Please give Rwanda a round of applause on this International Women’s Day.
It’s the only African nation to crack the top-10 list of the most gender-equal societies, according to the World Economic Forum. It has one of the highest female labor participation rates of any country, per 2019 figures from the International Labour Organization. And Rwandan women make up more than 60% of the parliament and more than half of the cabinet, touts the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Still Rwanda is far away from Equiterra, a land of equal opportunity recently recognized by the United Nations in what would constitute a perfect world. In observance of the occasion, UN Women is offering virtual tours of this “dream” destination, making stops on its website at Inclusion Square, Equal Pay Street and Education Boulevard.
Unfortunately, the World Economic Forum forecasts that this nation has little chance of being chartered in our lifetime, if the current pace continues.
In reality, the forum calculates that it would take 95 years for sub-Saharan Africa to close the gender gap.
This outlook is upsetting to women who are concerned about the future, says UN Women’s Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who hailed 2020 as the year of “Generation Equality” in a pre-holiday address.
She acknowledges there has been some progress, however ... “No country has achieved gender equality,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka. “Our best hasn’t been good enough.”
How Far We’ve Come
It’s been 25 years since the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action when the then-U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”
Now, UN officials note that gender equality is faltering and hard-won advances are being reversed in a report titled, “Women’s Rights in Review 25 Years After Beijing.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka balances her disappointment with optimism: a 38% drop in maternal deaths since 2000; more than 75% of countries with anti-domestic violence legislation; and more girls in school than ever before.
Yet men, Mlambo-Ngcuka points out, are 75% of parliamentarians, 73% of managers, 70% of climate negotiators and almost all of the peacemakers.
There aren’t enough women in roles as negotiators and signatories at the peace table, the report finds. “We know women’s involvement brings more lasting peace agreements,” Mlambo-Ngcuka says, adding that women continue to be marginalized.
Economic inequality is another issue that frustrates the South African diplomat. “Women and girls use triple the time and energy of boys and men to look after the household,” she says. “That costs them equal opportunities in education, in the job market and in earning power. It’s a driver of repeating poverty.”
These long-lasting hardships, she explains, have a greater impact on young women with families and impacts millions of children well into their future.
How African Nations Rank
According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2020, Rwanda ranks ninth out of 153 countries. Rounding out the top 20 are Namibia (No. 12) and South Africa (No. 17).
By comparison, the United States ranks at 53, and the index estimates it would take North America 151 years to reach gender parity. Western Europe, on the other end, would take only 54 years at the current pace.
The forum considered four metrics—educational attainment, political empowerment, economic participation and opportunity, and health and survival—in its index.
Botswana and Lesotho tied 23 other nations to rest atop the list of gender parity for educational attainment. Namibia and the United States received the same score as the top-ranked countries, but they came in at No. 32 and No. 34 respectively.
Rwanda ranks fourth in political empowerment of women. South Africa ranks 10th. And Ethiopia ranks 16th, ahead of the United Kingdom ranking at 20.
The No. 1 spot under the health and survival index is shared by 39 nations, including 13 from the continent: Angola, Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
In economic participation, Burundi ranked at No. 6, and Zambia was close behind at No. 7. Guinea ranked at No. 10 and Namibia nabbed the 17th spot on the list.
How to Move Forward
“Gender parity has a fundamental bearing on whether or not economies and societies thrive,” the World Economic Forum reports, adding that developing one-half of the world’s available talent impacts growth, competitiveness and future-readiness.
In an effort to advance “Women’s Rights in Africa,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the African Union Commission and UN Women published a report making recommendations to governments.
One of the suggestions was enforcing targets to end all forms of gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation and forced marriages. They also recommend repealing all laws that discriminate against women in the home or in public, as well as economically, medically or politically. The report also urges governments to ensure women productive employment and recognize the value of unpaid domestic work.
The World Bank outlined its own pathways to economic empowerment for women in the latest edition of its biannual publication Africa’s Pulse. It includes training women beyond traditional skills, using innovative solutions to improve access to the financial sector, helping women secure land rights, connecting women to labor, alleviating social norms that limit women's opportunities, and helping girls to navigate adolescence.
“The benefits of gender equality are not just for women and girls,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka, “but for everyone whose lives will be changed by a fairer world that leaves no one behind.”