Women’s Economic Justice: Putting women at the centre

It is sad to note that there has largely been an understatement – and in some cases total blindness – of how the majority of the world population – women – are agents in this process.

Alice Kanengoni's picture

Gender and Women's Rights Programme Manager

February 9th, 2015

As the world reconsiders development models, which are intended to bring equitable and sustainable development to communities, it is sad to note that there has largely been an understatement – and in some cases total blindness – of how the majority of the world population – women – are agents in this process. We have witnessed paradigm shifts over the years from total silence and complete blindness to women’s contributions to the economy to a view of them as passive recipients of development and later to them as active agents, albeit with limited degrees of appreciation for this role. 

he current discourses on economic development have largely dwelt on macroeconomic frameworks that have remained blind to the gendered dimensions of economies and the resultant impacts these have on the lives of women and girls who are disproportionately affected by such models. Capitalism and patriarchy have colluded to keep women poor. Capital has continued to be the major tool that patriarchy has employed to keep women’s lives ‘informal’, making women work for less or no pay and often in the care and unremunerated sectors of economies. For instance, women have largely remained locked up in the domestic sphere of the home where all their contributions are uncosted, unremunerated and often unacknowledged. Where they have found a space in the ‘formal’ economic sectors, they – by design – are concentrated in the least profitable and often unregulated sectors where they are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. 

At the global level, the world is currently reviewing the framework to guide development subsequent to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) era. Efforts are underway to define protocols for mitigating climate change and setting the agenda for environmental justice largely in the context of a growing boom in natural resource extraction, including massive land concessions experienced mostly in the global South. Southern Africa has not been immune to the changing climate patterns and impacts of floods and droughts that are escalating across the globe. The erratic weather patterns such as the recurrent droughts and floods have compounded the problems of women in the agricultural sector. 

In addition, land has become the ‘gold’ of the last two decades with increased foreign interest in land on the African continent. Although this is a phenomenon that has become most prominent in Asia and Africa in the past two decades, research shows that 70 percent of all land deals have been on the African continent, particularly in Sudan, Mozambique, DRC, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania, Zambia and Madagascar (Tsikata, 2012). This translates to 227 million hectares of land grabbed from developing nations. These large-scale land deals are happening against a backdrop of feeble land legislation and discriminatory land tenure systems that have no mechanisms and laws to monitor the effects of these deals and ensure the continent and its people are not exploited. 

Yet, pressures to secure Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and the dependence of most of our governments on aid and grants to fund national budgets have influenced our governments’ policymaking and decision making on such important issues as land, water and other related climate justice issues. This has resulted in a phenomenon which Prof Mkandawire terms ‘choiceless democracies’. All these dynamics have major gendered impacts for historically disadvantaged women and girls who are pushed further to the margins. 

Social justice movements are increasingly being built and strengthened in efforts to amplify the voices and protect the interests of those affected. However, in all this, the voices of the majority of the affected – women – are muted. Women are the most vulnerable to poverty and underdevelopment, the most impacted by climate change and the biggest losers in the unaccountable politics of natural resource extraction, especially in Africa. But they are mostly missing from the tables where these issues and concerns are deliberated and negotiated. Women’s stories and realities remain absent from current narratives and discourses on Africa and, as a result, they have no role in policymaking and planning for sustainable economic development at the national, continental and global levels. 

Part of the reason for this is that there has been relatively limited scholarship on women’s economic justice on the African continent. Practitioners on women’s economic empowerment have largely relied on models that are developed and birthed outside the realities of their existence. For instance, on the continent, the majority of women are engaged in the so-called ‘informal’ sectors of the economy which are often ignored, not prioritised or incentivised by governments. Therefore, any effective economic development models for their empowerment must respond to that reality. Sadly, this has not been the case. Instead, the genesis of economic development models adopted in most countries in the sub-Saharan region and on the continent often lies outside the realities of the majority on the continent. These models include the various generations of Economic Structural Adjustment Programmes (ESAPs) and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), to mention a few. The major problem is that these are framed as ‘one-size-fits-all’ models that are not necessarily informed by the lived realities of women and the poor majority whom they are purported to benefit. 

The on-going post-MDG consultative agenda and processes have been framed around ‘transformative economic empowerment’ and, if this is to be a truly transformative agenda which brings real tangible change for women in Africa, of necessity, this agenda needs to be informed by the realities of these women. This issue of BUWA provides the much needed platform for women in this part of the world to tell their stories and have their voices amplified for the world to hear so that their interests may find a space within the post-MDG frameworks and other global processes that inadvertently affect their lives, often for the worse. This is especially because economic participation and beneficiation is not a privilege for a few but a matter of justice for all. Whereas a case has been made for women’s participation in many other spheres such as politics and education women’s participation in the economic sphere seems the least advanced with many of the efforts tending to focus on the microeconomic levels and initiatives that do not challenge the macroeconomic architecture that positions women at a disadvantage and keeps them poor. Masego Madzwamuse makes a compelling case on economic justice for women as a critical site of engagement and outlines the key areas that require real transformation for women in Africa to realise a better quality of life. 

With increasingly globalised economies, a number of economic development frameworks have evolved and devolved over the decades at the global UN, continental, regional and national levels. The world is certainly not short of frameworks and guidelines although we are yet to see these transform women’s quality of life, especially in the global South. Liepollo Pheko analyses the normative frameworks at the international, continental and global levels and exposes how they have mostly failed to provide space and opportunities for women’s economic empowerment. A number of these international and regional frameworks have remained on paper; they have not been domesticated and neither have they informed national policy. 

A case in point is the current global trade liberalisation model guiding most of our countries’ economic and trade policies which Mandipa Machacha examines. She concludes that the forms of trade liberalisation may in fact exacerbate existing gender inequalities and have the potential to worsen the social and economic status of women in the Southern African development trajectory. This is particularly true because the current models and related systems adopted by governments in the region do not necessarily make it easy for women to access finance, a necessary resource for economic empowerment, as Nomsa Daniels further demonstrates. She argues that in Africa more than 70 percent of women are excluded from access to financial services because the significant contribution of women as economic agents is largely ignored and unacknowledged. Thembela Njenga and Francis Ng’ambi agree, highlighting how women tend to be concentrated in the so-called informal sectors which are characterised by multidimensional challenges. Njenga and Ng’ambi shed light on some of these barriers and the survival strategies that have kept women alive over the years. 

Admire Chereni shows how migration is one of the coping strategies adopted in the region. He counts the mostly indirect – and often ignored – costs that women pay as a result of this coping strategy, a phenomenon prevalent in the region. Chereni sheds light on the inevitable emotional vulnerabilities experienced by women who remain behind when their spouses immigrate in search of work and better livelihoods. He challenges the development theory that puts a premium on the monetary value that remittances bring into the ‘originating countries’ while being blind to the less tangible but nevertheless high costs on the emotional, physical and psychological wellbeing of spouses who remain behind to parent children and manage households on their own. 

Those women who remain in their home country often eke out a living in the informal sector. Although reports show that women are by far the majority in the informal sector, their contributions to the economies are unfortunately neither measured nor accounted for, as GDP ignores this sector. This issue is opined by the author (Alice Kanengoni) elsewhere in this issue. This, Kanengoni argues, is the reason poverty has continued to bear a woman’s face in the region and on the continent. She argues that there is a need to challenge and deconstruct such frameworks as GDP if the continent, and indeed the world, is to effectively address feminised poverty. Even as women dominate this sector in numbers, their access to this space is not without contestation and risk as Raisa Cole demonstrates through case studies of women in the Johannesburg CBD. She argues that public space is a political resource necessary for productive economic activity and that a sustainable livelihood approach is needed if women are to gainfully participate and make the most of this resource. Yet, historically, women in Africa are especially disadvantaged when it comes to access to productive space. They are confined to the private sphere of the home with public spaces largely constructed as unsafe and risky for women plying their trade. This amounts to perpetual economic injustice for women and girls, especially in Southern Africa and the continent. 

However, women’s participation in the formal economic sector does not necessarily pull them completely out of poverty. Where they are formally employed, women are systematically concentrated in the care sectors of the economy in which salaries are typically low and working conditions invariably poor. Job security is limited and, in cases where industries need to retrench employees, women are the first casualties. Aisha Bahadur demonstrates this in the case of the current fallout within the government of Swaziland as a result of the AGOA saga. 

Feminised economic injustice is most stark when one zooms into the dynamics of the two key drivers of current economic growth in Southern Africa – agriculture and mining. A dialogue between Leisa Perch and Nidhi Tandon reveals the major injustices, struggles, challenges and resultant food insecurity, poverty and vulnerability women are exposed to. Perch and Tandon bring to light the complications that result from poor governance, a lack of sound policies and a lack of transparency in these two economic engines. 

Patience Mutopo provides an example in the agricultural sector where, as she demonstrates, the current proliferation of large-scale land investments in Africa are putting women and girls’ lives at risk by starvation. She argues that these trends particularly disadvantage women who are the majority of rural small-scale farmers in the region and the continent. A number of development organisations are acutely aware of this sad reality. Christina Kwangari, Azumi Mesuna and Anatole Uwiragiye share some of the strategies these organisations have adopted to respond to gendered economic injustice. 

Similarly, although the region is experiencing a dramatic boom in natural resource extraction in countries such as the DRC, Mozambique, Zambia, Angola, Zimbabwe, to name just a few, women have again been short-changed and remain on the margins of the benefits proceeding from mining. For example, in Mozambique, with its huge natural gas fields, the majority of women still live in abject poverty. As a result, there has been a widening inequality gap between the levels of poverty among women and men. Unfortunately, information on the gendered impacts of extractive industries in the region is very limited. The limited information is concentrated within personal accounts of the women and the observations of activists such as Anny Modi who describes the impacts of artisanal mining on the girl-child in DRC – one of the countries where the paradox of abject poverty in a land of plenty largely obtains. 

A symptom and causal factor of the widespread feminisation of poverty in the region is the escalation of the many forms of violence against women and girls. Research has established a causal link between poverty and violence against women and Jacqui True elucidates on this link, making a case for reconceptualising violence against women through a feminist political economy lens. She shows how ignoring this causal link will inevitably perpetuate economic injustice and undermine any efforts by activists to end violence against women and girls. 

Similarly, this feminised poverty manifests in forced and limited choices for some women and girls who resort to sex work to survive, an issue tackled by Elsa Oliveira and Vanessa Klass. They argue that, while sex work is indeed a choice for some women, it is not an easy one. For these women, sex work is also one of very few and limited options available to them to make a living. Klass explores the cost of being a sex worker in a context where there is little or no protection at all levels. Elsa Oliveira and Jo Vearey describe the ‘Working the City: Experiences of Migrant Women in Inner City Johannesburg’ project initiative which helps readers picture the realities that migrant women in this industry live. Rebecca Walker offers an alternative perspective, arguing that research in South Africa shows that earnings from sex work are much more than in other jobs in the informal economies. Walker raises critical questions about the ‘rescue’ and ‘decriminalisation’ debates – issues that have largely divided feminists across the globe. 

What is uncontested is the fact that poverty, climate change, water scarcity, the proliferation of clandestine land deals and the resultant food insecurity and inequality are all disproportionately affecting women and girls in the region and on the continent. There is an undeniable need for response strategies that recognise the root of all these problems – the warped macroeconomic policies and frameworks deliberately designed to protect the interests of those who wield power. The time for this recognition to happen is now as the world turns the page on the MDGs and opens a new one on the Beijing Plus 20. 

Alice Kanengoni s the Editor of BUWA! A Journal on African Women’s Experiences. Write to her with your feedback and submissions at

About the author(s)

Alice Kanengoni manages the Gender and Women’s Rights programme at OSISA. She joined OSISA from the Johannesburg-based Gender Links, a regional organisation focusing on gender and women’s rights, where she worked as a Senior Researcher. Prior to that, she had worked as a Senior Researcher and deputy head of the gender programme at the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC) in Harare. Alice holds a Masters Degree in Media and Communications, and a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English Literature.


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