 50 years, we must listen to women

The African Union’s ‘Agenda 2063’ sets out a vision for the continent’s development over the next half-century – but how will it be reached?

WHAT DO THE women of Africa want in 50 years? African women want to live in a peaceful society where women are involved in creating equitable markets and where women’s enterprises can flourish, according to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director at UNWomen.

African women also want recognition that they are powerful agents of change and leadership and want a shared commitment by men and women to ending gender discrimination and ensuring equality.

Why put a 50 year timeframe onto pressing goals and needs which ought to be met sooner? Well, 50 years is the timescale set by the African Union for its ‘Agenda 2063’ which sets out a vision for the continent’s development over the next half-century.

What women want

With this goal in mind 2015 has been designated the ‘year of women’s empowerment and development’. This is not the only landmark event this year that opens the possibility of creating space to ask ‘what women want’. The year 2015 also marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration which saw 189 governments make historic commitments to achieving women’s rights, which today remain a powerful source of guidance and inspiration. And 2015 is also the year that new ‘sustainable development goals’ will be set by the UN, which will include targets for gender equality. It is a good time to assess how the movement towards equality for women and girls has progressed globally in the last 20 years.

All these international frameworks seem to point both to progress made and more room being made politically available for women’s empowerment. Yet enormous gaps in progress and barriers to change remain. Gender discrimination is still manifest in terms of poverty, wages, education, control of assets, political presence and vulnerability to violence right across the world.

Imbalance exists across the world

Globally, women make up just 22% of parliamentarians. While more than two thirds of countries and areas have reached gender parity in primary education, only 40% of them have achieved parity at the secondary level. Over their lifetimes, women in Sweden and France can expect to earn 31% less than men; this figure is 49% for women in Germany and 75% for women in Turkey. Only 4% of signatories in 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 were women.

Despite progress made in Africa – more girls in school, more women in leadership roles in business and politics – significant structural and cultural barriers to gender equality persist. Poverty on the continent has a female face. While progress has been made in the reduction of maternal mortality, it is still unacceptably high at 640 deaths per 100,000 live births (WHO 2012).

Violence against women is still accepted as the norm in many African societies, despite presence of strong laws. Conflicts are displacing women and children and making them vulnerable to abuse as they seek safety. Access to justice in these circumstances is minimal.

More than half of the girls in Mali, Mozambique and Niger are married before age 18. In these same countries, more than 75% of people live on less than $2 a day. In sub-Saharan Africa, in households without piped water, women and girls carry 71% of the water collection burden.

Listening to women’s voices

How is it possible to move beyond the legacies of gendered power inequalities and give real life to the aspirations found in the many international frameworks we are marking in 2015? One way is to listen to the inventive voices of African women leaders.

Three such leaders will be the key speakers at the Trinity International Development Initiative’s Africa Day celebrations. Lilian Oyaji supports women’s entrepreneurial flair, Faiza Mohamed works on women’s human rights and peacebuilding and Minna Salami blogs her creative ideas about African feminism. It’s from these women we can hear ‘what African women want’ and from their actions we can see signs of change happening.

Trinity College Dublin is hosting an international conference today (Monday, May 25th, 2015) which will hear from leading change-makers who are transforming the landscape of gender equality in Africa and globally. Entitled Inspiring Change: Empowering Women’s Futures in Africa, the event is organised by Trinity International Development Initiative (TIDI) and is being held to mark the seventh annual Africa Day celebration. See more here.

Dr Gillian Wylie is Head of the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin. A lecturer in International Peace Studies, her primary research interest lies in the areas of human trafficking for sexual and labour exploitation in the context of globalisation. She is also interested in questions of gender as they shape war and peace.

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