Young people — particularly young women — are the key to Africa’s future

How can we ensure young women aren’t excluded from Africa’s demographic dividend?

By Dinah Musindarwezo, Director of The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) and Alison Holder, Director of Equal Measures 2030

“It’s important for girls to have positive role models. They are an inspiration for working hard,” says 18-year-old Siphethangani who, having excelled in secondary school exams, now aspires to attend university. (© Plan International)

For Siphethangani, an 18-year-old student in rural Zimbabwe, education has meant everything. “I love school because that’s the foundation of a good life. I hope I will pass and get a good job. I will live a better life than I am now,” she says.

It has not been easy for this bright, confident girl to get where she is now; her mother raised her alone, working odd jobs to pay for her education. It is Siphethangani’s resolve to complete her education, go to university and get a good job in the city (along with a lot of hard work) that has helped her avoid the fate many of her friends have endured — leaving school early, getting married and becoming a teenage mother.

“There are many challenges that I face to get an education. But with the determination I have, I will look after myself. I will make it.”

African leaders recently concluded a summit in which they examined the theme: “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth.” Investing in young people is indeed a critical path towards a more prosperous future for the continent and for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

But ‘youth’ cannot be seen as a monolithic group sharing the same needs, desires, challenges and opportunities. The experiences of young people vary dramatically across the continent, and it is imperative to focus special attention — and collect and use disaggregated data — on the unique dynamics that often exclude many girls and young women like Siphethangani from mainstream discourses about youth in Africa.

As an advocacy brief prepared by The African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET) demonstrates, young women in Africa often face a double burden of exclusion driven both by age and sex. The report states that young women are not included as part of discussions on youth development, their voices are considered peripheral, and their bodies,“constructed as sites to be acted on through policy prescriptions developed by others for them.”

Africa has the fastest growing and youngest population in the world — 43 per cent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under age 15, compared to a global share of 26 per cent. For every 100 school-age children in sub-Saharan Africa in the year 2000 there were 132 in 2015 and there will be 154 by 2030.

This youth bulge can be seen as an impediment to achieving a demographic dividend (i.e., when a country’s birth rates are lowered thus changing the age structure of a country’s population to one in which the working age population increases and stabilizes.) For example, it’s still necessary to invest in building more schools to accommodate the still-growing youth population, while in most other regions of the world the decreasing cohort size theoretically allows for more investments in quality.

“I only see a bleak future. I have no education. I have to change it and go back to school,” says Melissa, 17, who dropped out of school in rural Zimbabwe because she could not afford school fees after her mother died. She now spends her time at home dreaming of a better life. (© Plan International)

However, with education, job creation and increased political participation, Africa’s youthful population can turn into its greatest asset.

We know the benefits of focusing on education already — including poverty reduction, better health, increased income, greater peace, fewer child marriages. Because of the ever-growing youth populations, greater investment is needed in education systems that ensure learning is taking place, as well as provisions before and after compulsory primary education — from strengthening early childhood development so children are ready to learn, to skills development for secondary school youth — to ensure this generation drives change and innovation in Africa.

Another critical route to addressing the gender dimensions of the youth discourse in Africa is to create space for young women to positively participate in governance and policy formulation. FEMNET advocates creating space for young women to positively participate by introducing a 15 per cent quota for young women within a guaranteed 30 per cent quota for youth. As an affirmative action measure, most African countries have put in place measures to bridge leadership and economic participation for women and youth. This recommendation specifically calls for actions on youth to be gendered. To be more effective, the measures should be combined with a comprehensive capacity development program to ensure that young women’s participation is informed and effective in governance processes.

In addition, we must focus on job creation and recognize the contribution of unpaid care work to the economy. This work falls disproportionately on women rather than men, and often on young women and girls. In sub-Saharan Africa, a high proportion of women work as contributing family workers (35 per cent) or as own-account/self-employed workers (43 per cent).

In low-income countries, women tend to work fewer hours in paid employment, while assuming most of the responsibility for unpaid household and care work. Even women who are employed still carry out the larger share of unpaid household and care work, which limits their capacity to increase paid work.

Infrastructure investments and time-saving technologies, as well as supportive policies such as day care for working mothers, can reduce and redistribute this unequal burden. The effects of such solutions would not only benefit economies and communities, but also individual lives.

“I would encourage girls to learn, to finish their education and not get carried away by what’s happening in their environment,” says Siphethangani, right, with her mother outside their house in rural Zimbabwe. (© Plan International)

“Most of my friends… dropped out of school for different reasons. Some failed their exams and didn’t carry on, others got married or got pregnant before marriage,” Siphethangani explains. “The reason why I want to remain focused is because I want to get a job. I want to change my current lifestyle.”

With her courage, determination and vision for a better life, there is no reason why this young woman and many others like her shouldn’t achieve whatever they set their minds to. It is up to all of us to help ensure their dreams can be achieved.


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