G20 Summit – What does it mean for women in Africa?

Wednesday, 13 May, 2009 - 11:22

Twenty of the world strongest trade countries came together to discuss global matters of trade and finance at the recent G20 meeting. Despite the broad and essential character of these economic matters, women’s ability to contribute to the world economy barely featured in the discussions and decision-making at the summit. Only two out of the 20 leaders who attended were women.

The latest G20 summit was held on 2 April 2009 where 20 of the world’s strongest trade countries came together to discuss global matters of trade and finance. Despite the broad and essential character of these economic matters, women’s ability to contribute to the world economy barely featured in the discussions and decision-making at the summit. Only two out of the 20 leaders who attended were women.

This seeming ignorance of the gendered nature of the world economy contradicts and ignores the fact that economic (and consequently otherwise) gender equality will facilitate development and economic growth significantly. Where women are encouraged, supported and protected from vices such as gender-based violence by properly implemented legislation, countries grow because all of their citizens can contribute to the economy in a meaningful way. Where women are considered secondary citizens, countries struggle. This article focuses on the G20 summit and how economic decision-making often negatively impacts on women’s lives.

The G20 Summit and the gendered economy

Internet searches for ‘G20 summit and women’ or ‘G20 summit gender women’ produce only blogs and news articles by activists and feminists who lament the low representation of women in the summit itself and/or the fact that the leaders at the summit so conveniently ignored the gendered nature of economics and society. There is a profound relationship between matters of finance, economy and development on the one hand, and the gendered structures that facilitate and shape everyday life on the other. For example, many girl children are denied education in order to be married off and bear children. When they grow up, they have no skills, no education and hence remain financially dependent on men for the rest of their lives. Yet it seems that improvement of women’s lives is not considered as a direct (even if long term) channel to gripping the world’s financial crisis at the throat.

Developing countries featured at the summit when the International Monetary Fund (IMF) increased its funding for multilateral development banks and trade finance to poorer countries. However, Ted Bromund notes that most of this funding will be available in the form of loans, a fact that leaves the door wide open for another “third world debt crisis”, he says. This does not sound like a prospect that is going to improve women’s lives and therefore not the lives of their families, either. The cycle of debt that African countries are so often trapped in tips the scales in the favour of dependency theory, which emphasises that the dependency of developing countries on debtors is in fact a major contributing factor to their status as ‘developing’ countries. In other words, developing countries remain just that because their resources actually flow toward the richer countries, instead of the other way around.

Trade and the effects of climate change

Climate change has negative effects on communities and families. The G20 leaders agreed to a US$1.1 trillion stimulus package, but made no clear commitment to developing a green economy. Environmentalists are very disappointed and anxious about the future of our planet. Those concerned with women’s and developmental issues are disappointed too. The fact that climate change is lowest on the list of priorities means the women in Africa who suffer its consequences are set to struggle more as time passes. The effects of climate change are broad-based but touch every human’s life, notably those who depend on agricultural food production, stable weather patterns and local water sources.

As has been elaborated in previous articles, poor women on the African continent are affected by climate change because they often occupy the lowest position in the social hierarchy. In other words, these women are responsible for food production and clean water in and around the home, but climate change effects (such as increased droughts and heat waves) now render food production and water collection even more arduous tasks than they had been in the past. Irregular rainfall caused by climate change ruins agricultural production and thus directly affects millions of people’s food sources. To crown it all, many of these women usually eat last, so if there is less food than usual to go around, they are ones who end up malnourished so that their families can eat. Yet the G20 leaders treated climate change as an afterthought in the communiqué they released. They dedicated only two paragraphs to the matter and made no clear commitment to developing a world economy that is more environmentally friendly.

In a blog, Green Peace Executive Director, John Sauven, said: “Tacking climate change on to the end of the communiqué as an afterthought does not demonstrate anything like the seriousness we needed to see. Hundreds of billions were found for the IMF and World Bank, but for making the transition to a green economy there is no money on the table, just vague aspirations, talks about talks and agreements to agree”. This matter may sound like a simple one concerned with the environment only, but in reality it is a matter that affects lives in a whole range of ways. Women’s lives are particularly disadvantaged by the effects of climate change because of the roles they are expected to fulfil in their communities.

Thus, in effect the G20 leaders are not only discounting the planet and human future, but also ignoring the plight of those who suffer most from its effects. The scurry to ‘save’ the global economy seems to be leaving behind those who need upliftment most, a solution that does not seem sustainable in the long run. How can the world and its core – the economy – go forward by excluding significant portions of its population from this development? The upliftment of women ripples outward to touch the lives of many other people and this could contribute immensely to economic improvement. In short, women are the key doorway through which to tackle poverty and other challenges.

The G20 and ‘developing’ countries

Despite a report released by Oxfam ahead of the G20 summit that illustrates how women in developing countries are hardest hit by the economic recession, the G20 leaders did not allocate many funds for improving women’s lives. Nor did they allocate money and commitment to developing a green economy that will help reduce the effects of climate change. Women’s lives and their central role in the family were not considered to be vital to saving the world economy. To omit women from any financial strategy certainly sets strict limits to its effectiveness. Women in Africa are considered a tiny speck in the global scheme of things, when really they could play a pivotal role in the re-definition of ‘development’. The power relations between developed and so-called ‘developing’ countries have once more been illuminated, but sadly, unchanged, by the G20 leaders.


1. The G-20 Summit: Mistakes and Missed Opportunities, Ted R. Bromund, 2009
2. Climate change the biggest loser of G20 summit, warn environmental groups , 2009

Charlotte Sutherland is the Research Manager: Gender Issues in Africa, at Consultancy Africa Intelligence. The May edition of the Gender Issues in Africa Newsletter is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political, and economic happenings in Africa. For more information see http://www.consultancyafrica.com or http://www.ngopulse.org/press-release/consultancy-africa-intelligence. Alternatively, visit http://www.consultancyafrica.com/promo2 to take advantage of CAI’s free, no obligation, three-month trial to the company’s Standard Report Series.

NGO Services

NGO Services

NGO Events