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Gender equality

Choosing between family and work should not be an option

Young women in West Africa often find it hard to get a job. Holding on to it once they start a family can even be harder.

Feature | 06 May 2015
DAKAR (ILO News) – "After my master’s degree, I successfully passed the civil service entrance exams. I was taken on as an advisor in a ministry.”

The career of this young woman from Dakar (called Kh F to preserve her anonymity) got off to a promising start in her home country, Senegal. However, things took a turn for the worse two years after she began working, when she married and had her first child.

Life quickly became stressful for Kh F: "I had to get up at 5 a.m. to drop my daughter off at my mother’s and then go to work," she remembers. "I got home at about 9 p.m. and had to get dinner ready. I never went to bed before midnight."

Under this pressure, Kh F started making mistakes at work. At home, she was faced with an angry husband who reproached her for not taking enough care of him, their daughter and their home. Kh F became depressed and her marriage broke down. It was only thanks to support from a trade union that she managed to keep her job.

"Why do we have to choose between our jobs and our families? It's so unfair," she asks.

Why do we have to choose between our jobs and our families? It's so unfair."

Kh F's story is echoed by many young women around the world. They do not have access to paid leave before and after giving birth, and continue to face dismissal and discrimination at work because they are, or may become, pregnant. Women are often forced to interrupt their careers or reduce their working hours if social services, public transport, maternity leave and childcare services are non-existent or inadequate. And then if men do not take on a fair share of household duties, it becomes even harder for mothers.

However, such discrimination extends beyond maternity. For example, labour force participation rates in West Africa are lower among young women than young men. Data from national statistical agency shows that in Senegal there are 1.13 times as many women of working age as there are men, but their unemployment rate is higher (14.1 per cent among women compared to 9.9 per cent among men).

A reflection of society

The mixture of poverty, unemployment and underemployment makes young women particularly vulnerable. Inequality begins with access to education and vocational training, and stems from social models founded on the unequal distribution of roles and resources between men and women. Although these days more women in West Africa go on to higher education, gender discrimination often influences recruitment practices.

Many young women are channelled into certain sectors of the economy that put them on a lower rung of the occupational status ladder. ILO statistics show that, as in most other countries of the subregion, women in Mali, Niger and Senegal mainly work in agriculture and livestock rearing, retail, manufacturing and domestic service. In contrast, other sectors of the economy are strongly male-dominated, including construction, transport, fishing, real estate and public administration.

This under-representation of women is all the more striking in the private sector. In Senegal, for instance, national statistical figures show that 1.4 per cent of women are employed in public administration compared with 3.7 per cent of men. In the private sector, the proportion is 7 per cent of men compared with 3.2 per cent of women. However, this trend is reversed among the self-employed and domestic workers, where a greater share of women (92.3 per cent) is represented than of men (18 per cent).

Moreover, across the region, men are better paid than women. The wage gap is sometimes very wide: in Benin, young men aged between 15 and 29 earn 35 times as much as young women.

Specific needs

Gender equality in the workplace is not only a human right and a component of social justice, but is also crucial to economic development. Studies are increasingly showing that eradicating discrimination has a positive impact on national income and company productivity, the capacity to innovate and profitability.

Enabling women to have decent working conditions, as well as to have children and to be able to take care of them, means ensuring women have equal training opportunities and encouraging them to follow so-called male vocational routes before they enter the labour market.

The massive influx of young women into the labour market makes maternity protection in the workplace essential. The ratification and implementation of ILO Maternity Protection Convention, 2000 (No. 183) by all states in the subregion would be a step in that direction and represent a major step forward.

This article is a summary of the special report written by Fatime Christiane Ndiaye for the magazine Travail Décent, published by the ILO in Dakar.