Published: 14:52, April 19, 2024
Turning to those who ‘hold up half the sky’
By Chen Huiyi

Empowerment of women can help make China-Africa cooperation more gender-responsive 


During the First World Conference on Women in 1975, the then secretary-general, Helvi Sipila, opened the NGO Women’s Forum with a keynote speech in which she quoted Chairman Mao Zedong’s famous words, arguing that recognizing that “women hold up half the sky” is no less important than the discovery of a new world by Columbus.

The recently-concluded 68th annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW68), the United Nations’ largest annual event dedicated to gender equality and women’s empowerment, again prompts recurring questions about how far we are from achieving gender equality and how we can unlock the potential for those who hold up half the sky in a way that it is not overshadowed anymore as a crucial avenue for poverty reduction.

Despite progress highlighted in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, indicating a 68.4 percent narrowing of the gender gap by 2023, the COVID-19

pandemic has severely halted advancements, particularly impacting women and girls in education and employment.

Another report by the International Monetary Fund highlighted that increasing female workforce participation by 5.9 percent could potentially boost the economies of emerging markets by approximately 8 percent.

The partnership between China and Africa is recognized as one of the most vibrant and dynamic in international development, and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation — as the most important coordination mechanism — has recognized women as vital agents for poverty reduction and long-term development since the 2006 Beijing Summit.

The Forum has consistently focused on enhancing experience-sharing and supporting capacity-building projects like skills training and employment opportunities.

For example, the 2015 Johannesburg Declaration underscored poverty-reduction programs in Africa, particularly focusing on women and children through programs such as vocational training.

Similarly, the 2018 Beijing Declaration pledged to increase exchanges among institutions on governance and socioeconomic development to improve gender equality and women’s welfare.

Interestingly, although the FOCAC declaration for commitments related to women’s empowerment often falls under the “cultural and people-to-people exchange category”, progress is often made from the spillovers of investment from China, especially through job creation, which to some extent resonates with “invest in women”, the thematic priority of this year’s International Women’s Day.

By saying the improvements in women’s well-being are a “spillover” (instead of a direct result) of investment, it means somehow, paradoxically, the investments by Chinese companies in most cases did not set gender equality as a core objective or fundamental incentive.

Policymakers and development practitioners also face challenges in assessing gaps and planning future projects, as achievements in women’s empowerment receive minimal coverage in media and official reports, and data tracking on outcomes, such as women’s employment, is scarce.

This highlights the lack of a comprehensive gender equity agenda and detailed action plan between China and Africa at the policy level that addresses women’s vulnerabilities and limited resource access.

What more could be done? Last December, we co-hosted a public dialogue with Cheung Kong Graduate Business School featuring three female African ambassadors to China — Maria Gustava (the Republic of Mozambique), Oliver Wonekha (the Republic of Uganda), and Isabel Domingos (the Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe) — on forging a China-Africa Partnership in women’s empowerment.

The dialogue offered several practical insights on gender-responsive development initiatives in terms of facilitating effective resource allocation in targeted programs:

First, despite women constituting over half of the agricultural workforce in Africa, limited access to agricultural machines to scale up production and being constrained in planting subsistence crops due to social norms for household sustenance resulted in lower returns in product markets.

Second, in Africa, it is typical for women to operate small businesses and enterprises as a means to supplement household income.

However, a notable portion of women-owned SMEs face financial constraints due to the absence of appropriate financial products and distrust in lending practices within formal credit sources.

Third, digital technologies have emerged as a pivotal pathway for poverty reduction. Access to information allows women to explore innovative business ideas, as evidenced by women in China who have seized opportunities through e-commerce and other digital services.

The forthcoming summit scheduled for this autumn offers African countries a valuable opportunity to assert their agency by articulating their perspectives to Chinese partners, paving the way for a clear road map.

The author is the Research and Coordination Analyst at Development Reimaged, an independent international development consultancy headquartered in Beijing. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.