Closing the Gender Equality Gap in Southern Africa

by Kulthoum Omari

Twenty years after the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), delegates meet again in Rio de Janeiro to give sustainable development a ‘new boost’. The Rio+20 is regarded as important for renewing the political commitment for sustainable development, providing an opportunity for global actors to assess progress and gaps in already agreed outcomes of major sustainable development summits, and to collectively address emerging issues.

One major issue that should be at the heart of the sustainable development discussions, but often receives little attention, is the question of social equity and gender equality. Attention to gender has grown in the sustainable development discourse. However, vast social and economic inequities still remain. Delegates in Rio need to refocus the discussions towards addressing vulnerabilities to climate change and building resilience and adaptive capacity, especially of the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities by prioritising women and girls who will be most severely impacted.

From a regional perspective, though the Southern Africa region has made significant strides in international commitments to gender equality, equity, and women’s empowerment and participation in decision making, very little progress has been made on the ground. Some countries in the region have aligned their international commitments with national legislation while others have increased women’s representation at regional and national governance structures. Unfortunately, more needs to be done to achieve substantial positive changes in women’s lives. African women, particularly those in rural areas, still face daunting challenges such as unequal power relations, food insecurity, lack of access to natural resources and lack of access to basic productive resources, and poverty. They represent a disproportionate share of the poor and are therefore more vulnerable. These challenges are further compounded by climate change. Women represent a majority of the poor largely due to cultural, social and gender norms and discriminations and are as a consequence disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Rural women in Southern Africa rely heavily on the environment and environmental resources for sustaining their livelihood and that of their families. Over 80% of all women in the region are involved in agricultural activities at a subsistence level on small-scale farms.  They are the primary producers of food for domestic consumption and therefore key to food security in the region. In addition, women make up almost two thirds of the horticultural work force in Southern Africa. Yet, agriculture, particularly rain-fed subsistence agriculture, is already negatively affected by climate change, with more severe impacts predicted for the future. 

Women farmer’s livelihoods are further periled by privatization and land grabs in the agricultural sector, compounding their vulnerabilities.  There is a growing recognition of the centrality of land tenure in sustainable development and more recently, green economy discussions. With the increase in the demand for land by government and private sector for ‘green’ projects, women are increasingly losing their territories, resources and livelihoods. This is problematic as women in Southern African region are already faced with inequitable distribution and tenure insecurity. These women have been and still are subjected to discrimination in land ownership and control under both patriarchal customary and statutory tenure law systems. Because of traditional values of some communities, many women still do not have a voice and have limited decision making power when it comes to land ownership. Ensuring women’s land rights in the green economy discussion will become particularly important so as not to compromise livelihoods of rural women.

Studies in Southern Africa commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Foundation Southern Africa Office have shown that there are many reasons behind women’s increased vulnerability to climate change ranging from political and economic to cultural, societal and physiological differences. Despite their increased role in agricultural production, most women do not have control over land resources, and lack access to agricultural extension services and credit, which may allow them to diversify their livelihood or increase their resilience to climate-related shocks. Most of women’s work is ‘unpaid work’ in subsistence production, or part-time or seasonal, all of which are not high income generating and therefore increasing women’s economic dependency. The numerous pressures of the HIV/AIDS pandemic have contributed to the limited access to productive resources, services and skills.

Delegates in Rio need to refocus the discussions towards addressing vulnerabilities to climate change and to building resilience and adaptive capacity by recognizing the crucial role that the poorest and most vulnerable people and communities should play in formulating climate change responses.  Such actions need to prioritise the gender-differentiated needs of women and girls who will be most severely impacted in planning, project and program design and implementation.

Discussions in Rio need to produce a more meaningful outcome that will ensure the development of more progressive national policies and action on gender equality, climate change and sustainable development. There is an urgent need to integrate gender analyses into public policy making. The active participation of women in climate change policy making and in the allocation of resources for climate change initiatives is critical, particularly at local levels. This will be a tough call in the Southern Africa region where currently women make up a small percentage of decision makers in the climate and development policy making arena and are largely absent in decision-making processes at local, regional, national levels. In parliament, women are still outnumbered by men in the region. In many countries, local and traditional governance structures such as village development committees are still male dominated. These are powerful institutions that influence the development agenda and decisions on climate action at a local level. Factors contributing to the lack of female participation in decision-making processes include time poverty in relation to men as well as stereotypical attitudes towards the societal roles of women and men.

Another important institutional issue is the mechanisms of gender mainstreaming at a national level. Various mechanisms of institutionalizing gender policies exist, all with different challenges. Gender focal points have proven to be valuable, but the weak and fragile link between the women’s/gender ministry and other ministries such as economic development and planning or environment warrants more attention.

Finally, equitable, low-carbon and climate resilient development cannot be achieved without fully understanding the role of social institutions and culture, particularly in limiting the access of women to employment, natural resources, inheritance and finance. Traditions, customs and social norms often hold the key to understanding the roots of gender inequalities. The underlying causes of discrimination need to be understood and addressed through engaging in cultural exchanges with various players and to influence public opinion towards achieving gender equality and equity.

Click here for the pdf version of Closing the Gender Equality Gap in Southern Africa (3 pages, pdf, 465KB)

Kulthoum Omari is the Programme Manager for sustainable development at the Heinrich Böll Foundation Southern Africa Office in Cape Town, South Africa.  Her work currently focuses on the governance and gender inter-linkages of climate change and natural resources management in the region.