To mark International Women’s Day, development leader Wambui Gichuri shares her thoughts on how far Africa has come on gender equity. She also reveals personal life lessons that have inspired her. Gichuri is Acting Vice President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development, as well as Director for Water Development and Sanitation, at the African Development Bank.
1. What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
International Women’s Day is a celebration of women’s remarkable achievements and an opportunity to review the obstacles that stand in the way of women realizing our full potential.
More personally, I believe that what we tell our children – whether girls or boys – is really important. Growing up, I heard and saw many biases against women and girls – which unfortunately still persist. But my mum, who raised me and my two sisters as a single parent, told us that we could succeed beyond our wildest dreams if we focused on school, worked hard and passed our exams. She told us that education is the key that can open any door. This stuck with my sisters, and with me. On International Women’s Day, I honour all that my mother did to prepare us to achieve.
2. What progress in gender empowerment and equality have you seen in your career, and what challenges remain?
There are more women in school and more women with degrees. There are more women in boardrooms and in government. An African woman – Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala – is now heading the World Trade Organization. She is the first African and first woman to hold this office. However, we still need more women sitting where decisions are made.
We need to be safe in our workplaces, out in public, and in our homes. We need more access to finance to start and scale up businesses. Organizations need to take action to close gender wage gaps. We need to invest in infrastructure services such as water, sanitation and hygiene to ease the burden among the millions of unserved people in Africa who suffer poor health as a result of inadequate or unavailable services or spend valuable productive time collecting water. It is a well-known fact that, in most cases, women and girls bear the brunt of these shortcomings.
What’s more, COVID-19 will undermine many of the gains of the past decade, for example, by making it more difficult for many girls to return to school.
3. How does your work at the Bank advance opportunities for women across the continent?
Gender equality and women’s empowerment is central to the Bank’s strategies and programs. In 2020, the Bank’s Board approved the People Strategy, which commits to actions and targets that move us closer to gender parity among staff. The Bank also approved a new Gender Strategy and Action Plan which aims to empower women in a number of areas, including access to finance and markets.
The Bank also invests in strategic initiatives such as the Affirmative Finance Action for Women in Africa program (AFAWA) which aims to reduce the estimated $42 billion financing gap for women-owned and run SMEs. AFAWA has two parallel channels: the first is strategic use of the Bank’s financial instruments such as lines of credit, trade finance, and equity funds – expected to unlock $2 billion. The second channel is an innovative guarantee mechanism expected to de-risk women’s SMEs and incentivize financial institutions to lend to women entrepreneurs. The guarantee mechanism, called the AFAWA Guarantee for Growth, is expected to unlock $3 billion. AFAWA’s implementation started in January 2021 and the program held a special Women’s Day virtual event, where it introduced some of the first beneficiaries.
4. What words of advice would you give to young women starting out in their working lives?
Find good mentors to guide you – and be a mentor to others, because this is a good way to develop leadership skills. Networking is an important source of new ideas, knowledge, and possible job opportunities. Read books – they will help you expand your horizons, strengthen analytical and writing skills, inform your conversations, listening skills, and more!
Learn digital skills to adapt to virtual work environments and to be equipped for the future of work.
Most importantly: I encourage young women to work hard, dream big, be clear about your career goals and follow them with tenacity, passion, and energy.