Here is the reason why Africa is not thriving—its women

Countries where women's lives are better tend to rank higher on development indices, suggesting the answer to Africa's growth has always been clear.

WOMEN change their minds as often as the English weather, right? Wrong. That is according to a new poll - that came ahead of International Women’s Day March 8, Sunday - that finds that women’s feelings about how they are doing in life have remained remarkably consistent for years.

According to the survey, more than one in four women globally, or about 620 million, rate their lives as “thriving”. Three times as many, or the two billion other women, rated themselves less positively, saying they were “struggling” or “suffering”.

“These ratings have been remarkably stable for the past several years,” pollster Gallup, which carried out the survey ahead of the International Women’s Day marked on March 8, said. 

The survey relies on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Scale, used in many well-being indices. Essentially it asks respondents to imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top.

The highest rung represents the best possible life, and the bottom rung the worst possible life, and asks respondents to identify where they are at present, and also where they see themselves in five years time.

How one views their wellbeing is either holistic—life evaluation—or based on feelings, which depends on the day.

According to the scale, those who rate themselves at 7 and above currently, and above 8 in five years, are categorised as thriving.

The scale, which generally measures the former, also shows a co-relation with income, explaining the consistently high ranking of Nordic women, led by Iceland, Sweden and Denmark.

It also gives a pointer to why women in Madagascar and Egypt reported themselves as the highest suffering, as political conflict in the two African countries in recent years ravaged real incomes.

More revealingly, countries where women reported themselves as “thriving” were generally rated higher on the UN’s annual Human Development Index, suggesting that what makes women’s lives better makes people’s lives better in general, the survey carried in more than 136 countries says.

It adds that countries that also have considerable instability—either militarily, economically or politically—are more likely to report experiencing negative emotions: stress, sadness, anger, physical pain or worry.

Iraqi women for example had the highest score on the Negative Experience Index. Egypt, which has experienced major revolutionary shocks, and post-conflict Sierra Leone, which is also battling Ebola, were Africa’s representatives in the top 10 of the list.

South Africa, which has among the highest progression for women, was the highest African country on the opposite end of this scale, followed by Ethiopia, and unexpectedly, Zimbabwe.

The survey does not indicate why women from the southern African country led by president Robert Mugabe report positive experiences, despite being buffeted by economic shocks since international sanctions were imposed in 2003.

But as noted, the survey also is hostage to feeling, meaning that the response to questions would vary on a daily basis. On the day before the survey, Gallup says, at least 70% of women worldwide say they are treated with a great deal of respect, smiled or laughed a lot, and even felt well-rested.

New knowledge and experiences also helped—50% of women polled said they learned or did something interesting a day before the interview.

On the Positive Experience Index score, Syrian women unsurprisingly had the lowest score of 10 countries, but were joined from Africa by Chadian and Tunisian women.

No African country featured among the leading 10 that reported the highest Positive Experience Index, a listing head by Paraguay.

The researchers say that improving jobs prospects and the personal safety of women are the key areas that would help improve women’s daily lives, especially in a world where there are twice as many men in the workforce as women, and who enjoy better benefits.

Building up women—including making them feel safe— in sub-Saharan Africa and other emerging markets will noticeably fuel economic growth in those countries.

Therein lies the simple lesson for Africa—to develop and improve its citizens’ incomes it must improve the lot of its women.

One way of doing this is by improving their education. But in many parts of the developing world girls spend a lot of time looking for water, meaning less time for school. Newer phenomena like climate change have worsened the situation, giving rise to the startling statistics that show women suffer the most, with those longer walks searching for water becoming more dangerous. (Read: Depressing read: ‘Man-made’ climate change bigger problem for women than men)

According to the World Bank, 90% of some 140,000 victims of the 1991 cyclone that battered Bangladesh were women, as were nearly two thirds of those killed by Myanmar’s 2008 Cyclone Nargis.

“There are many reasons but one of them is that they cannot swim, they cannot climb trees, it’s cultural,” said Elena Manaenkova, assistant secretary-general of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), news wire AFP reported.

“In many countries—and it’s also cultural—they are not supposed to run, they are supposed to wait until their husband will call them to action.”

In many ways it is a self-fulfilling cycle—poverty forces more women to drop out of school, where they fall into traps such as early-marriages, rendering them at the mercy of men who make all the key decisions for them.

The upshot is that less empowered women means less economic growth. So as male-dominated institutions in Africa hare around looking for high-sounding solutions to poverty, they really shouldn’t have to look too far—the answer has been with them all along.

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