Discrimination and gender inequalities in Africa: what about equality between women and men?

Temps de lecture : 10 minutes
Cover painting by Timi Kakandar. Instagram :#timikakandar Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/timi.kakandar


Written by Louise Jousse

Translated by Charline Vandermuntert

On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the Pan African Women Association (PAWA) on November 15, 2012, Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director-General from 2009 to 2017, declared: “Women are the driving force behind small changes of critical importance to their societies and communities: they are advancing the quality of education and access to health care; they are fighting for their rights and active participation [in political life]; and they are promoting peace, reconciliation and development[1]“.

Women are essential to a country’s development and functioning, yet they still face a great deal of discrimination and violence because of their gender. What of the situation on the African continent? Women are those who suffer the most from gender inequality and marginalization on the continent. What are the solutions to gender inequality and discrimination against women and girls? What actions are possible? Africa has made significant progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment, yet inequalities reached a critical level in West Africa. It is, therefore, interesting to take stock of discrimination on the African continent (I), and then look at the different actions that can be taken to remedy gender inequalities (II).

A region strongly characterized by gender inequalities and discrimination

Equality of fundamental rights between women and men is not yet a reality, regardless of the region. Various African countries are no exception and are still largely affected by gender inequalities in the social, economic and political spheres.

  • Social inequalities

 Women experience different forms of violence because of their gender, especially in the social sphere. They are often subjected to domination by their spouses, as mentioned in Article 444 of the Congo Family Code: “The husband is the head of the household. He owes protection to his wife; his wife owes obedience to her husband[2]“. This makes marriage one of the most discriminatory practices against women. To mitigate this, Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)[3] requires States to set a minimum age for marriage. Nevertheless, Natacha Ordioni, a senior lecturer in sociology, reveals that in some twenty African countries, the civil code does not fulfill this obligation.

In West Africa, 44% of women aged 20 to 24 were married before the age of 15[4]. According to UNICEF, approximately two out of three married girls were married to a partner at least ten years older in Gambia, Guinea, and Senegal[5]. The majority of underage marriages globally occur in West Africa. Niger and Mali are the most affected, with a prevalence of 77% and 61% respectively[6]. This difference can be explained by the importance of social norms and traditions, which influence the choice to marry one’s daughter. Having a child out of wedlock is perceived as a pure shame and the earlier a girl is married, the lower the risk of pregnancy outside marriage. These child marriages then create inequalities in schooling: out of 916 women married at an early age in Mali, 366 had to leave school and 294 others never went to school[7]. Whether at the primary or secondary level, girls have less access to education, with a 4-point difference in 2017 for secondary education compared to boys. This lack of access to education for girls has consequences for the country’s development. The 2018 World Bank report shows that there is a persistent literacy gap between young girls and boys in Africa: 72% of girls aged 15 to 24 are literate compared to 79% for boys, a difference of 7 points[8]. Inequalities are then flagrant in the provision of public services, such as education. For instance, it is estimated that 70% of the poorest girls in Niger have never attended elementary school. Niger has the lowest level of education in the world, with an average schooling duration of only 18 months[9]. These inequalities result in a relatively high loss of potential human development. Access to quality and inclusive education for girls becomes imperative to allow them to evolve in the economic and political spheres.

  • Economic inequalities

Economically, women also face discrimination and are still far from empowerment. There are many obstacles to their participation in economic activities, mainly due to the disparities between women and men, both in terms of access to economic resources and in the various sectors of activity. Although they represent 70% of the active population in the agricultural sector[10], women remain at the bottom of the ladder in this area and work in difficult conditions, with low incomes. The wage gap between women and men is about 30%: for every dollar earned by a man, a woman earns only seventy cents[11]. This difference can be explained by parameters such as age, type of job or level of education. The fact that women are not more integrated into the national economy represents a high economic cost for the countries concerned. According to the 2016 UNDP report, the total annual economic losses caused by gender gaps in sub-Saharan Africa reached US$95 billion between 2010 and 2014, peaking at US$105 billion in 2014[12]. These results then demonstrate that Africa is missing out on its full growth potential because a considerable portion of its growth pool, namely women, is not being fully harnessed for state development. In addition, African women are more likely than men to be in vulnerable employment and work primarily in the informal sector. In 2010, 65.4% of non-agricultural jobs in the informal sector were held by women in Liberia and 62.2% in Uganda[13]. Women working in the informal sector de facto lack social protection, reinforcing their precariousness.

  • Political inequalities

When it comes to political equality, the situation is more nuanced. In 2018, only 24% of seats in national parliaments were held by women[14]. However, this figure is slightly increasing, since it was 12% in 2000 and 19% in 2010[15]. Women are largely underrepresented in ministries and other legislative and executive bodies. Nevertheless, despite this low percentage, some countries stand out, such as Rwanda: the first country in which women make up more than half of parliamentarians, representing 61.3% of parliamentarians in 2018[16]. With these figures, Rwanda exceeds the expectations of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, since the Beijing World Conference on Women set a target of 30% of women in decision-making positions. Similarly, Ethiopia has seen the largest increase in women’s political representation in the executive branch, with 47.6% of women in mid-level positions in 2019, up from 10% in 2017[17]< /sup>. Mozambique was also the first country in the region to appoint a woman as prime minister, Luisa Diogo in 2004. African women are slowly taking ownership of the political sphere and are gaining greater visibility, allowing them to push the political agenda in their countries. Cecilia Poggi, a French economist, and Juliette Waltmann, a researcher for the French Development Agency (AFD), explain that it is essential to consider women as full-fledged political actors and that they must be able to have the same representation and participation as men, and hence become female role models to inspire other young girls[18]. However, progress is measured in micro-advances and several African countries have less than 10% of women in mid-level positions, such as Morocco (5.6%), Nigeria (8%) or Sudan (9%)[19], which is still far from the objective of 30% desired by the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995.

Fighting against social, economic and political inequalities demands a change of mentality. For this to happen, society as a whole must become aware of the importance of valuing the status of women and therefore question its practices, both for men and for women who have internalized and accepted the norms to which they are subjected. This reconsideration can have different faces.

National and regional political actions 

Equality between women and men and the empowerment of women and girls has become a priority on the African continent, aiming to ensure respect for women’s rights and put an end to gender discrimination. Women’s empowerment and sustainable development were highlighted at the 2015 African Union Summit of Heads of State and Government in the context of achieving Africa’s Agenda 2063. Agenda 2063 is built on seven commitments, namely:

  1. Achieving equitable people-centred growth and development
  2. Eradicating poverty
  3. Developing human capital, social goods, infrastructure and public goods
  4. Achieving sustainable peace and security
  5. Establishing effective and strong State development
  6. Promoting participatory and accountable institutions
  7. Empowering women and girls

The empowerment of women and girls and gender equality is becoming a very important objective for the member states of the African Union. As a result, girl-specific policies have led to significant improvements in access to education for girls in Benin, Botswana, Gambia, Guinea, Lesotho, Mauritania, and Namibia. Girls’ access to education has also increased thanks to awareness campaigns, but also thanks to policies to reduce school fees in public elementary schools in rural areas. In Benin, for example, the gender gap has decreased from 32% to 22%[20].

African feminist movements: a way to fight against gender inequalities

Feminist movements have also emerged so that women can claim their rights. They also intend to denounce inequalities and discriminations linked to their gender that African women have gathered in groups. Fatou Sow, a Senegalese sociologist and researcher working mainly on gender issues in Africa, explains that the women’s movements known today are recent and refer to the colonial period[21]. However, the origin of these movements goes back well before this period. Associations have formed women’s networks of neighbourhood, solidarity and strengthening of social ties. These organizations “are the place for women to weave social links beyond the economic aspect[22]“. Lucia Bakulumpagi, the founder of the Bakulu Power company in Uganda, explains that women must get together (“it is urgent for women to network”[23]) because they face problems that men do not, such as motherhood. This network allows them to reconcile both their private and professional lives, putting forward the concept of sisterhood.

In addition, the importance of feminist demonstrations and movements should not be overlooked. For several years, marches have been held in Pretoria, South Africa, to denounce sexual and gender-based violence. In South Africa, in 2019, the police register about 110 complaints of rape[24] daily, a figure that although significant, does not consider the unreported crimes, only showing the tip of the iceberg. We can therefore inflate this figure by imagining the unreported crimes. Demonstrations allow us to strengthen the voices of the victims, highlight problematic behaviours and thus seek an improvement in living conditions. With this in mind, the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, put in place an emergency plan in 2019 to combat violence against women in the country.

The involvement of international organizations in the fight against gender discrimination

The promotion of equality and human rights, as well as the elimination of discrimination and violence against women, are an integral part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations programs of recent decades[25].  As a result, many reports have emerged, such as the 2016 African Human Development Report[26],

which focuses on gender equality and examines the efforts of African countries to empower women, one of the main goals of the SDGs. To address these inequalities, the United Nations developed the concept of gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) in 1997, which involves a “gendered” analysis of budgetary allocations and a balancing of government funding.

In that respect, Robert B. Zoellick, President of the World Bank Group between 2007 and 2012, stated in 2011 that the World Bank had contributed $65 billion to promote girls’ education, women’s health and women’s access to credit, land, agricultural services, employment, and infrastructure. In line with this goal, in April 2019, the World Bank launched the Africa Human Capital Plan, which aims to improve human capital outcomes in the region, including $2.2 billion invested in women’s empowerment. The goal is to improve women’s access to education, access to quality health care and increase employment opportunities. To date, this action plan has provided vocational training to almost 100,000 women, and trained 6,600 midwives, according to the World Bank’s 2020 annual report[27]. Through the Human Capital Plan for Africa, more than 100,000 girls have also gone to school. However, international aid, particularly in the framework of feminist international aid policies, must be put into perspective, especially when the notion of empowerment is at stake. These public policies often come from Western countries towards African countries and disregarding the gap between the Western ideals and the context of the countries receiving the aid, making the latter null and void[28].


Africa is a continent still strongly marked by gender inequalities in all areas, which has a strong impact on women, whether from a social, economic, or political point of view. Despite this alarming fact, for several decades, changes have taken place to overcome gender discrimination against women and girls. Now, the autonomy of women and girls as well as gender equality, standing as the fifth goal of the United Nations Development Goals, have become priorities for many countries, incl
uding in Africa. Progress in this area is due to the implementation of programs and policies as well as to feminist associations that have been deconstructing patriarchal ideas for several decades. However, the health situation related to the coronavirus pandemic is having a negative impact on women’s rights: it will take another 36 years to reach gender equality, a total of 136 years. Saadia Zahidi, a member of the Davos Forum’s executive committee, explains that the pandemic has a strong impact on gender equality, both in the public and private spheres, particularly with an increase in sexual violence within the home[29]. The current pandemic accentuates gender inequalities and becomes a threat to women’s rights in the world and Africa.



[1] “UNESCO and gender equality in Sub-Saharan Africa: innovative programmes, visible results”, UNESCO Report, 2017

[2] Congo (Democratic Republic of) Family Code, Book 3, title 1, chap. 5, sect. 2, art. 444.

[3] Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discriminations Against Women, article 16.2 “The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory”. Online: https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/text/econvention.htm#article16

[4] Ordioni, Natacha. « Pauvreté et inégalités de droits en Afrique : une perspective “genrée” », Mondes en développement, vol. no 129, no. 1, 2005, pp. 93-106.

[5] UNICEF, Adolescent girls in West and Central Africa: data brief : https://www.unicef.org/wca/media/3886/file/Les%20filles%20adolescentes%20en%20Afrique%20de%20l’Ouest%20et%20du%20Centre%20.pdf

[6] « Mariages d’enfants au Mali et au Niger : comment les comprendre ? » Le Monde, 29 novembre 2018 https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2018/11/29/mariages-d-enfants-au-mali-et-au-niger-comment-les-comprendre_5390415_3212.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] Investing in opportunity, World Bank Annual Report, 2018

[9] Christian Hallum, Kwesi W. Obeng, The West Africa Inequality Crisis, OXFAM, July 2019, available at: https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/620837/bp-west-africa-inequality-crisis-090719-en.pdf 

[10] Food and Agriculture Organisation, 2011

[11] United Nations Development Programme, Africa Human Development Report 2016. Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Africa, 2016

[12] Ibid.

[13] Africa Human Development Report 2016 based on data extracted from Maternity and paternity at work: Law and practice across the world Report, WLO, Geneva, 2014

[14] United Nations Development Programme, Africa Human Development Report 2016. Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Africa, 2016, p.49

[15] Ibid.

[16] « Women in national parliaments », update 1 February 2019. http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm

[17] Zipporah Musau, “African Women in politics: Miles to go before parity is achieved”, United Nations, Africa Renewal, 8 April 2019. https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/april-2019-july-2019/african-women-politics-miles-go-parity-achieved

[18] Poggi, Cecilia, and Juliette Waltmann (dir.), « La (re)production des inégalités de genre dans le monde du travail: des discriminations légales à l’autonomisation », La (re)production des inégalités de genre dans le monde du travail: des discriminations légales à l’autonomisation, Agence française de développement, 2019, pp. 1-36.

[19] Zipporah Musau, African Women in politics: Miles to go before parity is achieved”, United Nations, Africa Renewal, 8 April 2019. https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/april-2019-july-2019/african-women-politics-miles-go-parity-achieved

[20] Gumisai Mutume, “African Women Battle for Equality” United Nations, Africa Renewal, 2005. https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/july-2005/african-women-battle-equality

[21] « Mouvements féministes en Afrique », Revue Tiers Monde, vol. 209, no. 1, 2012, pp. 145-160.

[22] Citation of Mbootay Adja Meissa de Saint-Louis in Guèye, Ndèye Sokhna Mouvements sociaux des femmes au Sénégal, UNESCO, 2013.

[23] Forson, Viviane, Le Point [en ligne] « Ouganda – Lucia Bakulumpagi : ‘Il est urgent que les femmes se mettent en réseau’ », 27 juin 2019. Available on: https://www.lepoint.fr/afrique/ouganda-lucia-bakulumpagi-il-est-urgent-que-les-femmes-se-mettent-en-reseau-27-06-2019-2321450_3826.php

[24] Rodier Simon, TV5 Monde [en ligne] « Afrique du Sud : Manifestations de femmes contre les violences », 3 janvier 2019. Available on: https://information.tv5monde.com/info/afrique-du-sud-manifestations-de-femmes-contre-les-violences-278117

[25] More information: Jeanne Prin, “Gender and Development: evolutions and debates around a concept now indicator of international development”, Gender Institute in Geopolitics, 29 June 2020

[26] United Nations Development Programme, Africa Human Development Report 2016. Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Africa. 2016

[27] “Supporting Countries in Unprecedented
Times”, World Bank Annual Report 2020.

[28] More information on feminist international aid policy: Romane Wohlschies, “La notion d’empowerment dans l’aide au développement, entre appropriation et instrumentalisation – cas d’illustration “La politique d’aide internationale féministe du Canada au Mali”, Institut de Genre en Géopolitique, February

[29] Aline Nanko Samaké, “COVID-19: A Threat to Women’s Rights Everywhere: How does the Pandemic Increase Gender Inequality?”, Gender in Geopolitics Institute, April 2020

To cite this article: Louise Jousse, “Discrimination and gender inequalities in Africa: what about equality between women and men?”, 05.31.2021, Gender in Geopolitics Institute