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Key findings
  • On average across 34 African countries, more than half (55%) of all women live in rural areas, ranging from just 21% in Gabon to 83% in eSwatini and Niger
  • Half (51%) of rural women live in households where their spouses are the primary decision makers, compared to 40% of urban women
  • Almost one-third (32%) of rural women have not received any formal education, compared to 13% of urban women. They are less likely than urban women to have completed high school (35% vs. 63%)
  • Urban women are twice as likely as rural women to have access to the Internet via a mobile phone (48% vs. 24%).
  • Compared to urban women, rural women are more likely to be outside the labour market (51% vs. 38%) and less likely to have part- or full-time jobs (23% vs. 31%).
  • Only one in five rural women (18%) say they own a bank account, compared to 41% of urban women.
  • Despite these disparities, large majorities of both rural and urban women perceive gender equality in access to education and opportunities to earn an income and own/inherit land.

Gender equality is both Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) No. 5 and a theme underpinning various other goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations, 2019). The agenda highlights the need for gender-equal access to education, ownership of resources, and engagement with information and communication technologies (ICTs). While African countries have made progress in narrowing gender gaps (African Union Commission, 2016), particularly in access to employment and educational opportunities, gains have been inconsistent and modest (Lardies, Dryding, & Logan, 2019).

Barriers to economic inclusion not only follow gender lines, but also fall within genders, creating or exacerbating disparities between women from different demographic groups. Within African countries, one significant barrier tracks the urban-rural divide. When addressing barriers to economic inclusion, rural women’s lives merit greater attention (Wyche & Olsen, 2018).

Past studies have found that rural women are less likely than urban women to have secure employment, are often unable to own or inherit land, and are disproportionately heading households as single parents (Wiesmann, Kiteme, & Mwangi, 2016). More often than not, these same women are cut off from digital connectivity (Wyche & Olsen, 2018) that would enable them to pursue e-commerce opportunities or engage with community networks.

Challenges in gaining economic agency for rural women can only be overcome with an understanding of where the disparities lie. Are rural women less likely to participate in the labour force, and if they do, are they less likely to have full-time employment? What share of ICTs is reaching rural women? How severe are the differences in educational outcomes for rural and urban women?

Findings from Round 7 (2016/2018) Afrobarometer surveys in 34 African countries indicate large disparities in the economic agency of rural and urban women. While women in both settings perceive that their opportunities for employment, education, and land ownership equal those enjoyed by men, the reality is that women in rural areas are less likely to have formal schooling or participate in the labour market. Compared to urban women, rural women have strikingly less access to the Internet, less access to banking services, and less decision-making power in the household.

Jaynisha Patel

Jaynisha Patel is an analyst of extremism in Africa, at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.