Women’s History Month is coming to an end today, but this is not the end of women making history – we make history every day, but often these victories are not recognized.
For this year’s Women’s History Month, female economic empowerment was at the centre of the conversation. To mark the event, MasterCard released its Index of Women’s Entrepreneurship, which found that Ugandan women are among the most entrepreneurial in the world.
When you realize that Uganda has also been ranked the most entrepreneurial country in the world, it makes sense that women there would be more entrepreneurial. But it’s still great news.
Of course, as positive as these developments are, they only tell half the story.
Don’t be fooled by the positive headlines
Scratch a little beneath the surface, and you see that much of this entrepreneurial activity is less about innovation, and more to do with necessity, a matter of survival.
A deeper read of this report reveals that Uganda remains almost at the bottom in all areas that support entrepreneurial conditions. While this creates hurdles for male entrepreneurs as well, women wanting to start their own businesses still face many more, gender-specific hurdles that limit their potential.
Let’s take the agricultural sector as an example, because in Uganda, it accounts for almost 25% of our GDP and 80% of export earnings. Women make up 70% of agricultural workers, but are mostly at the bottom of the chain, working as smallholder farmers with limited land rights. In fact, women own only 7% of land in Uganda.
What’s the reason for this? Well in large part it’s down to cultural stereotypes. Despite their entrepreneurial spirit, women in Uganda are still hampered by ideas of what they “should” be doing. For example, it is not uncommon for national leaders – even female leaders – to visit rural working women to remind them to wash their husbands’ underwear. Every community or country has their version of this debate, but this is just a glimpse into the unfair expectations and cultural attitudes still placed on women in our communities.
These cultural attitudes also extend to women’s roles as mothers. In Uganda, we have a relatively high fertility rate of 5.4 pregnancies per woman. In practice, this translates to fewer employment opportunities for women; the jobs they do get are often low paid (at least compared to their male counterparts – Ugandan women working in the public sector earn on average 40% less than men, irrespective of their education status). Young women in rural Uganda have the highest unemployment rates, and 20% of employed women are poor.
To state these points is not to ignore the issues that men in Uganda also face. But as a recent Oxfam report reveals, gender inequality is the most significant of all identity-based disadvantages in Uganda's unequal growth. Women are invariably more marginalized than men, and cultural norms, attitudes and practices continue to perpetuate gender inequality, which is accepted as a fact, even by many women. As a result women are at the bottom of the development pyramid.
Still so much work to do
So what does all this mean for Women’s History Month? Every year we hear the same complaints: do we really need a whole month dedicated to honouring women’s achievements and fighting gender-based inequality? After all, we’ve made so much progress when it comes to gender equality. Indeed we have.
But as the case of female entrepreneurs in Uganda reveals, the positive headlines sometimes hide deeper, structural issues that still remain to be tackled.
Yes, I laud the fact Uganda’s women are as entrepreneurial as they are. But we should not let achievements like these blind us to the work that remains to be done.
We must continue to advocate for gender equity in access to social services, employment opportunities and equal pay for work of equal value and participation in decision making. In the end calling us the most entrepreneurial country in the world is not enough. We must be open about the real hard work needed to reduce inequality and advance the majority of our society who are in need.
And that’s why next year, and for many more to come, I will proudly celebrate Women’s History Month. I hope you’ll join me.