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close this bookAdam and Eve and the Serpent: Breaking the Bonds to Free Africa's Women (Ghana Universities Press, 1995, 141 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentDATA CARD
View the documentPREFACE
View the documentINTRODUCTION
View the documentLECTURE 1: Be fruitful and multiply
View the documentLECTURE 2: In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children
View the documentLECTURE 3: Socio-economic development and gender equity
View the documentLECTURE 4: Social, cultural and legal practices and gender equity
View the documentLECTURE 5: Gender, sexual and reproductive rights and equity
View the documentBACK COVER

LECTURE 3: Socio-economic development and gender equity

The inequitable power relations between women and men have, over the years, created a kind of cage around women which restricts their mobility, their control over their own fertility, and their participation in and benefit from development. Many women have come to see this cage as their natural and proper habitat, convinced that they are less capable than men to determine their own life options. Eve has been disempowered by the serpent of discrimination, and made unable to break the bonds of her oppression.

Yesterday we looked behind the abstraction of demographic and population statistics to see the reality of women's child-bearing role. It is one of the peculiar contradictions of women's lives that this same role for which they are most praised and valued in many societies is also the source of their subordination and invisibility. Motherhood confers social status and respectability on women in many societies, and is exalted by most religions. At the same time, motherhood has resulted in women's confinement to family and household activities which are not recognized or valued as work. Women receive little support from society as a whole in their role as mothers.

Women are trapped in a vicious cycle whereby their lower status means they have less opportunity for education and employment, and their lack of education and income security reinforces their dependence on men and their lower status. Compounding this is their disproportionately poor access to positions of power in politics or business, through which they could try to improve their status in all spheres of life. Men who are in positions of power may be reluctant to rigorously implement laws regarding women's equality which their countries may have signed (sometimes only to satisfy UN or international pressure). At a basic level many of these men do not believe that women are equal: they have not seen it in practice because women have not been granted the opportunity to show them.

It is this combination of factors which makes Africa's Eve so powerless to change her disadvantaged position. Let us today explore the absence of gender equity and equality in the fields of education, employment and political decision-making in order to understand better the causes of women's continued subordination.


Education is so important to human development and the quality of life that it has come to be considered a basic human right. Article 26 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states unequivocally that "Everyone has the right to an education." Yet in 1990, International Literacy Year, 26 per cent of the world's adult population was estimated to be illiterate. For adult women this figure rose to 33 per cent. This means that one in three adult women are illiterate, while the corresponding estimate for men is one in five.1

According to the UNDP, the gap between developing and industrialized countries on human development issues, including education, has been narrowing over the past three decades. The literacy gap between North and South narrowed from 54 percentage points in 1970 to 34 points by 1987. School enrolment rates in the South now average 70 per cent of rates in the North. However, despite this progress, there is considerable diversity within the nations of the South: poverty and deprivation have become more concentrated in Africa than any other region, particularly during the 1980s.2

High population growth rates in many African countries make the provision of universal primary education increasingly difficult. The percentage of the population under 15 years of age has decreased since 1970 in all regions of the world except Sub-Saharan Africa, where it has increased slightly and is projected to remain around 46 per cent of the total population throughout this decade. In pure numerical terms, this is an increase from roughly 122 million children in 1970 to 231 million in 1990, and projected to 317 million in the year 2000. The increased number of schools and teachers necessary to meet the educational needs of this growing population would require considerable capital resources and investment in training from all governments. UNESCO estimates that if every child aged 6-14 in Sub-Saharan Africa was to be admitted to school, and assuming 40 students for each teacher, one out of every eight working-age adults would have to be a full-time teacher!3

It is the gender gap in education, however, which is most striking, and most concerns us today. The extent to which the right to education is enjoyed by girls and women can be considered one of the most important measures of any society's views on the status of its women. Of the 300 million children who did not have access to primary or secondary education in 1990, two thirds were girls. In a significant number of countries, the total female literacy rate is half or less than half of the corresponding male rate. The gender disparity in enrolment is particularly wide in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, while it is negligible in Latin America and the Caribbean region. Women over 25 years of age in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and the Arab States are likely to have received an average of only 1-1.4 years of schooling each. In Latin America the corresponding level is 4.1, and in the industrialized countries 8.8 years.4

Yet the costs of illiteracy to individual women, to their societies and their environments is considerable. Illiterate women tend to be less productive, and confined to lower status and lower pay jobs than educated women. They are often less able to follow advice which would enhance the health of their children or promote environmental protection. Uneducated women generally marry younger and have more children than their educated sisters, are less likely to use family planning and have less input into family decision making. Their girl children are also less likely to complete their own basic education5.

Why are there fewer girls than boys in school? There are many reasons why the gender gap develops, and once it gets established in primary school it continues, often widening, through other levels of education. An early disadvantage for girls is often a lifetime disadvantage.

One reason for the gender gap is the cost of education. Many countries, particularly in Africa, have been hard hit by the consequences of bad political and economic choices, global recession and the rigours of structural adjustment. States which once offered free primary education are now introducing school fees, which results in a decrease in enrolment. In Nigeria, for example, when fees were introduced, primary enrolment decreased from 92 to 75 per cent of school-aged children. Even where school remains free, there are usually associated costs for uniforms, books, examinations and transportation which must be borne by each family. Sometimes these associated items can exceed the costs of fees, and are beyond the reach of many poor families. When parents have to choose which children to send to school, they usually choose their sons. The discrimination which women face in the labour market means that boys are more likely than girls to have access to employment after school, and at higher wages than their sisters6. Girls are more likely to be married and move away from home than boys (at least in patrilocal societies), and investments in their education would be lost to their parents, who rely on their sons to support them in their old age. Therefore it is girls who get pulled out first.

The indirect or 'opportunity' costs of sending girls to school can also deter poor families. Time-use studies in Tanzania, Bangladesh and Nepal have revealed that young girls do as much as six hours work each day in and around the home, which poor families may find particularly hard to do without. Girls may be needed to care for younger children while their mother works in the market or fields, or to walk several miles each day to obtain the daily requirements for water and firewood where these are scarce. A Nepalese study found that when labour-saving domestic technology and measures to conserve forest resources were introduced in one region, the enrolment of girls in school increased markedly.7 Girls may also be involved in income-earning activities outside the home from a fairly young age, often as domestic servants. Child labour, whether in the home or beyond, may be essential to the survival strategies of poor families. The labour of girls may ensure that one or more boys can be given a chance at education in the hopes that their future jobs will raise the family out of poverty.

The distance between home and school is another factor which affects girls' education more than that of their brothers. A distant school places girls' safety at risk, keeps them away from household chores for longer periods, and may entail high transportation costs. A study in Algeria showed that while both male and female enrolment was high when schools were less than one kilometre from home (96 per cent for boys and 84 per cent for girls), it dropped sharply to 58 per cent for girls when the distance was extended to between one and five kilometres, while 90 per cent of boys still attended. And if the school was more than five kilometres, only 25 per cent of girls compared to 66 per cent of boys attended.8 This may have a particular effect on girls' opportunities to attend secondary school, since these tend to be larger, fewer and further apart than primary schools.

School-related factors also play important roles in enabling girls to have an education. In certain cultures, a girls' presence at school may be dependent on the availability of female teachers. Studies have shown that female enrolment rates increase and drop-out rates decrease significantly with the presence of female teachers. In the developing world, only the Latin America/Caribbean region has a high proportion of female teachers - more than 70 per cent at the primary level and nearly 50 per cent at the secondary level in 1988. This region also has the smallest gender gap in education, with girls actually outnumbering boys at secondary school in some countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa only about 30 per cent of the total teaching force is female.9 Separate facilities for girls at school, such as latrines, also act as a factor affecting their enrolment.

All of these factors operate throughout the educational cycle, but the pressures on girls to end their education are likely to increase around puberty as cultural and moral considerations about male-female contact and concerns regarding possible adolescent pregnancy come to the forefront. Evidence that educated women delay the start of sexual relations and child-bearing longer than uneducated women may not be enough to overcome traditional attitudes, particularly when combined with some of the other factors mentioned above such as costs, distance and a girl's limited options for future employment. Traditions regarding arranged and early marriages assert an additional influence at this age, particularly where customs like bridewealth are in operation. In some cultures, more than basic education for women is considered to affect their marriage chances negatively, as educated wives are considered too sophisticated and harder to control.

The gross enrolment level for boys and girls in secondary school have improved across most of Sub-Saharan Africa since 1970, and the gender gap has also decreased. In 1970 only 10 per cent of boys and 4.4 per cent of girls went to secondary school. These figures increased over 20 years to be 21.2 per cent of boys and 13.8 per cent of girls. In Ghana, gross enrolment ratios were above regional average, and roughly on par with the averages for the developing world as a whole, with 47 per cent of boys and 30 per cent of girls attending secondary school in 1988. Even with these improvements, a gender gap of 35 per cent still exists at secondary school, an increase of the 20 per cent gap in primary school enrolments between boys and girls as measured in both 1980 and 1988.10 Clearly boys and girls are not progressing through the school system in equal numbers. Ghana has had a law on compulsory primary education since 1961, but the evidence shows how elusive gender equality can be in practice. Eve is being disadvantaged early in her youth.

The tertiary or higher level of education, where technical and professional credentials are earned, is where African women are least well represented. In all regions of the world except South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, there are at least 60 female students for every 100 male students in higher education. In South Asia, women drop to 44 per hundred men, and in Sub-Saharan Africa there are only one third as many women students as men. In comparison, male and female ratios in higher education are virtually equal in Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe and North America.11

The percentage of the population entering tertiary education in Ghana decreased slightly from the beginning of the 1980s to the end of that decade. Gross enrolment levels for men were only 2.3 per cent in 1988, and for women only 0.6 per cent. Analysis of the subject areas chosen by those in higher education showed only two per cent of all students were enrolled in education courses in 1988, of which a negligible percentage were women.12 If we consider for a moment the projected need for teachers even to meet the goal of primary education for all referred to above, we are clearly heading for trouble. And the special need for female teachers to help improve the educational attainment of girls is even further from being met. A true national emergency exists in this field which requires urgent attention.

We know that education increases women's self-esteem and confidence, and encourages a sense of control over personal destiny. Studies show that women who have a similar level of education to their husbands are in a much better negotiating position in family decision-making areas and are more likely to stand up for themselves. Educated women are also more likely to use contraception to limit the size of their families at their desired level, and are more likely to have children survive into adulthood. Data from 33 less-developed countries show that every additional year of mother's schooling is associated with a seven to nine per cent drop in child mortality.13 In all these ways, education is a necessary tool for delivering women from the sorrows of perpetual childbearing and breaking the bonds to free women from their subordination.

In the World Declaration on Education for All, adopted in Thailand in 1990, countries agreed to give female education increased attention, stating that: "The most urgent priority is to ensure access to, and improve the quality of, education for girls and women, and to remove every obstacle that hampers their active participation".14 I have referred to some of the obstacles and the solutions needed to address the gender gap in education - such as recruiting and training more female teachers, establishing more community-based (less distant) schools and providing greater privacy and safety for girls. Experiments with flexibility in the hours, days and seasons of classes have also proven successful for example, late afternoon or evening classes in India and Kenya are attended by many adolescent girls who have spent a full day on household and productive tasks.15 The success of non-formal primary education programmes such as that organized by the Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee in attracting girls from poor families shows that adapting the learning opportunities to the circumstances of poverty and the disadvantage of children is a far more pragmatic approach than requiring children to adjust to the conventional rules of primary school.16 Waiving fees or providing scholarships for girls may also be necessary, particularly at the secondary- school level: a project in rural Zimbabwe has shown that no family approached with an offer to support a daughter through secondary school has turned down this support, and all are more enthusiastic about their daughters' futures as a result.17

Making the school curriculum more appealing and relevant to girls and removing gender stereotyping from textbooks can also help to keep girls in school once they are there. If girls are constantly presented with stories about successful men or pictures of men in important and professional positions, while at the same time women are presented only in secondary, inferior, or mothering roles, their own ambitions and expectations may become frustrated. They also become further conditioned to accept their subordinate position. Our educational systems can produce literate housewives or articulate, innovative citizens, depending on the tools and methods which we choose to utilise.

The education and training requirements for reaching the top in some of the professions may be so inconsistent with the demands of childbearing that, unless special adaptations are introduced, women in our cultural situations will be effectively excluded, thus depriving future generations of women of role-models in those profession. I have been trying, for example, to find out how many female obstetrics and gynaecology consultants we have produced locally so far. The answer, unless I am grossly misinformed, is none. This can largely be due to the fact that the residency requirements for the specialty cannot accommodate the other social roles of women soon after graduation from medical school. And yet this is a field crying out for women specialists. An effort must be made by the appropriate authorities to work out residency schemes that harmonize more with the other needs of women.

Lawrence Summers, former Chief Economist at the World Bank, wrote "Educating girls quite possibly yields a higher rate of return than any other investment available in the developing world", giving an estimated 20 per cent return on investment18. The benefits come from a healthier population and a more productive workforce. But even educated women face further barriers laid by the serpent of discrimination as they enter the workforce. Let us now consider barriers to gender equality within the economy and the areas of reproduction and employment in particular.


We have all heard the statistics which emanated from the UN Decade for Women, that women do two thirds of the world's work yet earn less than 10 per cent of its wages, grow 50 per cent of the world's food yet own only one per cent of its land and productive resources. Women also do almost all the world's domestic work and provide more health care than all the organised health services put together - again for little or no remuneration, Yet how much do we really appreciate the value of all the work which women do?

Globally, women are overwhelmingly responsible for the work which is involved in maintaining human resources: childbearing and rearing, care of elderly and ill individuals, the growing, processing and preparation of their family's food; fuel and water collection and home maintenance. Collectively this labour is referred to as 'reproductive labour', which usually includes subsistence agriculture and the production of goods for own consumption rather than exchange. It is separated from 'productive labour' which includes all production of goods and services for sale or exchange. Public management and decision-making responsibilities are often included under productive labour, or are separated out for consideration on their own. In the gender division of labour, men are considered to be 'naturally' suited to productive and management roles, and women 'naturally' suited to reproductive tasks. While the specific content of reproductive work varies between societies, an important common feature is that it does not carry with it the entitlement to an independent income. As a result, women must undertake additional work if they need to generate an income, or they must become dependent for income transfers on those who are largely free of any responsibility for reproductive labour, namely men. Women-headed households, estimated at slightly more than 25 per cent of households in Ghana,19 may have very limited options. There is a great need to study what happens to young unmarried girls who get abandoned by putative partners soon after they get pregnant or after delivery, a situation of increasing frequency in our cities and towns.

The private nature of reproductive labour and subsistence agriculture, as compared to the public nature of formal sector employment and export agriculture where men dominate, contributes to the invisibility of women's work. This invisibility has led to a cultural bias that keeps women in a position of inferiority. National statistics and surveys do not reflect the real contribution of women to the economy. It is understandably difficult to measure the value of goods and services that are never exchanged for money. But part of the problem also lies with the bias inherent in current methods of data collection, which reflects the dominant male bias in our societies in the definitions of work, economic activity or place of employment. Making women count will require more sophisticated investigatory methods and tools to analyse the true place of women in the economy and the value of their productive and reproductive roles. Let us look more closely at the value of women's unpaid work.

Misperceptions about reproductive labour and 'housework' are common throughout the developed and developing worlds. Housewives are assumed to work fewer hours than men in formal employment, and to work more slowly and less strenuously than many workers. Most people believe that housework has little productive value, yet no family could live as well or cheaply as it does without the unpaid services of a housewife. Purchasing cleaning, cooking and child-care services can be very costly. Replacing home-grown food with purchased food can be both costly and in many cases less nutritious. John Kenneth Galbraith characterized the housewife as a 'crypto-servant' to both her family and the economy because her economic contribution was un-recognized.20 Box 2.3 of the 1990 UNDP Human Development Report entitled "Women count - but are not counted" is worth noting in this respect.

A number of researchers have tried to put an economic value on women's household work - estimated as high as one-third of the global annual economic production.21 Two main methods have been developed. The first attempts to calculate the 'replacement cost' if the goods and services had to be purchased on the market rather than being provided for no cost by the housewife. Using this method, it was estimated that in 1979 women in the US provided, on average, $14,500 worth of cleaning, cooking and childcare services each year.22 American figures are likely to be significantly lower than comparable figures for Africa and other developing areas, where women are engaged in more subsistence agriculture and the provision of more primary health care services to family and community members than is the case in the industrialized countries.

A good example of a 'replacement cost' calculation can be found in studies of the economic value of breastfeeding. A 1988 study by the Geneva Infant Feeding Association (GIFA) estimates that in a country with a high population growth rate like Indonesia, mothers produce more than one billion litres of milk annually. They estimated the market value of this milk to be more than US $500 million, greater than that of the country's tin and coffee production. In Ghana, where there is a high breastfeeding rate, it is suggested that a loss of only one per cent of the national breastmilk production would cost about US $1 million for milk powder substitutes. In the Ivory Coast, GIFA estimates that breastfeeding saves the average family US $600 for each child's first two years. Globally, if all the mothers of the 120 million babies born in 1979 had breastfed, they, would have produced 30 billion litres of milk worth US $15 billion.23 Not included in these figures are the additional costs of equipment and fuel needed for bottle-feeding over breastfeeding.

The real value of breastmilk, however, is in its health-promoting and birth-spacing effects, which are much more difficult to calculate than the cost of replacing it with powder substitutes. The GIFA study points out that the decline of breastfeeding costs the world billions of dollars in increased health care costs for the treatment of babies who fall ill from bottle-feeding.24 Various studies have established that the poorer the socio-economic and environmental conditions under which families live, the greater the difference in health between breast-fed and bottle-fed infants. One study in Ghana suggested that the national cost of rehabilitating all children who were malnourished due to artificial feeding at low-cost nutrition centres would have been between US $100,000 and $800,000 back in 1976.25 This figure does not include any costs to the child's family, any illnesses other than malnutrition, or any capital costs for constructing nutrition centres, all of which would dramatically increase the estimate. The economic value of the natural contraceptive effect of breastfeeding is also difficult to calculate but likely to be significant, particularly for the benefits to women's health which birth-spacing promotes.26

The second method attempts to calculate the 'opportunity cost' of women's housework, that is the money that women forgo by working at home rather than in the formal labour force. To return to a breastfeeding example, a study in the late 1970s compared the opportunity costs of breastfeeding and bottle-feeding infants in Ghana over a two year period. The researchers estimated that breastfeeding and related activities (including some education, preparing and eating extra food for the mother) took 50 minutes daily, while bottle-feeding and related activities (including education, preparing formula, cleaning utensils, and purchasing or collecting extra water and fuel) took 180 minutes per day. The monetary value of time spent was determined to be the average wage for all women, which resulted in an opportunity cost over two years of US $210 for breastfeeding and $600 for bottle-feeding.27 When the opportunity cost of bottle-feeding is combined with the actual costs of replacing breast-milk with substitutes, it could easily be overwhelming for many families whether large or small. Yet Eve's contribution to the economy, through the milk she produces from her own flesh, is ignored and even pushed out of sight.

Neither of these methods is completely satisfactory, however.. With regard to replacement cost estimates, the personalized services provided by a wife and mother would be difficult to purchase on the market. Furthermore, as the breastfeeding example shows clearly, there are many intangible and non-quantifiable aspects to the goods and services provided by women. At the same time, the 'opportunity cost' estimates are also unrealistic. They depend on the labour force being expandable to accommodate all women who are now housewives, and on these women having skills which are needed by the labour force. There are obvious problems with both assumptions. Furthermore, the opportunity cost would be calculated based on already deflated wages, given that women are often confined to low status and low paying jobs regardless of their personal potential.28 And since most rural women in Africa are engaged in subsistence agricultural production rather than, or in addition to, wage employment, determining the opportunity cost of their time becomes even more complex.

Women's roles in agriculture are often overlooked as productive activity, unless they work for wages. Women constitute on average approximately 50 per cent of the agricultural labour force in Sub-Saharan Africa, 30 per cent in North Africa and the Middle East, 40 per cent in South Asia, 54 per cent in South-East Asia, 40 per cent in the Caribbean and 18 per cent in Latin America.29 It was Esther Boserup's influential study in 1970 entitled Women's Role in Economic Development which first brought the role of African women in agriculture to the eyes of the world as a whole. Boserup classified much traditional African agriculture as female-oriented due to its shifting nature and hand tool technology. She showed how agricultural development from the colonial period onward placed increasing emphasis on larger-scale and higher technology farming and acted to marginalize women's small-holder agriculture and to jeopardize long-term food security in Africa.30 While Boserup's conclusion that women are subsistence-food producers and men are export-crop producers is too simplistic to represent reality, it does show the importance and productive nature of women's work. Rural African women are involved in various tasks for both food and non-food agriculture, for subsistence as well as for market and export, both independently on their own farms and in many situations as family labour on their husband's and relatives' land.

It is common for a gender division of labour to exist in agricultural production as well as in the household. This division of labour is sometimes organized around certain crops, some of which are commonly controlled by men and others by women, or around different tasks. Male and female tasks are usually sequential, so that men may be responsible for breaking and preparing the ground, both sexes may cooperate in planting and harvesting, but women are usually responsible for weeding, processing crops after harvest, and storing seeds for the following year. In some cases both men and women are involved in growing the same crops, but do so on separate fields, with each gender controlling the income from their own plots. Complex arrangements for the exchange of labour, produce or other resources between men and women are usually associated with these divisions of labour.

In Ghana, where two thirds of the total population live in rural areas, the majority of both adult men and adult women are farmers, for the most part working independently on different crops. An interdependence between men and women has traditionally been associated with this arrangement. However, this century has seen an unprecedented erosion of women's independent access to land and other resources, and a corresponding increase in their dependence on men for labour, inputs and income. The tradition of registering land in the name of male household heads which was introduced in the colonial period has had very negative effects on women's independence, particularly in matrilineal clans where women's traditional inheritance rights were stronger. Also, the prevalence of women-headed households in many West African countries including Ghana, due to male migration, polygamy, conflict and other reasons means lack of legal ownership can restrict women's access to credit and extension services despite the fact that they are farm managers.

Development agencies which have failed to understand the independent nature of male and female farming have often created extra work for women because of their projects, or doomed development initiatives to failure. Let me give you an example. A project to support irrigated rice farming in the Gambia did not succeed because the planners assumed men were the main rice growers and women would help on their land. In reality, women were the dominant rice farmers and had no obligation to work on their husbands' land. Having lost their best rice plots to men under the project, women were pushed out to marginal land where they continued producing rice and other crops for family consumption. The poorer land reduced yields, having an impact on family nutrition. At the same time, intra-household conflicts developed because men refused to pay for women's labour for weeding and transplanting rice on the new fields. Women, already overworked on their marginal lands, withheld their assistance, resulting in further reduced yields on project land.31

With examples like this it is easy to see how misguided agricultural policies combined with periodic drought and rapidly growing populations has reduced Africa from a position of food self-sufficiency in 1950 to the current situation where the region meets only 86 per cent of its food staples needs, a figure which is expected to continue to fall to only 71 per cent by 2008.32 Surely we can no longer afford to neglect women's economic contribution, but must support them with training, appropriate technology and credit for inputs on a level equal with men.

Among women in Ghana, trade is the next most common form of economic activity after agriculture. One of the primary reasons for the predominance of women in trade in West Africa is the flexibility of the market system which allows women to bring their children with them to work. Time flexibility and informal child-care assistance from other market women enable them to combine their productive and reproductive roles effectively. Children also play valuable roles as intermediaries and errand-runners for their mothers who are confined to market stalls.

Women's dual roles can limit the expansion of their businesses, however, and in many places a division of labour in trade has developed whereby women more commonly sell subsistence goods in the open market or from small retail shops, whereas men tend to deal with more valuable consumer goods and own larger shops.

Women in both urban and rural areas figure far more prominently in the informal sector than in formal wage employment. Often, women take on informal tasks such as house-cleaning on top of their own household responsibilities and formal jobs in order to supplement meagre wage earnings or to secure a modest income independent from their husband's. The informal economy covers a very wide range of activities from small-scale manufacturing, to self-employed tradespeople to people engaged in personal services and family enterprises. What enables this collection of activities to be called a sector is the fact that all of it takes place beyond the boundaries of social and labour legislation. In many countries, the size of the informal sector is estimated to be considerably larger than the formal sector, however statistics on informal economic activity are not well kept and are often speculative. In Brazil, nearly half of all women workers are self-employed, compared to roughly one fifth of male workers. In Botswana, a national labour force survey in 1984/85 estimated that women comprised 70 per cent of informal sector workers. Statistics from Ghana are sparse, but a residual estimate of employment in the informal sector based on 1970 census data suggested that women accounted for 61 per cent of this type of activity, with 60 per cent of these women being engaged in retail trade.33 There is every reason to believe that women's informal sector involvement has continued to be high since then, as there has been limited expansion of their formal employment opportunities. On the other hand there is quite an increase in roadside trading by young able-bodied men which may be changing the male-female balance within the sector.

Women's tasks in the informal economy are often extensions of their reproductive roles outside the home: cleaning, washing, food preparation, child-care or sexual services. Many of these activities can be undertaken from the home, which make them particularly attractive to women struggling to balance reproductive tasks with the need for a regular income. While the flexibility of informal sector employment in this respect is a distinct advantage for women, there are many drawbacks to this kind of work: tasks can be extremely physically demanding and tiring, there is no job or income security or protection in the event of sickness, women who are not self-employed are often exploited, and there is little opportunity for advancement or training. Women's involvement in the informal economy is often governed more by necessity that by choice: many women would prefer the security of formal employment but lack the education and skills, are discriminated against in the job market, or are constrained by the lack of socialized child-care support.

The gender gap in education and the allocation of reproductive tasks to women under the gender division of labour provide formidable constraints to women's participation in formal and professional employment. Globally, women have struggled against additional kinds of discrimination in employment, including their concentration into low levels and low status positions, unequal pay for the same work as male counterparts, and sexual harassment at the workplace. A range of values, both economic and non-economic, appear to govern discrimination against women in employment. In many societies, in both the industrialized and developing worlds, women's income is viewed as secondary and supplementary to that of the main male breadwinner and household head, hence lower wages for women arc seen to be justified. Cost considerations stemming from labour legislation about women, such as the provision of maternity leave, are also used as justification for lower pay.

Many employers distrust women's commitment to continuing employment and fear intermittent absence by women employees who must meet the needs of their families. And there is little doubt that some employers discriminate against women in pay and working conditions largely because they feel they can get away with it: women workers are perceived as passive, are often unorganized and lack political visibility and clout.

In her book The Emancipation of Women: An African Perspective, the former chairperson of the National Council on Women and Development in Ghana, Florence Abena Dolphyne, notes that professional women - lawyers, doctors, engineers, bankers, administrators and the like - command a great deal of respect in African societies. Discussing women's status in formal employment, she notes:

"Professional women in Africa do not face the same level of discrimination in employment that women in similar positions have had to put up with in some Western countries... they earn the same salaries and enjoy the same conditions of service as their male counterparts... The discrimination that the professional African woman has to put up with is more within the home environment, where traditional attitudes about a woman's place in the home still persist."

In Ghana, women workers have been fortunate to encounter proportionately little discrimination in employment. Ghana ratified the ILO's Convention on Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value in 1951, and government employees of the same rank receive the same pay regardless of sex. However, an employer's compliance with other legislation concerning female workers, such as maternity and child-care provisions, is often harder to monitor. For example, in a different country there was a law requiring all businesses with 30 or more female employees to provide child-care facilities. Instead of disobeying the law, many businesses found a way to limit their female staff to 29. Such subtle forms of discrimination can also be found in Ghana.

Women are estimated to make up nearly 70 per cent of the workforce in clerical, sales and service positions in Ghana, and roughly 35 per cent of workers in production, transport or labourer classifications. At the professional and administrative levels, however, women make up only 23 per cent of workers.35 Within some professions, gender representation becomes even more skewed. Out of 523 professional staff in the University of Ghana in 1993, 92 were women. Of 74 professors only six were women. Out of 98 staff of the University of Ghana Medical School 19 were women and the one female professor out of nine is non-Ghanaian. Similar differences exist within the ranks of the judiciary: one out of 11 judges on the Supreme Court, and one out of eight at the Court of Appeal are women. These gaps can be directly traced to the gender gap in education: at the third level of education, only nine per cent of engineering, agriculture and natural science students were women, and only one quarter of medical science students. Out of 23 lawyers called to the bar recently, only five were females. We can continue to provide such depressing statistics, but why continue? The precarious economic environment which has prevailed in the world over the last decade or more has adversely affected many developing countries, but the African region has been hardest hit through structural adjustment, deteriorating terms of trade, and contraction of national economies. Just as girl children are the first to be pulled from school during times of economic hardship for individual families, so at a societal level are women workers the first to loose their jobs or suffer from worsening conditions of work. This has been combined with increased pressures on women's reproductive roles due to decreases in government provision of many social services under structural adjustment programmes. So while the importance of women's economic contribution to their families has continued to grow, their income-earning opportunities have been contracted. This situation is clearly not sustainable, for countries or families, and demands attention at the highest political levels. But too often those in positions of power are oblivious to the harsh realities of women's lives, and there is an absence of female decision-makers to sensitize these men and lead the movement for change.


Women's invisibility, subordinate status and inequitable access to education are both a cause and an effect of their lack of access to decision-making positions. Although women comprise roughly 50 per cent of the world's enfranchised population, they occupy only 17 per cent of parliamentary seats worldwide, only eight per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa and three per cent in the Arab States." Currently Ghana has 16 women in a 200 member parliament, exactly the Sub-Saharan average.

Florence Abena Dolphyne points out how the gender gap in education results in a gender gap in political power. In most African countries, an ability to express oneself effectively in the language of the former colonial power, English, French or Portuguese, is a prerequisite for serious participation in Parliament or politics. She notes that the "low level of women's participation in formal education has, therefore, effectively limited the number of women who can hold responsible positions in government, or even participate meaningfully in the political life of their countries beyond the level of their local communities."37

Women have been poorly represented at policy-making levels on the boards of statal and parastatal bodies. Ghana's National Council on Women and Development (NCWD), established by the government in 1975 to promote the objectives of International Women's Year and the UN Decade for Women (1976-85), has been working towards improving women's involvement at this level by compiling a directory of qualified women in various professions who should be considered for Board positions as they arise. While the NCWD estimates that there are sufficient numbers of educated women with qualifications comparable to most male Board members to comprise one-third membership of all statutory bodies, it remains a battle to keep at least one woman on all Boards.38

The importance of having women in policy and decision-making positions at all levels could hardly be overestimated. These women provide insight into women's concerns and how they are affected by government policy, and can help to initiate and direct the implementation of programmes and activities in support of women's interests, their health,education and political participation. Furthermore, such women can act as role-models for a younger generation of African women seeking to throw off the chains of their oppression and break the hold of the serpent.


While women in decision-making positions and in government are best placed to push for greater gender equity in education, employment and political participation, the vast majority of women feel powerless to affect such changes, trapped as they are in a subordinate position within the gender division of labour in the home, the fields and the workplace. For these women, the weight of culture and tradition keeps their sphere of influence small. In my next lecture I propose to examine the role of culture, tradition and law in restricting or promoting greater gender equality. If Africa's Eve's potential contribution to economic and social development is to be fully realised, we must examine these basic structures of our societies, so often taken for granted, and further, we must discard that which holds us back and embrace that which moves us forward on the path to gender equity.


1 ibid.

2 Florence Abena Dolphyne (1991).

3 UNICEF (1992).

4 Statistical Office of the UN Secretariat (1989).

5 Florence Abene Dolphyne (1991) The Emancipation of Women: An African Perspective, Accra: Ghana Universities Press.

6 S.V. Sethuraman (1989) Women in the Informal Sector: A Review of Evidence from Developing Countries, Geneva: ILO.

7 ibid.

8 Kate Young (1993) Planning Development with Women: Making a World of Difference, London: Macmillan.

9 Esther Boserup (1970) Women's Role in Economic Development, London: George Allen and Unwin.

10 Lynne Brydon and Sylvia Chant (1989) Women in the Third World: Gender Issues in Rural and Urban Areas, Aldershot: Edward Elgar.

11 Marianne A. Ferber (1982) "Women and Work: Issues of the 1980s", Signs, Volume 8, Number 2, Winter.

12 Almroth et. al. (1979).

13 Miriam Labboc and Peggy Konniz-Booher, eds. (1990) Breastfeeding: Protecting a Natural Resource, Washington: Institute for International Studies in Natural Family Planning.

14 Stina Almroth, Ted Greiner and Michael C. Latham, (1979) "Economic importance of breastfeeding", Food and Nutrition, Vol.5 No.2.

15 ibid.

16 "The Economic Value of Breastfeeding", Women's Health Journal, No.8, July/August 1988.

17 Population Reference Bureau (1986) Women in the World: The Women's Decade and Beyond, Washington: Population Reference Bureau, Inc.

18 Ruth Leger Sivard (1985) Women: A World Survey, Washington: World Priorities.

19 John Kenneth Galbraith (1973) Economics and the Public Purpose, New York: Signet.

20 Statistical Office of the United Nations Secretariat (1989) "Statistics and Indicators on Women's Participation in the Economy" in 1989 World Survey on the Role of Women in Development, New York: UN.

21 Lawrence Summers (1993) "The most influential investment", People and the Planet, Vol.2 No.1.

22 Ann Cotton (1993) The CAMFED Zimbabwe Project, Cambridge: CAMFED (The Cambridge Female Education Trust).

23 Manzoor Ahmed (1993) "Educating Girls in Bangladesh: exploding the myth", People and the Planet, Vol.2 No.1.

24 Debbie Taylor (1993).

25 Article 3.3, World Declaration on Education for All. Inter-Agency Commission Final Report: World Conference on Education for All. Meeting Basic Learning Needs, 5-9 March 1990, Jomtien, Thailand.

26 Debbie Taylor (1993).

27 ibid.

28 ibid.

29 ibid.

30 UNESCO (1991).

31 UNICEF (1992).

32 ibid.

33 ibid.

34 Debbie Taylor (1993) "Meeting the Need", People and the Planet, Vol.2 No.1.

35 UNICEF (1992) Educating Girls and Women: A Moral Imperative, New York: UNICEF.

36 UNESCO (1991).

37 UNDP (1990) Human Development Report 1990, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

38 UNESCO (1991) World Education Report 1991, Paris, UNESCO.