To ensure Africa fulfills its potential, focus on women and girls

November 16, 2020
A member of a Pact WORTH group in Nigeria. (Credit: Maggie Dougherty/Pact)

Like in many parts of the world, women and girls in Africa face more than their share of challenges. These include less access to education than men and boys, far higher risks for gender-based and sexual violence, and exclusion from economic activities, financial systems, politics, peacebuilding and other key aspects of public life. This all adds up to less power to make decisions about their own bodies and futures.

Yet we know that women are central to all kinds of progress—including poverty alleviation and achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. I think of Pact’s social and behavior change communication programming across Africa, aimed at reducing HIV infections, increasing civic engagement and more. This work relies heavily on community volunteers, and more often than not, those volunteers are women. They give so much when they have so little, just for the satisfaction of helping. And we know that when women do better, entire communities do better; women are more likely than men to invest their income in their families, for example, spending more on their children’s nutrition, health care and education.

This is why, for decades, Pact has focused much of our efforts on empowering women and girls. Last year, Pact helped 1.7 million people gain improved health and social services—77% of them women. We helped 1.3 million raise their income—92% of them women. Our approach is always tailored to local needs, and it is holistic. We support women and girls to be healthy, to improve their financial position, to be active participants in their local government and to care for the natural world around them. We empower them to be resilient and to redefine and own their future.

Pact’s DREAMS programming across Africa is a great example. Through DREAMS, girls and young women receive sexual and reproductive health services, peer support, counseling, gender-based violence response services, life skills training and economic strengthening—all designed to work together to ensure participants can be HIV-free and independent. We teach self-esteem, but along with it comes hope for the future. Our data has shown us that DREAMS positively changes behavior in girls’ homes and communities as well, as self-reported by parents, caregivers and community members.

I think of Hope Nsokolo and her sister Abigail in Zambia. Their father died when they were young, plunging their family into poverty. They started plaiting hair and selling sweets to help make ends meet. At 14, Hope became pregnant. Her chances of finishing her education and earning a good living were fading fast. Then she and her sister found DREAMS. Today they are DREAMS mentors and successful mechanical engineers.

DREAMS participants take part in a 'Safe Space' group in Lusaka, Zambia. (Credit: Brian Clark/Pact)

Pact’s WORTH program is another example. WORTH’s unique model brings women and older girls together in groups of 20 to 25 to save money, access credit and start small businesses. Members make small savings deposits at weekly meetings, and when groups’ funds grow large enough, members may begin taking loans, which they use to generate income. WORTH also provides women with training in literacy, numeracy and entrepreneurship. Since WORTH began in the mid 1990s, it has reached more than 1 million women. 

For many members, the knowledge and income they gain are life-changing. WORTH builds women’s confidence and social support networks. Many go on to become activists and leaders in their communities and take on bigger roles in household decision-making. What I love most about WORTH is that it allows women and girls to not wait for handouts but rather to help their communities. They identify local orphans, for example, and help them themselves. By supporting these women, we are also supporting the community at large—the very essence of sustainable and holistic development. 

Pact’s governance and peacebuilding work also empower women, including supporting women and girls to raise their voices to protect their own civil rights. In Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, through two Pact programs, women are playing a key role in stemming cross-border conflict. This is raising them up as powerful social contributors, setting examples for girls, while also stopping violence that affects them disproportionately. This is the kind of progress that I know is making a lasting difference.

As a volunteer with Pact's SEEK project, Miriam Lowarengak brings together women in Kenya and Ethiopia to build peace in their communities. (Credit: Pact)

Across Pact’s work, some lessons have emerged that seem especially relevant right now. One is that good policies must come first. To make real social change, women and girls must have equal rights under the law. Sometimes policymakers are the problem, and we must have systems in place to hold them accountable for the policies they design. We also need quota systems in parliaments to ensure real, consequential participation among women—not just window dressings. International NGOs like Pact must strive to put a meaningful gender lens on our programming, and we should lead by example. We must have organizational policies and practices that reflect the values we espouse in our work about the importance of women.

My hope is for a day when African women have the power and resources they need to operate at the same level as men, or higher—a day when they have the opportunity to excel in whatever they choose to do and the authority to truly own their future. The world will be a better a place when this becomes our reality, and I believe it is possible.

Kate Musimwa, who was born in Zambia and is of Zimbabwean descent, is Pact’s senior regional director for Africa.