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Education is the way to gender equality in Africa

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation.

When I accepted the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership back in April 2018, in Kigali, Rwanda, I stated as the first woman to receive this award, it is my hope that women and girls across Africa will be inspired to break through barriers and push back on the frontiers of life's possibilities.

Gender equality is a governance and development goal in Africa and globally. Agenda 2063 establishes that the Africa of 2063 will be a continent where gender equality is embedded in all spheres of life. SDG 5 sets that women and girls everywhere must have equal rights and be able to live free of violence and discrimination. These commitments towards gender equality are not standalone but must be integrated into all dimensions of governance, from security to education, health, economic empowerment and political participation.

The importance of gender equality in all aspects of governance is reflected in the Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG). Its sub-category Gender measures progress in gender equality on the continent across areas such as the promotion of gender equality by governments, gender parity at school, women's labour force participation, women's political and judiciary representation, women's political empowerment, and laws on violence against women.

According to the 2018 IIAG, Gender in Africa is a positive story, having consistently improved its average score by a total of +4.5 points in the past decade, an increase of 9% compared to 2008. A total of 41 countries have progressed in this period, meaning that almost 90% of the continent's population benefitted from improved gender equality. In 2017, Rwanda was the most equal country on the continent, followed by Madagascar, Seychelles, Uganda and South Africa. Rwanda is also the country to have registered the largest improvements in this sub-category in the last ten years, followed by Zimbabwe, Congo, Gabon and Burundi.

The main drivers of Africa’s strong performance in gender equality are women's political empowerment and gender parity in education. However, there are still areas lagging behind, such as representation of women in the political space, gender equality in the workspace and the establishment of laws to tackle violence against women.

While I warmly praise the overall progress on the continent, I strongly voice that efforts must not stop there. Achieving gender equality requires women to be agents of change, makers of peace and drivers of progress, and to this end African countries still have a long way to go.

[su_highlight]The first step to empower women is providing quality education to girls and young women.[/su_highlight]

The 2018 IIAG shows that improvements in gender parity in primary and lower secondary school were made over the last ten years in 36 African countries, representing 83% of Africa’s population. Nevertheless, 20.5 million girls are not in primary school in Africa, meaning that 23% of primary school age girls in sub-Saharan Africa and 10% in North Africa do not receive basic education. This gap is only to become more prevalent in higher levels of education: 37.1% of girls in sub-Saharan Africa and 12.5% in North Africa are not attending lower secondary school. For every 100 boys, only 86 girls complete lower secondary school, in sub-Saharan Africa, which results in fewer girls than boys being able to read and write.

Providing girls with skills development and quality education at least up to secondary level is essential to improving their lives and that of their communities. Lower levels of education are not only linked to child marriage and early pregnancy, but also to lower expected incomes and higher levels of poverty later in life. Educating women up to secondary level can help foster their participation in labour force, enhance their prospects of full-time work and double their income. In addition to economic empowerment, education is also the way to more decision-making power for women at home and to a stronger voice in the workplace and in society at large.

My message is that we should all cherish the notable progress in gender in Africa, but this has to be sustained by stronger actions towards ensuring girls' access to and participation in quality education. Education is key for young girls and women to fulfil their potential, break through barriers and pursue their dreams. Only through laying the foundations from the very beginning can gender equality be fully realised on the continent and benefit the future of African girls and women, as well as of African societies as a whole.