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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 May, 2004, 11:24 GMT 12:24 UK
Are women the key to African growth?
by Orla Ryan
in Kampala, Uganda

With brightly coloured mats on their head, rural women arrive in Kampala looking to sell their goods.

A woman pumping water from a well
Women make a big contribution to Africa's economy
These mats and pots are often made at home. For many rural women, their main activity is growing enough food to eat, with some left over for sale.

Call it entrepreneurship or just plain survival, but female labour accounts for a hefty chunk of Africa's economies.

As the annual meetings of the African Development Bank get under way, economists argue that poverty in Africa can only be reduced if this household activity is taken into account.

Damning statistics

In sub Saharan Africa, women comprise 60% of the informal sector, provide about 70% of the total agricultural labour and produce about 90% of the food.

In the world of economics, much of this subsistence and informal labour falls into the arena of household activity and, as such, does not feature in national accounts.

Market activity, on the other hand, is where formal businesses and commercial agriculture are counted.

If you don't know who is doing what or what obstacles they face, how can you come up with a sensible budget?

This is the argument made by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA). It says household production and services should be recognized and integrated into budget and policy making processes.

We will not make considerable progress in bringing down poverty levels if we do not take gender into account
K. Y. Amoako , UNECA

UNECA's Alfred Latigo also argues that countries should adopt gender budgeting, where money is put aside to target gender-related obstacles to development. If these obstacles are tackled, womens' energies will be freed up for greater economic production.

The UNECA argument ties in with the theme of this years' African Development Bank meetings - Closing the Gender Gap: Promoting Gender Equality for Growth and Development in Africa.

Better statistics are needed and women's work needs to be made visible, delegates argued.

Mozambique's Prime Minister Ms Luisa D.Diogo said: "In Africa, the major traders and the major negotiators are women, we cannot speak about development on our continent if the role of women is not visible."

Getting out of poverty

It could seem like just another debate between policymakers if the stakes weren't so high.

Last year, only four countries met the growth targets necessary to meet the Millennium Development Goals, under which Africa is meant to halve poverty by 2015.

There are those who argue that economic growth alone won't pull people out of poverty, what is needed is pro-poor growth, economic growth which reduces poverty.

Gender budgeting could better enable growth to cut poverty. In South Africa, UNECA's Alfred Latigo said, they routinely allocate resources in the national budget to target gender-related issues.

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni
You cannot address gender issues without addressing the problem of producing and distributing wealth in society
Yoweri Museveni, Ugandan President
He says it is too early to say how this has contributed to poverty reduction. But if women get more free time by, for example, making it easier for them to get water, their productivity should rise, and, in theory, their income.

Delegates are quick to offer examples of women not receiving the support they need, support which could boost economic growth.

If women contribute about 70% of total agricultural labour, why do they receive less than 10% of the credit given to small farmers, Mr P Afrika, director of policy and review department at the African Development Bank, asked.

Ms Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria's federal minister of finance, questions whether women have contact with agricultural extension agents who could help them. "They are not having message passed on by a husband," she said.

She adds that if 50% of Nigerian small and medium-sized firms are run by women, then why do they only get 27% of the credit available from community banks?

The crux of the matter?

The question remains whether gender is an issue which should be at the centre of development strategies or whether gender equality is a byproduct of a country's development as a whole.

Omar Kabbaj, the president of the African Development Bank, says it is a prerequisite for achieving economic development.

K.Y. Amoako, the executive secretary of the UNECA, added: "We will not make considerable progress in bringing down poverty levels if we do not take gender into account."

Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni is among those who believe that gender is just one part of the development issue, not the crux of it.

"You cannot address gender issues without addressing the problem of producing and distributing wealth in society," he said.

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