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In Africa, 'Poverty Has a Female Face'

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  • The global economic crisis will have a major impact on women
  • Girls, more than boys, will suffer in areas such as education and infant mortality
  • The plight of women must be incorporated in any economic development strategy

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2009 – The global economic crisis will drastically reduce African women’s individual incomes as well as the budgets they manage on behalf of their households, with particularly damaging consequences for girls, said Obiageli Ezekwesili, World Bank Vice President for the Africa Region, at a recent conference on the impact of the global economic crisis on women in Africa.

“Poverty has a female face and the global economic downturn will have a significant impact on women as more of them lose jobs and are forced to manage shrinking household incomes,” Ezekwesili said May 8 at the “Women and the Changing Global Outlook” conference organized by the British Embassy in Washington, and the National Geographic Society.

“The face of poverty is female,” she said, sketching the portrait of the typical poor African youth.

“She is 18.5 years old. She lives in a rural area. She has dropped out of school. She is single, but is about to be married or be given in marriage to a man approximately twice her age. She will be the mother of six or seven kids in another 20 years,” said Ezekwesili, citing the findings of the latest edition of the annual World Bank publication, Africa Development Indicators (ADI).

The Global Crisis and its Impact on Women and Girls

The global economic crisis, Ezekwesili explained, is likely to hit African women on two fronts. First, it will arrest capital accumulation by women, and second, it will drastically reduce women’s individual incomes as well as the budgets they manage on behalf of households. This would have damaging consequences notably on the girl child.

With the education of boys largely sheltered from shocks and parents often more likely to pull out a girl from school than a boy when tuition becomes hard to find, the World Bank Vice President cited research findings on household income declines in Uganda and a fall in income from agriculture in Madagascar where girls were first to be pulled out of schools.

The World Bank has warned that an additional 700,000 African infants are likely to die before their first birthday as a result of the crisis. The girl child will be hit hardest. Research has shown that “girls are five times more likely to be impacted by increases in infant mortality rate than boys.”

Unlike in rich countries such as the United States, where more men have tended to lose their jobs compared to women, the crisis in Africa is leaving women with ever fewer job choices. In many export-oriented industries – for example, the cut-flower industry in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda and the textile industry in Kenya and Lesotho – it is women, not men, across Africa who are bleeding jobs because of the crisis.

Declining remittances and a tightening of micro-finance lending would further restrict the funds available to women to run their households.

Gender-focused Development Initiatives

Conference participants reached consensus that development and poverty alleviation strategies that fail to target girls and women have little to no chance of success in Africa.

Ms. Ezekwesili drew attention to the Gender Entrepreneurship Markets (GEM) initiative launched by the Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), to enhance women’s access to finance and address gender barriers to the business environment. The $50 million GEM has benefited over 1,500 women in 18 sub-Saharan African countries and will be enhanced by a recent $120 million loan program that the IFC signed with EcoBank to benefit businesswomen in five countries.

In addition, the Bank has adopted a Gender Action Plan and launched an $11 million, three-year Adolescent Girls Initiative to train, mentor, empower and facilitate the transition of young African women to work in Liberia, Southern Sudan and Rwanda. In addition, 83 Bank-funded projects totaling $4.4 billion have female economic empowerment components; the majority of them (33) in agriculture, education (34), infrastructure (11) and private sector development (5).

Other speakers at the conference struck similar chords.

Speaking on behalf of the British ambassador to Washington, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the deputy head of mission, Dominick Chilcott, stressed the link between women’s empowerment and development. The road to sustainable development, he said, is only attainable if it is built on a gender inclusive agenda.

“We must take the opportunities presented by the crisis to innovate and invest in women, whether it is proposals to introduce better social programs, finding ways of integrating women into the labor force, or reducing discrimination in financial markets,” he said, citing remarks by Sheinwald.

In a video message, Ms. Sarah Brown, the spouse of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, spoke of the need for world leaders to tackle “the many injustices that remain” against women.

Ambassador Melanne Verveer, U.S. President Barack Obama’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the State Department, urged development agencies to “think women”.

“You cannot beat poverty without putting women at the center of your development strategies,” she said.

“Women’s equality is not just the right thing to do, it is also smart economics,” she added, paraphrasing the World Bank. She pointed out that women were key to food security and agriculture; essential players in the promotion of the rights of the child; major actors in health care provision; yet continued to suffer discrimination in powerful board rooms; and on higher rungs of corporate ladders.

Women at the Helm

Women’s entrepreneurship training constitutes one of the keys for unlocking the creative genius of African women, said Ms. Remi Duyile, a program manager at Gender Entrepreneurship Markets, appealing to women to pursue that path despite the many difficulties and limited access to credit. “Success,” she said, “is a journey. It must never be a destination”.

Ms. Regina Amadi, a retired assistant director general for the International Labor Organization, urged world leaders to attend to what she called “the social dimensions of globalization” and for women around the world to return to what she termed “old time mobilization”: in order to ensure that this decade becomes “an ‘uhuru’ (rallying) moment for gender equality”.

Suggesting that the limited involvement of women in managing global financial issues was one of the reasons for the current global crisis, Baroness Amos, the former leader of the British House of Lords, cited an unnamed source as saying the world might have avoided the current crisis with more women at the helm of financial affairs.

According to Amos: “Someone said the crisis might have been avoided had Lehman Brothers (the last major bank to collapse before stock markets worldwide tanked) had only been Lehwoman Sisters”.

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