Africa is recognising the importance of promoting women's rights and their empowerment, but issues such as child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM) are still a problem, Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa, has told IBTimes UK.

Songwe, the first woman to hold such position at the UN, made the comments to mark the launch of the 2017 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) on Monday, 20 November.

The index, by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, revealed that the continent's overall governance trajectory remains positive, although it has slowed down in recent years. The foundation is calling for vigilance on the continent's future.

According to the report, the five countries where gender-related issues have consistently worsened are Eritrea, Mali, Comoros, Swaziland and South Sudan. On the contrary, an overall and consistent improvement was registered in the Seychelles, Namibia, Tunisia, Burundi and Zimbabwe.

"Overall, the continent as a whole has decided to focus on the issue [of gender] a little bit more and has recognised that this is an important issue. But child marriage and FGM still need to be taken to account," Songwe said.

The Cameroonian economist, named by Forbes as one of the "20 Young Power Women in Africa" in 2013, urged African countries to focus on agricultural productivity, which remains an important aspect in rural communities.

"We know that infrastructure is essential, but improvement in agricultural productivity has a much higher rate of return in terms of reducing poverty," she said.

The report found that the rural sector deteriorated over the previous five years, a phenomenon that could "threaten recent progress in this key area for the continent's sustainable growth and wealth-creating potential".

Songwe added: "The rural development index is not doing so well and we know that [when that happens] women suffer in particular. More work needs to be done to ensure women have more economic empowerment and access to economic opportunities and in particular to the agricultural sector.

"There are some countries that are doing more than other. Rwanda is a country that has done well on the gender index, but there are also countries that are beginning to do well, such as Guinea," she concluded.