Leveraging the 2016 Africa Human Development Report on “Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Africa

May 2, 2017

Africa Human Development Report 2016 - “Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Africa”


By: Lindiwe Dhlamini, UNDP South Africa


Background and Introduction

In September 2015, UN Member States adopted a landmark agreement on a universal transformative agenda. Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development is an agenda for people, planet and prosperity, which also “seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom”. The new agenda is universal; it will be implemented by “all countries and all stakeholders, acting in collaborative partnership”. The adoption of Agenda 2030 presents both opportunities and challenges to the world and Africa specifically, particularly in ensuring that “no one is left behind” in the development process. It consists of four parts:

Vision and principles: The Declaration elaborates on the vision and principles that UN Member States foresee using to guide them in this journey to change the world over the next 15 years.

Means of implementation: This talks to the ‘how’ whereby the agenda necessitates the involvement of new stakeholders such as academia, national parliaments and local authorities. It also emphasizes the need to address systemic issues as well as science, technology and innovation.

Follow up and review mechanism: These processes at all levels should be rigorous and informed by country-led evaluations and data which is disaggregated as much as possible. In January 2017, the first UN World Data Forum was held in Cape Town, bringing together producers, users and advocates of data under one roof to determine the readiness of institutions and Government’s readiness for responding to the data needs of Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063 and to map out the required steps forward to this end. The first Africa Data Revolution Report was launched during the Forum, an initiative of UNDP, UNECA, WWW Foundation and the IDRC.

Goals and targets: The agenda will be implemented through 17 Goals, 169 Targets and 230 Indicators. Statistics South Africa, as the lead department on data in the country, has initiated four Sectoral Working Groups (SWGs) pertaining to Social development, Economic development, Environmental sustainability and a standalone group on Peace, Safety and Governance. The SWGs include participants from Government, civil society and UN agencies, amongst others, and they aim to produce national indicators for tracking and reporting purposes.

There are three major differences between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the MDGs, their predecessor, which have a bearing on development cooperation, these are that: (a) the SDGs are broader and more ambitious than the MDGs; (b) the SDGs are complex and integrated; and (c) the SDGs are universal, implying that the goals are relevant to both developing and developed countries. The structure of Agenda 2030 also clusters the SDGs into five categories of (1) People, relating to social development; (2) Prosperity, regarding economic development; (3) Planet, about environmental sustainability; (4) Peace, referencing peaceful and inclusive societies; and (5) Partnerships, on the means of implementation.

Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aims to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. Within this Goal, several targets allude to the importance of ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere as well as undertaking reforms to give women access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, inheritance and natural resources – which is still encountered as a challenge in Africa. It calls for recognition and valuing of unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies, and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family appropriately.

While SDG 5 prioritises gender equality, addressing gender issues more vigorously and comprehensively will accelerate efforts by governments, civil society and the private sector to achieve many, if not all, of the other SDGs due to the role and position that women have across all sectors of society. This reflects the growing body of evidence that gender equality has multiplier effects across the spectrum of development.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) defines gender inequality through the human development lens, and encourages for it to be addressed by “improving women’s capacities and opportunities, what women can and are able to do, and contributing to better outcomes for present and future generations”. These efforts will enhance human development through three channels:

Economic: more time and productive work for women at home and in the marketplace as employers, employees and entrepreneurs;

Social and environmental: better health, education, nutrition, sustainable resource use for present and future generations; and

Political: more equal voice, participation and representation in decision making and resource allocation.

Africa Human Development Report and Findings

On 28 August 2016, the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa launched the 2016 Africa Human Development Report (AfHDR) on “Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Africa”. To address the gender gap, the report adopts a political economy approach to gender equality and women’s empowerment. Human Development Reports have traditionally been a flagship product for UNDP as they are characterized by independent, empirically grounded analysis of major development issues, trends and policies as they affect the individual. The reports have sought to bring out fundamental elements of development from a human perspective, namely, a good and healthy long life as measured by life expectancy, a good functional education, inclusivity and participation in economic endeavour, resilience from external shocks and the ability to choose one’s destiny (hdr.undp.org). Human development has always been about expanding people’s choices and the reports are produced to provide a platform for extensive development policy debate at the global, regional and country levels.

The AfHDR finds that human development in Africa is rising and low human development countries are catching up. However, inequality between women and men continues to persist and is slowing down the pace of development in the continent. On average, the report highlights women achieve 87 per cent of the human development outcome of males and as a result, Africa is missing its full growth potential. It is estimated that, for example, the total annual economic losses due to gender gaps in the labour market, average USD 95 billion per year, and could be as high as USD 105 billion – equivalent to 5 per cent of GDP.

According to the report, social norms and beliefs assign African women and girls the primary responsibility for care and domestic work, women on average spend twice as much time as men on domestic work related to child and elderly care, cooking, cleaning, and fetching water and wood. In sub-Saharan Africa, 71 per cent of the burden of collecting water for households falls on women and girls, which leaves women with very little time to perform paid work and therefore increases the inter-generational poverty.

Overall, the report also finds progress at the political and leadership levels is still well below what is needed to have a demonstrable impact on attaining full gender equality in African countries. Closing gender gaps in public administration helps to ensure democratic governance, restore trust and confidence in public institutions, and accelerate the responsiveness of government policies and programmes. Existing legal and social norms, and the ways they interact have a major effect on gender equality and women’s empowerment. The challenge is not fine-tuning existing legal standards, but rather, ensuring standards are advocated, accepted and fully implemented and enforced (UNDP RSC AfHDR Training Concept Note).

South Africa example

The theme of gender equality and women’s empowerment speaks to the key priority of the African continent in general, and also to South Africa in particular. The country’s National Development Plan (NDP) was adopted in 2012 and looks to address South Africa’s triple challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The NDP also informed the country’s inputs as it led negotiations ahead of development of both the continental and global agendas – it was under South Africa’s chairpersonship that at its May 2013 Heads of State Summit, the African Union laid down a vision for the “Africa We Want”. During the 2014 side lines of the UN General Assembly South Africa was elected by the ministries of the G77+China as the rotating Chair of the group for 2015, taking on the task to lead the group in major international negotiations including Agenda 2030 and the SDGs.

An initial analysis of the NDP stated objectives and the SDGs, done by UNDP, indicates broad convergence between the national and the global development frameworks, but the analysis also found areas of less convergence – there is no specific objective in the NDP that speaks to any of the targets under SDG 5, nor to the issue of gender equality in education (SDG 4.5).

In September 2016, upon request from the Multi-Party Women’s Caucus of the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature, UNDP helped build capacity of the Members of Parliament on the SDGs using a gender lens – it invited UN Women to illustrate how South Africa can mainstream gender within its NDP, and Statistics South Africa to present on the transition from the MDGs to the SDGs in the country. This initiative was identified by all participants as a critical priority of the Caucus whilst implementing its Annual Operational Plan for 2016/2017.

We used the provision of sanitary products to learners as a key entry point into improving education, gender and poverty outcomes in the SDGs. The National Assembly House Chairperson, Hon. Thokozile Didiza, made a commitment at the training that she would pursue the provision of sanitary products for girls in the Province and engage National Treasury using the proposed intervention programme, complete with a costing exercise and sources of finance, developed by participants. We were encouraged to hear the Minister of Finance, Mr. Pravin Gordhan, during his National Budget Speech in February 2017 mention that “the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Education is piloting the rollout of sanitary pads at schools, and I hope we will see complementary initiatives in other provinces”.

The implementation of Agenda 2030 and the SDGs is grounded on the principle of inclusion, participation, equality and “leaving no one behind” meaning that national policies, programmes and plans are to address the needs of all members of society, including women and girls in the country. The AfHDR can be leveraged for advocacy and to catalyse progress towards realizing the SDGs and the continental aspirations.


Even though Africa is the lowest continent in terms of human development, important strides have been noted in empowering women and girls over the years including through the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 3, SDGs predecessor, on “Promoting gender equality and empower women”. MDG 3 helped with the tracking of contributions to increased access to education for the girl child and more representation of women in decision making positions, amongst others.

Having committed to two ambitious agendas, Agenda 2030 and Agenda 2063, Africa is at a critical juncture. The commitments made under the SDGs on gender provide a renewed call to action to further address gender inequality and accelerate women’s empowerment. Investing in women is also central to the continental agenda, with Aspiration 6 of Agenda 2063 promoting “An Africa where Development is People-Driven, Unleashing the Potential of its Women and Youth”.

In the context of women being a significant part of society, the continent’s development aspirations would not be realized if half of humanity is left behind. With that recognition, the 2016 Africa Human Development Report is a substantive contribution to the development discourse on gender equality and women’s empowerment in Africa, providing a powerful opportunity to help African countries shape their plans and policies to realize the ambitions articulated in the global and continental agendas. 

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