●At AU summit, women, youth empowerment takes centre stage
From Kemi Yesufu, Addis Ababa
Addis-Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, was agog recently, as the city hosted the 28th African Union (AU) Summit. The theme of the nine-day event was “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend Through Investments in Youth: Empowering Young People, Empowering Young Women.”
Demographic dividend refers to benefits that can arise when a country has a relatively large population in the working age bracket and it effectively invests in their health, empowerment, employment and education, through government and private sector collaboration.
Looking around Africa, a continent with unimpressive developmental indices, many would agree with the focus of the summit. In 2016, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) stated that 1.5 million people became unemployed in the first quarter of that year. The NBS said Nigeria’s unemployment rate grew from 10.4 per cent in the last quarter in 2015 to 12.1 per cent in 2016. In South Africa, another leading African economy, unemployment increased to 26.7 per cent from January to March of 2016.
In health care, the figures are no better. Half of the 10 million children who die annually in the world are from sub-Saharan Africa. The reasons are known, but lack of political will and resources has frustrated the development of sustainable policies. On the continent, 5.9 million children under the age of five years died in 2015. More than half of these early child deaths were due to conditions that could be prevented or treated with access to simple and affordable interventions, experts have noted.
In Nigeria, research shows that the country daily loses about 2,300 under-five children and 145 women of child-bearing age. This makes Nigeria the second largest contributor to the under-five and maternal mortality in the world.
Also contributing to the death of young people and children is the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As of 2014, in Nigeria the HIV prevalence rate among adults aged 15 to 49 was put at 3.17 per cent. Nigeria has the second largest number of people living with HIV, second to South Africa, which has the largest, high-profile HIV rate in the world, with an estimated 7 million people living with the virus in 2015.
Africa is still struggling educationally. Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, is home to 65 million people who cannot read and write. The country’s literacy rate is a little above 50 per cent.
But there is hope for the continent and its people as Africa has the youngest population globally. Between 1960 and 2010, Africa’s working age population (15 to 64 years) grew more than four times and it will continue to increase over the next 40 years.
Many are hopeful that, with Africa being the youngest region in the world, the continent could change its narrative. For such optimists, it is a welcome idea for the AU to harness its member-states’ unique population characteristics by forming an alliance with international donors and developmental agencies, including the United Kingdom’s Department For International Development (DFID) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as well as partnering with stakeholders such as the Africa Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development.
At an event put together by the DFID and UNFPA on th sidelines of the summit, Director of Social Affairs of the AU, Ambassador Olawale Maiyegun, said heads of government agreed to dedicate 2017 to starting interventions and policies that would earn countries demographic dividends. He explained that the Economic Commission for Africa, the African Development Bank, the New Partnerships for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) Coordinating and Planning Agency, with the UNFPA leading other UN agencies are to work towards key deliverables along with member states and regional economic communities.
Maiyegun stated that the union and its partners would build on existing frameworks such as the Maputo Protocol on Reproductive Health Rights, the African Charter on Youth and Children as well as the Maputo Protocol on Women’s Rights to make the much-talked-about youth bulge in Africa a blessing rather than a threat.
“Demographic dividend is a potential economic benefit driven by demographic shifts but harnessed by social policies. It focuses and prioritises investments in the people, particularly youths, in order to achieve sustainable development and inclusive growth,” he said.
While emphasising the importance of protecting and empowering girls, he asserted that, “We are looking at the empowerment of girls, because the empowerment of women starts with them.
“We have to search ourselves, whatever belief system we belong to, and understand that we cannot continue to disappoint the 50 per cent who give birth to the other 50 per cent.”
Executive Director of the UNFPA, Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin, said targeted investment to instigate demographic dividends, especially among African countries, had become necessary.
“This is a very important issue for African countries and, indeed, the world. Demographic dividend is not just an abstract idea, it ensures that we provide health care, education and even support entrepreneurship among young people.
“This means those of us at this table, governments and the private sector have to work together to get this done,” he stated.
The UNFPA helmsman also told Daily Sun that the agency would increase funding this year for the implementation of family planning and safe motherhood programmes by the Nigerian government because: “Family planning plays a pivotal role in not just demographic dividends, but the overall welfare of women and children.”
Osotimehin, a former minister of Health in Nigeria, recalled that in 2016 the UNFPA provided Nigeria with financial support of $7 million, of which $4 million was spent on the supply of family planning products to interested families by October last year.
He, however, noted that, if Nigeria and other Africa countries were to experience demographic dividends, member-states of the AU must work on eradicating forced marriages of young girls.
He expressed worry that the slow and often reluctant interventions to reduce child marriage had led to negative indices on the continent such as a high rate of new HIV infections among girls, new cases of vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) and thousands of girls dropping out of school each year.
“Early and forced marriages are important issues that we have to come against and we can stop this in one generation. I have seen fistula cases at 11 years, so girls are being married out even at nine. This is a fight we have to carry out openly,” Osotimehin said.
According to a 2015 UNWOMEN report, in sub-Saharan Africa, women comprised 56 per cent of new HIV infections among adults (15 and older), and the proportion was higher among young women aged 15 to 24, who made up 66 per cent of new infections among young people.
Also in a report by the Nigerian office of the Population Council, an international non-governmental organisation, married girls have unprotected sex with partners who are more likely to be HIV-positive because of their older age.
The Population Council’s report further stated that, in countries where the HIV epidemic is well established, such as Kenya and Zambia, studies have used biomarkers to confirm HIV infection rates that are 48 to 65 per cent higher among married girls, compared to sexually active unmarried girls.
A closer look at the report shows that child marriage is extremely prevalent in the North-West region of Nigeria with 48 per cent of girls married by age 15 and 78 per cent were married by age 18. The report also indicates that married girls receive little or no schooling, with just two per cent of 15 to 19-year-old married girls in school, compared to 69 per cent of unmarried girls.
Secretary of State for International Development, the United Kingdom, Hon. Priti Patel, in her presentation, said her government would continue to contribute to the implementation of youth empowerment programmes in African countries. She expressed the UK government’s commitment to assisting the AU attain its set goals. “Family planning is at the heart of securing the eradication of poverty on the continent,” she said.
Patel, who stated that girls completing their education and securing their future was integral to advancing Africa’s development, equally said the DFID would support locally-developed solutions for youth and women empowerment schemes. She said cultural challenges that made it difficult to provide help for the poor in rural areas could only be dealt with by those who understood the issues.
Indeed, African youths would be looking up to the newly elected chairman of the AU, President Alpha Conde of Guinea, and the chairman of the AU Commission, Hon. Moussa Faki Mahamat, to walk the talk of the summit.
President of the Pan-African Youth Union, Francine Muyumba Furaha, said with youths making up 60 per cent of the unemployed on the continent, African leaders must expedite action on funding youth empowerment programmes in their countries.
She called on heads of government to establish a youth empowerment fund to be managed within the AU framework.
“I would say the creation of the youth empowerment fund is a priority for us at the Pan-African Youth Union. If we can establish the fund now, when we meet in June, we can start the implementation of the fund.
“For this summit, we must concentrate on reaching a concrete decision on youths. If we don’t do this, we would have betrayed the youths,” Furaha said.