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Looking ahead . . .
Vol. 17 - South Africa

Looking back . . .
Vol. 16 (January - June 2015)

 To introduce the volume on women’s empowerment, this editorial examines the rise in popularity of international gender rankings over the past twenty years. However, it remains important to recognize that there are vast differences in gender equality and how individuals experience gender across Africa. One’s gender identity and associated gender roles differently influence one’s opportunities and lived experiences. Ultimately, the aim of the volume is to examine the complexities of gender as experienced, constructed, and enforced.

What do gender equality scores really tell us?
by the Ezine Editors

According to the 2014 Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI), sub-Saharan Africa has the world’s worst gender discrimination related to women and girls’ access to resources and physical integrity. The OECD Development Centre’s index, which ranks countries based on their social institutions, found that women in sub-Saharan Africa face barriers to access and control of land, property, and financial services. Furthermore, 40 percent of women in the region have been victims of gender-based violence, and legislation on rape and domestic violence is lacking. After reading the results of the SIGI — and many other global gender rankings — one could contend that sub-Saharan Africa is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. The reality, however, is more complicated.

The rise of gender equality rankings 

As the popularity of international gender rankings has grown over the past two decades (see Table 1 below for the complete listing of indexes discussed here), the headline-making lists have brought gender issues into the spotlight. Yet unreliable data and debate over how gender equality is defined and measured leaves global rankings limited in their ability to capture the complex impacts of gender on the lives of sub-Saharan Africans.

According to The Economist, global performance indicators that rank countries by combining related measures into a single score are “enjoying a boom”. The magazine cites Judith Kelley of Duke University and Beth Simmons of Harvard University, researchers who study the impact of global indicators on policy, as attributing the growth of these global rankings to their use by governments, NGOs, and activists to promote and shape policy change.

Global gender equality indices have similarly grown in number since the first ones were introduced two decades ago. In 1995, tens of thousands of government representatives and activists met in Beijing to discuss gender equality and women’s empowerment. Two weeks of debate led to the introduction of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which listed 12 critical areas of concern related to education, the girl-child, and violence against women. That year, the UNDP set out to add a gender dimension to its Human Development Report. The result was the Gender Empower Measure (GEM) and the Gender-Related Development Index (GDI), which used data collected by the UNDP to rank countries in annual reports. The GEM used the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments, the percentage of women in economic decision-making positions, and power over economic resources based on earned income to measure “whether women and men are able to actively participate in economic and political life and take part in decision-making” (United Nations Development Programme, 1995). The GDI on the other hand, is designed to measure gender gaps in life expectancy, education, and incomes. 

Though the indices were pioneering at the time, the 1995 Human Development Report acknowledged that the indices lacked other gender equality and empowerment indicators. The report attributed the indices’ shortcomings to the lack of internationally comparable data. Still, the indices have been criticized for measuring inequalities only among the elite and ignoring qualitative aspects of gender issues.

Since then, many other gender equality indices have emerged, each taking related but unique approaches to how gender equality, empowerment, and discrimination is measured. As gender rankings became more elaborate and introduced more indicators into the measurements, fewer countries could be included — African countries in particular were often left out. In 2004, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa introduced the first continent-specific international gender ranking: the African Gender Development Index (AGDI). The index aimed to “better reflect the realities of women and men on the African continent, so as to assess the gender gap in each African country and to help governments improve their performance on gender equality and equity” (Economic Commission for Africa, 2011). To do this, the AGDI measured women’s rights and gender equality based on the level of implementation of key international documents. Though the 2004 pilot index only assessed 12 African countries, the 2011 AGDI expanded to include an additional 18 African countries.

In 2010, after 15 years of criticism, the UNDP introduced yet another global gender ranking, with the aim of remedying the shortcomings of the GEM and GDI. The Gender Inequality Index, published annually, combines and expands upon the categories used in the GEM and GDI: reproductive health, measured by maternal mortality ratio and adolescent birth rates; empowerment, measured by the proportion of parliamentary seats occupied by females and the proportion of adult females and males aged 25 and old with some secondary education; and labour market participation, measured by the labour force participation rate of females versus males 15 and over. The UNDP’s new index intends to “measures the human development costs of gender inequality” in more than 150 countries (UNDP, n.d.). 

In 2013, Europe followed Africa’s lead by introducing its first region-specific gender ranking. The European Institute for Gender Equality’s Gender Equality Index, targeted to EU member states, purports to take into consideration the criticisms of older gender indices by including indicators related to, for example, leisure time and unpaid work. The index, which will be updated every two years, measures indicators in six domains: work, money, knowledge, time power, and health. Notably, the index includes what is calls “satellite domains” that are separate from a country’s overall score. These are intended to allow for the measurement of specific phenomena. The two in its first report were intersecting inequalities and violence.

Accounting for differences between rankings

Yet even the subtle differences in what indicators are included and what are left out can lead to vast differences in the overall rankings. Take, for example, the central African country Rwanda. The 2014 SIGI gives Rwanda a medium score for discrimination in social institutions, one of 13 sub-Saharan countries to receive the score. As the 2014 SIGI included 39 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, this score put Rwanda above average in the region, but not among the top performers: South Africa, Lesotho, Madagascar, and Namibia. Compare this to the 2014 Global Gender Gap Report, published by the World Economic Forum, in which Rwanda debuted at a remarkable seventh place, beating out countries like New Zealand, Germany, and Canada. South Africa, by contrast, came in at 18. Why was there such a big difference between the rankings? 

The contrast mostly comes down to which data were used as indicators of gender equality and how they were weighted. In the SIGI, Rwanda did worst in the category of access to resources and assets. The SIGI found that despite legal rights to land and property, negative attitudes towards women’s land rights meant that women still face difficulties accessing land. Similarly, though there are no legal restrictions to Rwandan women accessing credit, in reality that access is limited. Rwanda’s success, on the other hand, in the Global Gender Gap Report is primarily due to the political empowerment indicators. Rwanda ranks first in the world for the percentage of women in parliament and also does well for the percentage of ministerial positions that women currently hold. Access to land, property and resources, however, is not counted in the Global Gender Gap Report. In the SIGI, the percentage of women in parliament is included under the Restricted Civil Liberties category, one of five equally weighted categories, and thus carries far less influence than it does in the Global Gender Gap Report, which has only four equally weighted categories.

It’s important to note that the intentions of the two indices differ, which affects what they count. Though both indices include a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures, the Global Gender Gap Report intends to highlight the gender-related gaps — rather than overall levels — in access to resources and opportunities with regards to outcomes. The SIGI, on the other hand, focuses on that gap as it relates to policies, attitudes, and practices. 

What is included in and excluded from gender equality indices comes down to subjective judgements, which can substantially sway the results. Once a methodology is established, any changes related to new data, additional countries, or an evolved understanding of gender issues are difficult to incorporate as doing so inevitably affects the ability to make comparisons over time.

The value of global rankings

Rankings are useful. What is measured is made visible and affects what is prioritized and funded.  The data collected can be used to stimulate discussion, hold political leaders and institutions accountable to their commitments, and raise awareness around key issues, thereby helping advocacy efforts.

But rankings also have their flaws. BRIDGE, a UK-based gender and development research organization, points out that, “…while measuring change is often considered to be a technical exercise, it is also a political process.” (Demetriades, n.d.). The Economist adds, “…choosing what to include means pinning down slippery concepts and making subjective judgments”. Multi-faceted and complex concepts such as gender equality and empowerment are inherently simplified in the process of deciding how they will be measured.

The process is complicated by the fact that the data often simply don’t exist, making more complex understandings of gender impossible to measure. The data, which often come from local governments and institutions, may not reflect the experiences of marginalized women and gender minorities who are often simply not counted. The data that do exist differ greatly in quality and are inconsistent, which can make comparisons difficult. 

The need for better data was emphasized by United Nations Secretary-General’s Independent Expert Advisory Group on a Data Revolution for Sustainable Development’s report released in November 2014. The report, which aims to inform the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals that will replace the Millennium Development Goals, noted that “[g]ender inequality and the undervaluing of women’s activities and priorities in every sphere has been replicated in the statistical record”.  The absence of gender-based violence, for example, is a common criticism of many existing gender indices, and yet only about half of all countries report data on intimate partner violence. Further, data is rarely collected from women over 49, and there are little data available on the distribution of money or the division of labour within households, as well as the economic roles of women (IEAG, 2014). 

“There is an urgent need to improve statistical systems to ensure the full mainstreaming of gender into data production, analysis and dissemination and increase the availability of gender statistics for national and international monitoring,” said Stefan Schweinfest, Director of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’s Statistics Division, at a Gender Statistics Workshop in August 2014. This means avoiding gender bias in the collection of data and collecting data that specifically address issues that may affect some gendered parts of the population more than others.

In an article published by the International Women’s Development Agency, Eleanor Boydell criticized the UN report and its proposals for not going far enough. A World that Counts, she writes, does not specifically call for data to be collected on individuals rather than households. “While the report speaks broadly about the importance of forms of data that provide information about all demographic groups and allow for disaggregation, its consideration of the gendered implications of areas and methods of data collection is limited,” Boydell wrote. John Hendra and Eduardo Sojo argue in a November 4, 2014 post on Devex that non-monetary forms of deprivation must also be measured. 

The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ statistical division is one of the organizations trying to improve the data. Recently, gender statistics experts identified 52 quantitative indicators, based on the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, and 11 qualitative indicators of gender equality to guide the production and compilation of gender statistics in the future. As well, the UN’s A World that Counts report named disaggregated data as a key principle for a data revolution in sustainable development. Data disaggregated by sex, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc., could be broken down and analyzed in complex ways, providing a far more comprehensive picture of gender equality and empowerment around the world. 

International gender equality rankings, then, represent the evolution of the international development community’s understanding of gender and gender equality. They are both an attempt to reflect the different realities experienced by people around the world and a statement of a shared ideal of what gender equality should look like. As data become more nuanced, so will the rankings — and vice versa. Yet, while rankings serve the purpose of mainstreaming gender as it is understood by international organizations, they will never provide more than a fragment of the reality in any given country or region.
The aim of this volume

This is where the AfricaFiles’ Ezine volume on Gender and Gender Equality in Sub-Saharan Africa comes in. The aim of this volume is to draw attention to some of the region’s gender issues not visible in global rankings. As we have just five article to do this, we have selected articles that examine issues from new angles, generate discussion, and explore lesser known case studies. 

We will begin with an analysis of how Boko Haram, a Nigerian-based terrorist group, uses women and girls as a key element of its terror strategy. Next, we will share an exploration into women’s contributions to the 1950s Mau Mau anti-colonial movement in Kenya and their role in shaping collective memory of the movement. Our fourth article will look at the insecurities faced by female street vendors in Kenya. We will complete the volume with a story from an anthropologist in South Africa about her students’ reflections on gender bias in anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko’s writings.

We recognize that there are vast differences in gender equality and how individuals experience gender across Africa. One’s gender identity and associated gender roles differently influence one’s opportunities and lived experiences. Ultimately, the aim of the volume is to examine the complexities of gender as experienced, constructed, and enforced. We hope you enjoy AfricaFiles’ first — and long-overdue — volume dedicated to gender.

Table 1 - Discussed indexes
Name of Index - By - Year launched Categories measured
Social Instiutions Gender Index (SIGI)
  • Discriminatory family code
  • Restricted physical integrity 
  • Restricted civil liberties 
  • Son bias 
  • Restricted resources and assets
Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM)
  • Seats in parliament held by women Female legislators, senior officials and managers 
  • Female professional and technical workers 
  • Ratio of estimated female to male earned income
Gender-Related Development Index (GDI)
  • Life expectancy at birth
  • Adult literacy rate 
  • Combined gross enrollment ration for primary, secondary and tertiary education 
  • Estimated earned income
African Gender Development Index (AGDI)
Gender status index: 
  • Social power ‘Capabilities' 
  • Economic Power ‘Opportunities’
  • Political power ‘Agency’ 
African Women’s Progress Scoreboard: 
  • Women’s rights 
  • Social 
  • Economic 
  • Political
Gender Inequality Index
  • Reproductive health 
  • Empowerment 
  • Labour market participation
Gender Equality Index
European Institute for Gender Equality
  • Work 
  • Money 
  • Knowledge 
  • Time 
  • Power 
  • Health 
  • Intersecting inequalities


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Opinions expressed in the articles appearing in this ezine are those of the writer(s) and not do necessarily reflect the views of the AfricaFiles' editors and network members. They are included in our material as a reflection of a diversity of views and a variety of issues. Material written specifically for AfricaFiles may be edited for length, clarity or inaccuracies.