Africa has the world’s highest proportion of youth in its demographic makeup. This is economically the most productive segment of any population and could provide the continent with its much anticipated social, political and economic growth. But for that to happen, the continent must make meaningful investments in empowering its youth. While there has been much talk about the window of opportunity that exists, a real question is whether African leaders are taking pragmatic measures to harness this benefit. It’s time to move from commitment and the many talks to action.
An African Union (AU) Assembly decision in January 2016 established the theme for 2017 “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth.” AU heads of states and governments recognize a country-level demographic dividend as central to the continent’s economic transformation in the context of AU Agenda 2063 which is the AU’s global strategy for socioeconomic transformation within the next 50 years.
While the recognition by the A.U is significant, the real deal is how these individual African states will put in place implementable policies action plans and budgets that harness the full potential of young people, particularly in their access to full reproductive rights and services. The full realization of the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of adolescents and youth (ages 10 to 24) can facilitate gains in their health, well-being, and educational attainment. Long-term investments in the health of adolescents and youth, including in their sexual and reproductive health, can help accelerate economic growth when combined with the appropriate investments in education and economic planning.
As a continent, we stand to miss this window of opportunity if the right investment is not made now. 10 years from now, the continent will either be counting on its success or reflecting on its loss. Our success, however, will depend on how much individual African states and the continental body, the African Union, is willing to allocate the needed resources and budget to support adolescents and youth. In accordance with the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing and development, African governments need to adopt a comprehensive and integrated approach to providing not only policies but the resources needed to support and achieve a demographic dividend.
Investing in the health of adolescents and youth is key to enhancing the quality of future generations of the African workforce. Reproductive choices that adolescents and youth make about when they marry, when they begin sexual activity, and how many children they have will affect a country’s birth rate. Without investments that reduce the unmet need for family planning, the working-age, productive, and nondependent share of the population will not grow relative to the total population, and a country’s average national savings and hours worked will not increase.
By reducing unmet need for family planning and helping people realize their reproductive rights, policymakers can support a population dynamic that is conducive to opening a window of opportunity for a demographic dividend.
African frameworks provide insights on what policies can support demographic transition and outline strategic investments which needs to be taken. The African Youth Charter” underscores the rights of youth and outlines how policymakers might mainstream issues affecting adolescents and youth in policies and programs. The “Maputo Plan of Action” identifies strategies and actions that countries can use to advance sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) within their own unique contexts. The AU Agenda 2063’s “First Ten-Year Implementation Plan” establishes specific targets and outlines action countries can take to achieve the development agenda. The plan encourages policymakers to implement policies that enhances the reproductive rights of women and adolescent girls.
SUPPORT YOUTH TO STAY IN SCHOOL FOR BETTER SEXUAL AND REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH AND ECONOMIC OUTCOMES
Educational access is crucial to attaining a demographic dividend. Supporting youth to stay in school and complete as many years of school as possible has implications for their human capital as well as for their sexual and reproductive health. Education is shown to be a protective factor for many SRH and economic outcomes. Additionally, schools provide the physical space and opportunity to deliver comprehensive, appropriate, and culturally sensitive sexuality education, youth-friendly SRH services, life skills development programs, and other interventions.
AGE-APPROPRIATE, CULTURALLY SENSITIVE, AND RIGHTS-BASED COMPREHENSIVE SEXUALITY EDUCATION SUPPORTS BETTER SRH OUTCOMES
Age-appropriate and culturally sensitive, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) is critical for promoting SRH among adolescents and youth. UNESCO defines comprehensive sexuality education as a sharing of scientifically accurate SRH information in a way that is age-appropriate, culturally relevant, and nonjudgmental. Comprehensive sexuality education programs have been shown to increase SRH knowledge, delay sexual debut, increase condom and/or contraceptive use, and reduce frequency and number of sexual partners.
IMPROVING ACCESS TO YOUTH-FRIENDLY SRH CARE IS CRITICAL
While helping adolescents and youth stay in school and providing comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) have their own benefits, these activities are best supported by making sexual and reproductive health care available to young people. Additionally, adolescents and youth who are out of school are less likely to have access to CSE so interventions at the community level are needed to reach young people who are not in school.
The only impediment that stands between Africa and the achievement of a demographic dividend is the commitment to implement and take collective action. Analysis of the costing component of the “Maputo Plan of Action” estimates that the total cost of providing 100% of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent services (RMNCAH) to all women in Africa was $17.67 billion in 2015. Additionally, a total of $318 billion would be required from 2016 to 2030 to meet all African RMNCAH needs.
The continental policies and action plans are clear, the financial commitments and obligations have been outlined. All we have to do now is to take that bold step to move from commitment to action. As an African youth, I know we have resources in abundance, our leaders need to reduce wastage and set our priorities right. We must invest now, or forever remain a developing continent languishing in poverty. Regardless, the African youth will not watch unconcern, we will work to hold our leaders accountable and responsible for their commitments and demand results. We will continue to press home the need for our governments to commit national budget to achieving these set targets and goals. In the new era of sustainability, donor partners can only supplement Africa’s development agenda, However, the real drive to change and growth will be in our ability to harness domestic resources and invest wisely to achieve the much talked about window of opportunity “Demographic Dividend”.