Achieving Gendered Economic Empowerment through Fashion
Fashion is the second largest industry in Africa after agriculture, with an apparel and footwear market estimated to be worth over US$31 billion. Women are a critical part of it as they contribute the most in terms of consumption as well as production. However, when it comes to gender parity in the fashion industry, more work needs to be done in order to harness its full potential. As various players make an effort to develop the African fashion industry, there is a need to understand its current state and what needs to be done in order to achieve gendered economic empowerment.
Africa’s gender stats in brief
Half of Africa’s population comprises women, but as of 2019, the average female labour force participation rate for Sub Saharan Africa was only 61%, in comparison to 74% for men. According to UNESCO, half of the illiterate population in Sub Saharan Africa comprised females, a fact that complicates women’s transition into the labour force. The current state of gender inequality is fuelled by a plethora of factors such as early child marriages, cultural norms and other socioeconomic barriers. Despite women’s underrepresentation in the labour force, they have been seen to invest 90% of their income in their families. Their participation in the economy is therefore pivotal, as it encourages inclusive growth, which ultimately leads to poverty eradication and overall human development. A proactive stance in promoting labor force participation of women is key in ensuring holistic economic growth.
Women’s role in Africa’s Contemporary Fashion Industry
Fashion is a crucial driving force for economic development, due to its labor absorptive nature. Perceived as female friendly, the fashion industry presents an opportunity for women with low level skills to be integrated in the labor force, as opposed to resigning themselves to unpaid domestic work. Although the income earned from entry level jobs is not very high, such opportunities allow female workers with low levels of education to join the workforce with prospects of being promoted and up-skilled to high value chain activities with time. To date, women already account for more than 80% of workers in the textile and clothing industries of countries like Kenya, Ethiopia and Lesotho. In view of the fact that women reinvest most of their income to further develop their families, their participation in the economy has a strong multiplier effect which creates a strong business and social case for developing the fashion industry. With sufficient investment, the fashion industry can easily transcend social impact, to generating significant revenue for economies through women.
Women also play an important role in Africa’s fashion industry as they are the custodians of cultural value and traditional designs, which form one of the major unique selling points for the African fashion industry. In African societies, women have a long history of craftsmanship acquired from traditionally performing activities such as dyeing, spinning, embroidery and weaving, using specific technologies such like the vertical single heddle loom. Women’s capacities in these areas can therefore be strengthened through business skills training, improved access to markets, and taking advantage of the growing demand of ethically sourced and handmade crafts. Efforts such as those will aid in bringing down the number of women trapped in mundane, entry level jobs. By focusing on more value adding activities, women will be in a better position to build thriving businesses which bolster productivity and contribute significantly to the economy. In the course of this process, they will also be investing their financial independence, ensuring that they can pursue alternative career options on their own terms.
Improving Women’s Economic Participation in Africa’s Contemporary Fashion Industry
In order to achieve economic empowerment and gender equality through fashion, a number of challenges need to be addressed. For instance, fashion faces the ‘glass runway’ challenge where women’s employment is only concentrated in entry level middle management positions, but thins out in senior leadership roles and top management positions. A report by PwC revealed that only 12.5% of apparel and retail apparel companies in the Fortune 1000 are led by women, and 26% are board members even though 85% of fashion majors are women. In Africa, available evidence reveals that women are concentrated in low level, entry jobs in the garment industry, while men occupy management and supervisory roles. In essence, women’s employment in the fashion industry does not necessarily translate to gender equality. Employers have often cited preference of men for senior roles as they doubt women’s capabilities in balancing their productive and reproductive roles. Furthermore, cultural norms spill over into the work environment, and work roles end up being assigned based on stereotypical gender roles whilst overlooking qualifications.
Violation of workers’ rights is another issue that has attracted much concern in the fashion industry. There have been many reports of sexual harassment of women employed in the garment sector. Additionally, female workers are paid low wages and denied maternity leave and child care, circumstances which hinder their career advancement and general standard of living. Ethiopia for instance is on record for having the lowest wages for garment workers in Africa, in addition to other workers’ rights violations.
In light of these circumstances, it is important for policy makers to take a proactive stance in promoting labor regulation that is gender sensitive. Not only is this important for the affected women, but for protecting the integrity of the ‘Made in Africa brand’. Consumers are increasingly becoming conscious of ethical guidelines of production, a trend that is necessitating a change in production practices for players in the fashion industry. In line with this trend, labor regulations in the African fashion industry should consider being more accommodative of aspects such as the right of women to child care, appropriate wages and maternity leave.
Women also need to take it upon themselves to form workers committees that further their specific interests as women. Efforts in Ethiopia, Lesotho and Kenya are already underway in order to address these issues through formation of bodies that represent female workers and increasing awareness of workers’ rights.
Capacity building is of paramount importance in the quest to achieve gendered economic empowerment. Women’s underrepresentation in senior roles in the fashion industry can be addressed by bridging the education gap between males and females in Africa. If women are supported through up-skilling, entrepreneurship development, leadership training and mentorship, their chances of being integrated further up the value chain are also increased. The African Development Bank is helping to build the capacity of female entrepreneurs in the fashion industry through Fashionomics Africa and the AFAWA initiative which aims to improve women’s access to finance, provide technical finance and advisory services and create an enabling environment for women owned businesses.