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Gender equality and women’s empowerment are not only issues of human rights, but also pathways to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and sustainable development. Investing in women and girls should be a priority if Africa wants to get rid of poverty, but the continent continues  to be held back by negative customs and traditions that hinder  progress. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle spoke to Ahunna Eziakonwa, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Resident Representative, about the progress towards ensuring equal economic opportunities for girls and women in Africa.

Capital: What are the major findings of this year’s Human Development Index?

Ahunna Eziakonwa: African economies that take into account the contribution of the girls and women or    prioritize the economic activities of women or their wellbeing do much better. In other words, there is an economic value to actually investing in girls and women. It’s not just about rights, but also about the general health of the economy.

We have  also  seen the reverse side where issues related to women’s empowerment are  very low, and there is evidence that this affects the performance of economies. I think investing in women is a microeconomic and macroeconomic issue. Where the human development side of it is concerned we cannot achieve it without investing in women and girls; not just in terms of their empowerment but also closing the gender gap that allows for discrimination against women and girls.

Capital: It has always been known that investing in women and girls does have economic value, but are people in Africa and their leaders taking this fact to mind and actually taking advantage of it?

Ahunna Eziakonw
Ahunna Eziakonwa the United Nations Development Program UNDP Resident Representative

Eziakonwa: It is a common sense approach; I really like the phrase that comes out of out of the report which says that “a development that is not engendered in endangered”, I think that is the starting point for us to understand that if the full interest of African Governments and people is to achieve human development, we must engender it, otherwise it is not sustainable and it is not going to advance.

I think part of the problem is that we may see it as somebody else’s problem; maybe it’s just for politicians. But I think it is everyone’s responsibility; it is my father’s responsibility, it is my mother’s responsibility, it starts in the home. We need to bring up our girls with the same value we place in the boys and we need to ensure they have equal access to education and to things that empower them from birth.

So there is a role for families and there is a role for communities, particularly when it comes to cultural practices that are negative for the development of women. These are sometimes promoted by communities, by the elders in communities and even by family members who insist for instance that a girl must go through female genital mutilation when we have evidence that practice alone can actually deny a girl of an opportunity to advance in society.

And then you have churches and the role of religious and faith based organizations, because they also have their aspects that they can promote when it comes to child marriage for example which is a killer of development for women. If a girl at the age of 15 or 16 is already married, that is the end of it for her opportunity to advance herself. Whose responsibility is this? The state of course can institute a law against child marriage, but then, we have to make sure that families and communities actually comply with that.

We have a lot of work, first of all, to sensitize the population and communities, the elders, the churches the mosques that this is a good thing for society in general, it is health and it has economic value even apart it being a rights issue. Then we need to follow that up by making sure the institutions serving society also have embedded in that these practices, these reforms that create the space and the opportunity for the advancement of women. So for me it is a multifaceted approach. The media also have a role to play; what you are doing now is creating awareness and we expect you to be a full partner with us in achieving what needs to be done.

Capital: Do you think having more women in decision making positions would also be more influential in pushing this agenda?

Eziakonwa: It matters. I happen to be in the camp that believes that women in leadership and influential position matters because women lead with their hearts. It doesn’t mean they don’t have the brain but a woman who comes into leadership usually will be focused on people centered aspects of leadership because she is a woman, a wife, a mother, normal when she goes home she has to deal with the social aspects that affect the health and wellbeing of her children.

So there is a leadership tendency of women to be more biased towards making sure that those social conditions are met. There is a saying that there is a special place in hell for women that don’t support other women and I think that is a minority, the exception. Generally when women come into leadership positions, they fight for causes of women because it is personal to them.

Capital: What about those that are in a policy making position currently, are they doing what is necessary? It seems like the issues of women has been discussed for a long time with not much being shown for it.

Eziakonwa: You know, in a strange way, it is not so much about the policies. Due to the advancement of the UN international standards, either through the MDGs or now with the SDGs, there are a lot of international frameworks that requires countries to comply with certain laws and policies that promote their agenda for women.

However, even with the existence this, there is a slow progress because of the mindset of a lot of societies and a cultural burden that countries have. So it slows that process; you will find that in many countries the laws exist, the policies are there, implementation is the question and for me, implementation is linked not to just the financial or technical capacity but to the mindset. That is why I am saying that we all have to join hands to sensitize communities, families and influential entities in societies that can begin to change that mind set.

Capital: Looking at the overall human development progress, are we starting to see that economic growth is translating into human development in African countries?

Eziakonwa: We are seeing it in some countries but we have to say again that this is an exception. Generally growth has not equated to reduction in poverty in a lot of countries and I think it is because a lot of the growth is not job rich. In order for a transformation to happen growth has to translate into job creation, job opportunities for the population. This is where many African countries are struggling to catch up and to bridge that gap.

So you might see very good numbers in terms of the GDP but, you see a lot of gaps in the wellbeing of the people. That is why the AU is talking about structural transformation because there are a lot of structural issues that are in the way of that gap being bridged. They have to be attacked and the focus for African economies has to shift from just commodity heavy and not job rich to economies that are actually fertilizing the job environment. That is the way forward and that is what’s going to eventually reduce poverty.