Gender equality is a right, but it’s about economic growth too

This month, when the Southern African Development Community parliamentary forum gathers in Durban for its 37th plenary, the focus will be on industrialisation and SADC regional integration, and the role of parliaments in this.

As head of UN Women in the Southern African Customs Union countries and liaison office for SADC (for UN Women Eastern and Southern Africa), I am excited about the potential for the parliamentary forum to drive a regional approach to achieve equality and prosperity, and deepen growing consensus that women’s empowerment is a prerequisite for sustainable development.

Near the parliamentary forum, at Durban’s Warwick Junction marketplace, thousands of mostly women vendors do business and buy and sell goods from across the region. In each of the SADC’s 15 member countries, millions of women traders, farmers and entrepreneurs put SADC’s vision into practice: they meet demand and provide for communities.

Most of these women work in the informal sector where protections are scarce and exploitation is often not visible. UN Women’s flagship publication, Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realising Rights, reports that the gender pay gap in sub-Saharan Africa is 30%.

For SADC’s drive towards industrialisation to succeed, economic transformation proceeds hand in hand with social transformation, towards decent work for women, social policies empower women and macroeconomic and trade policies that recognise and address gender inequality.

Agriculture provides a key example of how economic development and women’s empowerment are inextricably linked. In Southern Africa, women make up a clear majority of the agricultural workforce. President Edgar Lungu of Zambia noted recently at the African Union summit that 72% “of our nationals derive their livelihood from agriculture, out of which 65% are women”.

Across Africa, women in agriculture work in the informal sector with unequal access to land, credit, seeds, fertilisers and market information. This means they produce less, agricultural output is lower than it should be and our economies suffer.

As we look to productivity-increasing reforms to allow women access to decent work, a key priority is to address women’s burden of unpaid care work. Globally, women do 2.5 times as much unpaid care work as men; this is particularly pronounced in poorer rural areas in Africa.

Authorities must support shifts in social norms so men can take on care work, and families can more equally share the burden, enabling women to be educated and employed.

Thus, while gender inequality is clearly a human rights issue, it is also becoming increasingly clear that it is a brake on development and economic growth. Promoting equal treatment is necessary to attain a nation’s full productive potential.

Gender equality is one of the SADC’s 12 priority intervention areas, and the parliamentary forum recently announced a resolution to partner with UN Women. This is an ideal time for us to form a close partnership – the African Union has designated 2015 the year of women’s empowerment and development towards Africa’s agenda 2063.

A millennium development goals lesson, expiring this year, was that, to achieve real change, gender equality must be core to all development activities, including financing.

UN Women stands fully behind a global push for all international development efforts to include financing for gender equality. That means domestic and international investment decisions, as well as investments in innovation, science and technology, should consider their effect on gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Decisions on trade are critically important for the SADC’s parliamentary forum, given the recent announcement by African heads of state of the largest free-trade zone in Africa: the Tripartite Free Trade Area.

Women informal cross-border traders in Africa make an important contribution to economic growth and government revenue. UN Women research suggests empowering them could have a multiplier effect on poverty reduction, employment generation, intra-African trade and regional integration. On the most practical level, it would mean better, cheaper goods, more efficiently produced and transported for sale, and more income for their families and families of those in transactions along the value chain, potentially across SADC countries.

This month’s plenary in Durban could not come at a more auspicious time. On behalf of UN Women, I wish participants well and look forward to following their working towards a more integrated, industrialised region, for the benefit of all.

Auxilia Ponga is the Pretoria-based representative of the UN Women Multi-Country Office

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