Closing the gender wage gap in Africa and beyond

03/28/2017 09:04 am ET

Last week marked the end of the UN’s 61st Commission on the Status of Women Summit, an annual two-week session that brings together representatives of UN Member States and civil society organisations to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment around the world. This year, the International Labour Organisation joined forces with the UN to create a new initiative entitled the Equal Pay Platform of Champions. The initiative seeks to increase awareness on the pervasive global gender wage gap, and will be paired with a visible advocacy campaign highlighting the implications of inequality, as well as proactively reaching out to policy-makers and decision-takers for a solid commitment to the concrete advancement towards gender wage parity.

The issue of equal pay for work of equal value, and broader gender equality goals are close to my heart; as the founder-president of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, Africa’s premier maternal health and gender rights organisation, I am as deeply concerned by the lagging global progress in the field as I am inspired by the positive action taken in initiatives such as this one.

Global gender equality affects every country in the world, and signifies an economic set back of $12 trillion in global growth, according to a McKinsey and Company study released in 2016. In New Zealand, where the gender wage gap is the smallest in the world, men still make on average 5.6% more than women. In the UK, this figure shoots to 17.5%, which is somewhat typical for the developed world. The Commission on the Status of Women brings together women from around the globe, to tackle this same pervasive issue that affects all women, regardless of race, age or nationality. The women’s marches in January against a Trump presidency that took place in countries of all continents showed solidarity of women in the plight for gender equality, manifesting the struggles of the female gender in peaceful protest.

As a Nigerian I am best positioned to reflect on the gender wage gap through an African lens. As in Europe, Asia and the Americas, Africa also incurs the huge cost of gender inequality – the UNDP estimates that gender inequality costs sub-Saharan African an average of $US95bn per year, a figure surpassing the annual GDPs of Uganda and Liberia combined. The economic loss of gender inequality therefore equates to approximately 6% of the region’s GDP in 2014. The significance of this cannot be downplayed – in countries of minimal financial resources, equality may seems ever more appealing to policy-makers and entrepreneurs alike.

Similar to in Europe, the average African woman makes around 70 cents for each dollar made by a man. On top of this, women are by far the main caregivers, and dedicate many extra hours to unpaid work. It is therefore no surprise that studies estimate that a 1% increase in gender inequality reduces a country’s development index by 0.75%. African woman enjoy just 87% of the human development outcomes of men, mostly due to lower levels of education, lower labour force participation, and startlingly high maternal mortality rates.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom – women in Africa make a sizeable contribution to the continent’s economy, for example making up 60% of all agricultural workers, which many economies are heavily reliant on. In fact, women in Africa are more economically active in farming and entrepreneurship than in any other region. Additionally, although women remain disadvantaged in comparison to their male counterparts across the continent, there have been vast improvements, spanning from equal rights legislation to increased female political participation. These success stories should not be undermined.

Nigeria has a fairly standard gender wage gap in comparison to other countries – women earn around 70% of what men do - a level similar to that of the UK or the USA. However, in addition to this wage gap, women in Nigeria are marred by other gender-specific challenges; for example, maternal mortality outcomes are some of the world’s worst, with the average Nigerian woman at a 1 in 22 risk of dying in childbirth during her lifetime. This serves to widen the gender gap hugely, and creates new depths to the gender divisions in my country.

And yet, the trend, both global and regional, is overwhelmingly positive. There has been an international drive towards women’s economic empowerment, particularly in Africa, with a number of new technologies and initiatives designed specifically to impact and improve the lives of women. For example, an emphasis on increasing women’s access to financial systems and credit has seen widespread success, and has proven the effectiveness of boosting women’s economic independence in improving the overall wellbeing of families and communities. In Nigeria, various schemes providing microfinance to women have proven fruitful, inspiring women entrepreneurs in Nigeria, as well as granting women the financial independence to better run a household. The groundwork has been laid; it is now time for these efforts to multiply and magnify.

The International Labour Organisation predicts that it will take 70 years to close the gender wage gap. We can accelerate this change – with the support of initiatives such as the Equal Pay Platform of Champions – by taking matters in to our own hands. It is our right - and our prerogative – as women, feminists, and advocates of global equality to strive for equality and a better life for the daughters, mothers, wives and sisters of the future.

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