The State of Female Employment in Sub-Saharan Africa


SEATTLE — Increasing and improving female employment in countries across the world has been a long-standing priority. A recent Pew Research Center analysis has found that the top five countries with the maximum number of women in the workforce are located in Sub-Saharan Africa. While this signifies progress, many women in this region are employed informally making them more likely to be underpaid, exploited and impoverished as well as having minimal job security.

Sub-Saharan Africa and Female Employment

Zimbabwe, Malawi, The Gambia, Liberia and Tanzania are the five Sub-Saharan African nations with the highest percentages of women in the workforce. The women in the workforce is 52.8 percent in Zimbabwe, 52.2 percent in Malawi, 50.8 percent in The Gambia, 50.6 percent in Liberia and 50.5 percent in Tanzania. In comparison, it is 46.8 percent in the United States, 47.3 percent in Canada and 48 percent in France.

Of the women employed in Sub-Saharan Africa, 74 percent of them work in the informal sector which is significantly greater than the 61 percent of men in the region who are informally employed. This is a common trend worldwide. In South Asia, for instance, more than 80 percent of women are informally employed.

Inequalities and discrimination in education, employment and households in addition to concerns about safety and the dominance of agriculture and self-employment in the region contribute to women’s continued exclusion from the formal economy.

Rural Women and Informal Employment

Rural women, in particular, tend to earn money through small-scale farming, and Sub-Saharan Africa is no exception. More than 60 percent of employed women in the region work in the agricultural sector. They are often unpaid or underpaid, but their work requires intensive labor.

As a whole, non-agricultural informal employment is 66 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 53 percent within this sector are self-employed. For women, 34.9 percent of those who work are either self-employed or work for family members. Both self-employment and working for family are considered to be vulnerable or insecure forms of employment as a lack of oversight allows workers to be easily exploited.

49.1 percent of working women worldwide are considered to have insecure jobs, but in Sub-Saharan Africa, this proportion is much higher and estimated to be 85.5 percent. 70.5 percent of working men in the region are also in vulnerable forms of employment.

Reasons for Female Exclusion in the Workforce

Women tend to work outside the formal economy for several reasons. First, across the globe, women are still disproportionately responsible for care work, including the care required for children, elderly and the sick. Women spend as much as ten times more time than men each day caring for dependents. While this bars many women from entering the labor force, women who are able to work often have less time to do so making informal employment a more accessible option.

According to the World Bank, a lack of marketable skills may also contribute to low female employment in Sub-Saharan Africa within the formal economy. Approximately 65.8 percent of women in the region in contrast to 76.3 percent of men are illiterate.

Decisions made by parents, including early marriage, play a large role in this. 28.5 percent of young women in Sub-Saharan Africa state that parental refusal is the reason they never received schooling whereas only 17.2 percent of young men state this as one of the valid reasons. Additionally, 2.1 percent of young women and only 0.4 percent of young men said that early marriage was also a contributing factor.

Early marriage and starting a family young also constrain women’s employment opportunities. Approximately 80 percent of women in Sub-Saharan Africa have given birth at least once by the age of 25. Social norms continue to view men as responsible for providing for the family financially, while women are expected to take on domestic work and childcare.

Having a husband and young children, therefore, makes women more likely to be informally employed, if they are employed at all. Employment can sometimes increase the risk of gender-based violence from an intimate partner, as women’s employment challenges established gender norms and hierarchies including male dominance.

Safety concerns, particularly for women who need to travel to get to work, are also a significant factor. Women in rural areas may be required to walk long distances in order to access formal employment and increase the risk of violence. Working in nearby farms or from home decreases the probability of this occurring.


In 2016, the International Labor Organization (ILO) identified a few main priorities in regards to female employment in Sub-Saharan Africa. These include the promotion of affirmative action in order to decrease gender segregation by occupation and the elimination of the gender wage gap. Additionally, the ILO recognizes that unpaid care work needs to be recognized, and that it can be reduced “through the promotion of decent and adequately paid jobs in the care economy.”

Despite high rates of female employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, women continue to work predominantly in the informal sector and are often in vulnerable jobs. Recognizing the factors that push women toward informal employment is crucial. Also, efforts to tackle issues such as early marriage, domestic violence and illiteracy will help to improve the quality of female employment in the region.

Sara Olk
Photo: Flickr


Comments are closed.