Women in the Sahel: Champions for Change

04.09.2021 | Christina Oyelowo

Women are making a difference throughout the world, but especially in Africa’s Sahel region. There, they are playing an important role in local resilience, taking a unique position as allies against violent extremism, and working to reverse the increasing spread of communitarian violence. Yet socio-cultural factors continue prohibiting women from having equitable participation space and taking positions of authority in their respective societies.

On March 16, CIPE’s Sahel Business Coalition hosted a virtual event titled, Contribution de l’Entrepreneuriat Féminin à la Stabilité au Sahel. The event, which was organized in collaboration with the G5 Sahel Women Platform and the UN Women organization, coincided with Women’s History Month. It featured female business leaders and entrepreneurs from across the Sahel region.

Participants discussed policy recommendations and effective women’s economic inclusion programs that could support women owned businesses amidst growing regional insecurity and the impending Covid-19 economic recovery. The webinar offered the opportunity to share ideas on the current situation focusing on the impact of the multiple crises on women. It also allowed participants to discuss the ways that democracy can strengthen women, while fostering sustainable stability.

The Region

The Sahel, spanning over 10 countries, is a vast, semi-arid region of Africa serving as a border between North Africa and the tropical regions in the south. While the G5 Sahel sub-region is home to copious resources and holds much human potential (with one of the youngest populations in the world), many challenges serve as barriers to the region’s success. The region has been hit hard in the past decade by several economic and climate challenges, and has served as a battleground in surrounding conflicts including those of Libya and Sudan in the north and Nigeria and Cameroon in the south. The wide and uncontrolled space hosts traditional trade routes that have also served as a hiding place, and later breeding ground, for terrorist groups. The fragile states are facing a major economic crisis that was further amplified by the COVID pandemic. The level of distress has been causing high socio-political tensions, fueling ethnic conflicts and leading to major population displacement with humanitarian damages. Considerable economic, extremist, social, and political divides have caused vulnerable groups such as women and youth to be exploited and live in fear.

Education and literacy are fundamental to accessing information; when women are unable to attain quality education, their ability to participate in decision-making roles and acquire resources to support those roles becomes jeopardized.

While people living in the Sahel understand the degree of urgency, it is surprising to see the hope which drives a passion for action and positive development. Women leaders who spoke at the webinar clearly know the risks, but they are showing determination for change and a responsibility to lead such change. Actions taken by women have saved communities, and they see the need for more involvement. Some are calling on decision makers to support gender policies as a contributing factor for the advancement of societies.

A Crucial Resource

Women represent, on average 52% of the population across the region. Yet they are often counted for only one third of the employed population. They lead the dominant informal sector, which is often neglected and excluded from all public support packages for the private sector. Formalization remains a difficult path, as many countries continue to have the most difficult “doing business” indicators and have greater legal challenges for women trying to access property, credit or public services. Yet there remains hope for the development of the region, and the advancement of women is a large contributing factor.

As explained by the various speakers at the webinar, there are key problems facing women and contributing to gender inequality in the region. Education remains one of the top issues for the region and serves as a consistent barrier to success. In Mali, for example, 44.9% of men and 54.4% of women surveyed in a report had no formal education at all. The gender gap becomes more pronounced at higher levels of education, where the percentage of women enrolled in secondary education and above is much lower than that of men. For example, 3.2% of Malian women reported having accessed tertiary education compared to 10% of men.  Education and literacy are fundamental to accessing information that is often vital to people; when women are unable to attain quality education, their ability to participate in decision-making roles and acquire resources to support those roles becomes jeopardized. This exclusion is further noticed when looking at access to new technology that is fast tracking growth for male counterparts and often aligning with existing socio-economic trends.

Discriminatory cultural practices and beliefs promote serious gender inequality levels, leaving women of the region particularly vulnerable. With strict gender divides in terms of labor, women suffer compared to their male counterparts as they often take up the roles of raising children, tending shops, and  farming. In one Sahel country, Mauritania, more than one third of girls are married before 18 years of age and the majority of them have children before 20. This, in addition to caring for parents, limits their access to the education and training they need to compete in a global economy.

The Importance of Climate

Climate change also threatens to exacerbate the divide between men and women. As women make up nearly 80% of the Sahel’s agricultural workforce, their daily lives are often closely linked to agricultural products and natural resources. With the growing threat that climate change imposes on the region, such vulnerable populations are more likely to be victims of exacerbated inequality.

As many populations in the region function according to traditional beliefs and attitudes, it can be difficult to bring change and initiatives to the region, even changes that would be seen as socially acceptable. This further contributes to the plight of women in the region. Limited access to adequate healthcare, especially reproductive healthcare, again contributes to the gender divide as women who lack family planning skills are not provided with the relevant tools needed to shape their futures. Additionally, the ongoing threats made by violent extremists and the role of women  in such conflicts have added unprecedented challenges to the development of the region.

Despite these barriers to success, the speakers who joined the webinar were able to provide hope and insight about many of the new and exciting initiatives deployed by their respective organizations that show promising results for the further advancement of women in the G5 Sahel sub-region. As highlighted in the webinar by Luisa Ruiz Abril, the Regional Policy Advisor of UN Women, there are eight key indicators organizations can use to measure legal differences between men and women as they move through different stages of their professional lives:

  1. Mobility
  2. Work
  3. Remuneration
  4. Marriage
  5. Parenthood
  6. Entrepreneurship
  7. Assets
  8. Retirement

If both local legal codes and organizations can focus on the disparities between the genders in these key aspects, considerable advancement can be achieved in the Sahel. NGOs in the region sponsor projects varying from the creation of husbands’ clubs that allow men a safe space to discuss traditionally women’s issues, to increasing the amount of schools and qualified teachers in the region, to training women in practical skills such as technicians and engineering. By improving access to healthcare facilities, guaranteeing schooling for girls, and the acquisition of practical skills for women, gender inequality levels are sure to dissipate allowing the Sahel region the opportunity to grow and flourish on its own accord. CIPE’s work throughout Africa contributes to the promotion of democracy and benefits women.

When women are able to participate in more democratic affairs, they are able to do away with oppressive regimes. By ensuring that democracy initiatives as well as women’s initiatives are adequately funded, and promoted, the Sahel region has a fighting chance at becoming a developed and free region for all. CIPE’s approach has been to meet national and regional ecosystem players where they are and build their capacities to drive change in alignment with local objectives and international best practices. The March webinar is part of a wider strategic women advocacy process supporting the emergence of a business agenda that is gender sensitive for the Sahel.