General News Mon, 28 Sep 2009

Mrs Rawlings Addresses New York University

Mobilising African Women for Economic Development – Address by Nana Konadu Agyeman Rawlings at the New York University under the auspices of the Africa House Faculty and the Wagner School of Public Service (Thursday September 24, 2009)

Professor Yaw Nyarko, President of Africa House, Dean Ellen Schall, Dean of Wagner School of Public Service, Professor Ken Grepin, Faculty and Students, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen I am honoured to be invited to address this august audience on the topic, Mobilising African Women for Economic Development.

Evelyn Cunningham once said that women are the only oppressed group in our society that lives in intimate association with their oppressors. The struggle of women for equality has indeed been a long and arduous one. I am not here today to describe what women had to go through and continue to go through to obtain equality, but believe that some insight into the struggle of women yesterday, today and tomorrow forms part of the equation of women empowerment towards economic development of Africa.

In his address earlier this week my husband, Former President Jerry John Rawlings of Ghana, indicated that the single biggest challenge of Africa is the eradication of poverty. The “feminisation of poverty” is a phenomenon that is unfortunately on the increase. Basically, women are increasingly the ones who suffer the most poverty.

As President of the 31st December Women’s Movement in Ghana I understand the problems women encounter first hand as my organisation has been at the forefront of women empowerment since 1982. I will give you some details about the role the movement has played in changing the face of womanhood in Ghana but first let me tackle some of the problems women face across the world, particularly on the African continent.

Professor of anthropology, Richard Robbins noted the following “At the same time that women produce 75 to 90 percent of food crops in the world, they are responsible for the running of households. According to the United Nations, in no country in the world do men come anywhere close to women in the amount of time spent in housework. Furthermore, despite the efforts of feminist movements, women in the core [wealthiest, Western countries] still suffer disproportionately, leading to what sociologist refer to as the “feminization of poverty,” where two out of every three poor adults are women. The informal slogan of the Decade of Women became “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production.”

This then also affects children, which makes the dire situation even worse. The lending strategies to developing countries by institutions such as the IMF and World Bank have affected many women in those countries.

Poverty, trade and economic issues are very much related to women’s rights issues due to the impacts they can have. Tackling these issues as well also helps to tackle women’s rights issues. And tackling gender issues helps tackle poverty-related issues.

The first and foremost requirement to empower or mobilise African women is therefore that African nations must not only pay lip service to gender equality, but must enforce it on all levels and in all spheres of society.


The following title comes from UNICEF’s 2007 report on state of the world’s children where they focus on the discrimination and disempowerment women face throughout their lives and how that impacts children’s lives: “Women and children: the double dividend of gender equality.”

The key messages that came out from the report were as follows:

Gender equality and the wellbeing of children go hand in hand. Gender equality furthers the cause of child survival and development.

Gender equality produces a double dividend: It benefits both women and children. Healthy, educated and empowered women have healthy, educated and confident daughters and sons. Gender equality will not only empower women to overcome poverty and live full and productive lives, but will better the lives of children, families and countries as well.

Women’s equal rights and influence in the key decisions that shape their lives and those of children must be enhanced in three distinct arenas: the household, the workplace and the political sphere. A change for the better in any one of these realms influences women’s equality in the others, and has a profound and positive impact on a child’s well being and development.

Gender equality is not only morally right; it is pivotal to human progress and sustainable development. Achieving Millennium Development Goal Number 3—promoting gender equality and empowering women - will also contribute to achieving all the other goals, from reducing poverty and hunger to saving children’s lives, improving maternal health, ensuring universal education, combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Women in Africa continue to face enormous obstacles. The growing recognition of their contributions has not translated into significantly improved access to resources or increased decision-making powers. Neither has the dynamism that women display in the economic, cultural and social lives of their communities through their associations and informal networks been channelled into creating new models of participation and leadership.

There have, however, been positive developments. In 1994 over 3,000 women converged on Dakar to attend the African Women's Preparatory Conference. We went to articulate an African position for the Beijing Fourth Women's World Conference. The resulting African Platform for Action identified several priorities. These included combating the increasing poverty of African women; improving women's access to education and health services, with a special focus on reproductive health; addressing women's relationship to the environment; increasing the involvement of women in the peace process; advancing the legal and human rights of women; highlighting the special concerns of the girl-child; and "mainstreaming" gender concerns within economic and development policy-making by disaggregating data along gender lines. The Dakar conference also noted the emergence of numerous women's groups and NGOs in Africa and the increasingly concrete expression of their organizational potential.


The Beijing conference that followed in 1995 stressed the empowerment of women as one of the central development goals of the 21st century. It adopted a Platform for Action which called for the mainstreaming of a gender perspective in the design, implementation and monitoring of all policies and programmes, including development programmes. It committed countries to design their own specific programmes and activities in consultation with women's groups and other NGOs to implement the Beijing Platform for Action.

Ladies and gentlemen the 31st December Women’s Movement was established long before the Beijing Conference and the AU Declaration of Women’s Rights. We had the foresight long ago and found able lieutenants ready to lead the crusade to emancipate and empower women. That is the journey my colleagues in other African countries have to take. We cannot wait for the world to make declarations before we act! Prior to the establishment of the 31st December Women’s Movement in 1982 Ghanaian women were relegated to the background with a majority playing a second-rate citizen role – looking after the children at home, cooking, handling house chores and assisting their husbands on the farms. Women had to take abuse as the norm and dared not protest. Many women lost all they had when their husbands died because the extended family of the man were always quick to take over all properties acquired by the husband applying a very negative form of our local traditions. Women who hitherto did not have their marriages registered were never recognised upon the death of their husbands and if he died intestate the situation was even worse. The 31st December Women’s Movement was established at a time when Ghana was going through a peoples revolution – a time when the ordinary Ghanaian was waking up to the reality that he had a role to play in national development right from the grassroots level. Some of us realised that though there was a renaissance, women had not caught the bug and were still silent and obedient observers to the change that had engulfed and revitalised their fathers, sons and husbands. In order not to be left out of the new wave being created we established the movement with the following agenda points:

• To be part of decision making and be an active part of the participatory democratic system that Ghana was experiencing through the Revolution – demystify governance and become absolute part of the new change • Agriculture • Child Care • Community Sustainable Development • Conflict Resolution • Credit • Democracy • Employment Creation • Entrepreneurship • Environment • Family Planning • Food and Nutrition • Human Rights • Legal Issues • Literacy • National Policy • Poverty Eradication • Savings • Small Business Development • Vocational Skills • Voter Education

We recognised the fact that for women to be really empowered for development we needed to make them economically active. That was the only way their men folk were going to recognise them as equal in all matters. We developed small-scale business models which included cassava processing plants to process local staples such as gari, fish processing plants, sowing and weaving and encouraged women to move into male dominated employment.

Because we had numbers we were able to approach both local and international donors for assistance and thus offered these women soft-loans to establish their business and bring economic support to their husbands who were hitherto the only family breadwinners and to their communities.

The movement also took to educating women on their basic rights as citizens through education on democracy, human rights and general legal issues. We also served as a pressure group that pushed for the promulgation of the Intestate Succession Law that ensured that women and children benefited significantly from their husband and father’s properties if he died without preparing a will. Indeed the law ensures that even if a will does not cater for the wife and children provision is still made for them.

The marriage law was also amended to recognise traditional marriages and even in cases where they have not been registered with the relevant authority evidence of the ceremony having taken place is recognition of eligibility.

That fight by the 31st December Women’s Movement to empower women has led to the establishment of several other women’s groupings all working hard to ensure that women’s rights are not tampered with. Women are now taking education more seriously and the period where only boys were sent to school and girls married to old men at an early age is gradually becoming a thing of the past due to laws that were put in place to protect women and children.


Women empowerment requires a tough approach from women and our national leaders should endeavour to galvanise their colleagues to take up the challenge. It is not about competing with our men. It is about working hand in hand for national development. We have to convince men that we are partners in progress.

Once women are empowered the sky is the limit as far as development is concerned.

Ladies and gentlemen, it was only as recent as 2005 that the African Union adopted a Declaration of Women’s Rights.

Within the international development community, there has been a shift in thinking from the initial "women in development" (WID) approach, which focused narrowly on women's productive roles, to a broader "gender and development" perspective, which takes into account all spheres of women's lives and seeks to bring gender analysis into the core of development policy.

UN agencies such as the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) and UN Development Programme (UNDP) support gender awareness training for policy-makers in Africa, provide technical assistance and build strong gender components into their own programming and projects. Similarly, the Commonwealth Secretariat has commissioned several studies on gender and economic policy-making and applies a gender perspective to analyze the effectiveness of governmental policies and public services. The World Bank also emphasizes the developmental costs of ignoring women and denying them access to key resources, and urges countries to draw up gender action plans.

However, the severe economic constraints that African countries face tends to undercut these new emphases and shifts in approach. The continuing poverty of the majority of African countries, declining terms of trade and the burden of external debt create an unfavourable environment for development. Of the limited resources available, little is directly allocated to women. In addition, structural adjustment policies pursued for nearly two decades by African governments in conjunction with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have had important gender consequences. Governments' macroeconomic policies do not incorporate gender perspectives in their design and ignore the structure of households in Africa and the social relations that influence women's roles in production.

Ladies and gentlemen, I can keep you busy for the whole night on the plight of African women. I will, however, just list a few examples of the contributions of women, as well as the problems they face.

Among the majority of rural and low-income urban dwellers, women perform all domestic tasks, while many also farm and trade. They are responsible for the care of children, the sick and the elderly, in addition to performing essential social functions within their communities. They seek to manage the environment, although their struggle for survival often results in environmental damage from activities such as fuel-wood collection.

• Women are the backbone of Africa's rural economy, accounting for 70 per cent of food production. • Among the majority of rural and low-income urban dwellers, women perform all domestic tasks, while many also farm and trade. • They are responsible for the care of children, the sick and the elderly, in addition to performing essential social functions within their communities. • Women's lives in most countries have been profoundly affected by three main developments since the onset of economic and social decline in the 1970s and 1980s, namely the structural adjustment programmes, increased civil strife and conflict and the HIV/AIDS crisis. • Because of cuts in social sector spending, women have been forced to take on an increasing burden of unpaid work in caring for the sick, obtaining food and ensuring the survival of their families. • Women's power and spheres of influence largely disappeared under the impact of colonialism and external religions, which upset existing economic and social complementarities between the sexes. • Women are responsible for 70 per cent of food production, 50 per cent of domestic food storage, 100 per cent of food processing, 50 per cent of animal husbandry and 60 per cent of agricultural marketing. • The constraints that women face must be addressed if agriculture is to be the engine of economic growth: (1) Access to land (2) The labour bottleneck (3) Access to other inputs, including credit, technology, extension services and agricultural training and marketing • According to UNDP, women are two-thirds less likely than men to get waged employment, while only 3 out of 10 women in the labour force in sub-Saharan Africa are paid employees. • Lack of access to formal education and training has been identified as a key barrier to women's employment and advancement in society. • For women, as for men, inadequate potable water, sanitation and waste disposal in urban and rural areas in Africa leave populations vulnerable to water-borne and other environmental diseases. Malaria, lung and other respiratory diseases are still major killers in Africa. • Maternal and infant mortality remain high. • The high and growing incidence of AIDS also highlights women's lack of power over their own sexuality. • Issues of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence also are beginning to receive due attention in discussions of women's health. • Women of all ages may be victims of violence in conflict, but adolescent girls are particularly at risk for a range of reasons, including size and vulnerability. • Programmes to promote the health of mothers through maternal and childcare services and family planning services have been undercut by reductions in government expenditure in the health sector, shortages of drugs, scarcity of medical personnel and inadequate health infrastructure. • Many governments have ratified conventions and international legal instruments on women's rights. Often, however, these have not been enacted into national law. • Traditional practices and attitudes toward women have carried over into public life. Women are under-represented in high offices of state and positions of decision-making in government, the military, central banks, finance and planning ministries and African regional organisations.

Ladies and gentleman, there are many other issues that can be highlighted to show the pitiful state that African women find themselves in.

It is critically important for policy-makers to listen to and work with women to improve their positions and thereby accelerate Africa's development. A comprehensive approach must be taken by governments - in conjunction with development agencies and women themselves - to remove the social, economic and legal constraints on women.

Thank you.

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