Photograph — OCHA

As we begin to focus on learnings from COVID-19, it is impossible to overlook the vital contributions of African women whose pioneering responses to the pandemic saved many lives. Women like Dr Tlamelo Setshwaelo, who modelled effective COVID-19 responses as part of the rapid response medical team at Sir Ketumile Masire Teaching Hospital in Bostwana or Bhelekazi Mdlalose, a forensic nurse who become a contact tracer for COVID-19 in Gauteng, South Africa. Or leaders like Jane Karuku, Managing Director and CEO of East African Breweries who led Kenya’s National COVID-19 Fund, a private sector initiative to raise resources in support of the government’s effort to respond to the pandemic or Aminata Touré, former Prime Minister of Senegal, who has been passionately advocating for vaccine equity. 

But as we recognize the women making history today, we must ask: Are we doing enough to ensure more can step forward as leaders and as Africa’s history makers of tomorrow? The answer is “not yet”, and we’d like to propose three for action: empower women in the economy, gather more and better data to see the full picture of women’s lives, and promote women in decision making, policy and governance.  

Women in Africa disproportionately suffered during the pandemic, and our hard-won economic and social advances of recent years are backsliding. In nearly every country, a greater percentage of women lost their jobs compared to men. In fact, globally over the past two years, women were nearly two times more likely to lose their jobs than men.   

Millions of women across Africa had no choice but to draw down the few savings they had or sell any productive assets they had left. For example, according to the UN Women’s Women Count program, more than 60 per cent of women and men in Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa experienced a complete loss or decline in personal incomes due to the pandemic. With 92 per cent of working African women in the informal economy, few had the job security or social safety nets to weather the storm.    

Closing economic gaps and building economic resilience will require ensuring that stimulus efforts and social protection schemes are intentionally designed to reach women. Policymakers can look to countries like Togo for inspiration. Its Novissi program channelled emergency cash subsidies directly to people in the informal economy, 65 per cent of whom were women. The program reached almost 1.4 million Togolese enabling many women to invest in the health and economic wellbeing of themselves and their families.  

The pandemic demonstrated how much we rely on African women – healthcare responders, volunteers, and caregivers – in our communities. And yet, we’re woefully underrepresented in decision-making processes and leadership positions. Only 24 per cent of people serving on the 225 COVID-19 government task forces established in Africa and other developing countries were women​1. We’re missing out on perspectives that would help us shape and respond to the needs of half of our continent’s population.   

There have been positive advancements in recent months. The African Union elected its first female deputy chairperson and achieved gender parity in six recently established commissioner posts. Cameroon’s Vera Songwe, from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, put in place guidelines to make female empowerment a central pillar in the region’s post-pandemic economic recovery plans. This is the leadership we need.   

A major challenge to effectively designing initiatives that make a difference is accurately defining the barriers that African women face to help us determine how they can be overcome. Decision-makers require precise data that is disaggregated by sex and which includes specific measures that paint a full picture of women’s health and economic lives. One promising initiative was the Kenyan Bureau of Statistics’ National Time Use survey. The first of its kind, the survey allowed leaders to develop data-driven policies that allocate services and resources where women need them most.   

Women will play a central role in reviving African economies post-COVID-19. As we build a post-pandemic future for our continent, we must implement data-based policy solutions that address the unique challenges women face. After all, effective policies today will ensure women and girls can thrive tomorrow. They are an investment in a new generation of African women history makers who we can celebrate for decades to come.    

About Julienne Lusenge and Natalie Africa 

Julienne Lusenge is co-founder and president of Women’s Solidarity for Inclusive Peace and Development (SOFEPADI). Natalie Africa is the senior advisor to the Africa Director at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.    

 Article by Julienne Lusenge and Natalie Africa 

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