Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
The image of an African woman with or without a baby on her back, tilling the land or selling food at the market, easily comes to mind when thinking about women and economic activity on the continent. It is a common portrait of women entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa and appears in a number of advocacy or annual reports of international organisations, non-governmental organisations and companies. As a bonus, the woman is usually smiling. What accompanies this picture is the typical story of a woman with unmatched courage, who rises slightly above poverty with just enough to feed her family and educate her children. Then, the story is completed with mention of an entity – usually an NGO, international humanitarian organisation, UN agency or private company – that is intervening to improve her life.
While this portrayal positively highlights the incredible endurance and strides African women take to survive under harsh conditions, it has helped create limiting impressions. It is difficult to imagine an African business woman without her hardships – small and medium enterprises seem to be her rightful place – and if someone ‘out there’ cares about her status, it is often not her government, but rather a local NGO or international donor.
There are persuasive statistics and arguments to support this stereotyped picture. A barrage of data affirm gender inequalities and reveal how women lag behind men in just about every area of human development. In both the formal and informal sectors, women in the sub-continent are locked into the lowest level of the economic pyramid.
But this picture is incomplete. There are faces emerging other than that of the African woman who is condemned by social, political and economic conditions to submissive roles, low paying jobs, and small enterprises. Over the years, there has been an increase in the number of women accessing education, climbing corporate ladders, and entering leadership positions in business and politics. Portraits of women who are able to build on their strengths should increase in prominence if we are to inspire a generation of self-confident, empowered, and influential women participants in the economic development of sub-Saharan Africa. These portraits will help to challenge damning perceptions about African women’s potential and ability to drive change.
The time is favourable. While major development challenges remain, optimistic reports are replacing the grim picture of a continent plunged in perpetual poverty. The continent escaped ‘remarkably unscathed’ from the global financial crisis, the aftermaths of which are still shaking Western economies (Hirsch 2010). At the same time, the crisis presented a space to rethink, re-imagine and re-image African women’s economic participation in the region.
This paper identifies and highlights some new initiatives and life-transforming programmes within the region that seek to improve women’s economic status and carve a leadership role for women entrepreneurs, employees, and business owners. It does so while acknowledging the social and political realities that shape women’s economic experiences and positioning on the continent.