14 August 2012

African Youth - Partnership for a Better World


As the world celebrated the International Youth Day on 12 August, Mr. Bunmi Makinwa, UNFPA Regional Director for Africa, examines the significance of improving strategic partnerships with young people and youth-led organizations in order to achieve significant social change and unleash their potential for Africa's development. The youth population is a tremendous opportunity for the continent.

Young people make up the largest and fastest growing proportion of Africa's general population. Currently, Africa has 240 million youth aged 15-24. Children below the age of 15 comprise over 40 percent of Africa's population. Africa has a large reservoir of youthful talent and it has been argued that this trend will continue for the next 40 years.

The youth population 'bulge' is recognized as an opportunity to renew Africa's social and economic capital. It is also essential to building a better world, and indeed, a better Africa. But can we afford not to partner with them?

The continent's young people also face many risks as they navigate life.

These include unemployment and economic exclusion; unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions and high maternal mortality; sexually transmitted infections (STIs); and gender-based violence. Complications in pregnancy and childbirth and HIV-related diseases are also two main causes of mortality among young women in sub-Saharan Africa.

Early marriage and childbearing and unwanted pregnancies remain a challenge even in countries that have experienced a significant fertility decline. Unmet need for contraceptive services is still high among female teenagers and unsafe abortions continue to contribute to maternal morbidity and mortality. Many teenagers are becoming mothers and fathers, and this affect their ability to reach their full potential and are condemned to livelong poverty. Pregnant adolescent girls who lack assisted deliveries at birth suffer the horrendous disability fistula and its associated social ostracism Sub-Saharan Africa is already home to almost two-thirds of all youth living with HIV; 76 per cent are females. How can their full potential be fulfilled unless we work effectively with them at all levels?

Experts have recognised a number of transition points in the lives of young people. These are learning, going to work, staying healthy, forming families and exercising citizenship. It is also a time of increased decision making that affects the future.

As they get older, they become the major decision makers in their lives and in various situations they encounter. They take decisions on whether or not to have sex. They decide whether or not they want to use contraceptives. To a great extent, they can decide whether or not to go to school. These form part of the natural transitions in life. How they are able to make these transitions affects their future and the kind of adults they become.

This is why more attention needs to be devoted to them through meaningful partnerships and their participation in the health and development issues that concern them. As the fastest growing population, it is apparent that they will see the African continent into its future.

Our young people need to be counted, educated, protected, empowered and healthy. We need to work with them in this respect.

In recognition of young people as an invaluable resource, various bilateral and multilateral organizations have come up with frameworks and strategic approaches for their development. For example, the World Bank has argued that young people are critical for further progress in poverty reduction and growth. Therefore, governments should ensure that development plans and policies have a youth lens. This is in addition to the need for more investment in youth development.

With the support of UNFPA and the African Union, the African Youth Charter has been adopted and ratified by more than 28 countries. The charter is a legally binding framework for governments to develop and accelerate the implementation of supportive policies and programmes for young people. It also provides a platform for the youth to contribute constructively to their communities and countries. Young people have been critical to the ratification of the charter in African countries.

Other efforts to promote the partnership and participation of youth are African Union Youth Volunteer Corps, a programme that helps young people become key participants in human development on the continent. The African Youth and Adolescent Network on Population and Development (AFRIYAN), supported by UNFPA, has assisted with analysing poverty reduction strategies (PRSPs) through a youth lens in many African countries. AfriYAN noted that many PRSPs mention young people's concerns but lack specific plans and/or budgets to address them. The network is also advocating for youth issues to be placed at the national level and building the network's capacity to play a major role in sexual and reproductive health promotion.

But there are other areas that require partnerships with young people for significant changes to be made. To continue to bring down the incidence of HIV, we need to provide them with effective sexuality education including HIV prevention addressing the drivers of the epidemic. African young women should be our key partners for HIV prevention work as they bear the biggest burden.

Significantly reducing child marriages, early childbearing, and intergenerational/transactional sex and multiple concurrent partnerships will make a major difference in the number of new infections among young women. We have large numbers of young people living with HIV and we need to empower them to live healthy and productive life free of stigma, discrimination and unwanted pregnancies. Young people can lead the way as both beneficiaries and key change agents in social and behaviour change interventions targeted at them.

The transition from school to work is very important and we need to ensure that our education prepares them with marketable skills that can help them compete in today's globalized economy. We need to significantly increase our efforts in creating employment schemes in our countries from infrastructure development, to investment schemes to labour intensive value addition industries.

Of course we cannot talk about employment and economic development for our young people without talking about the role of rapid population growth and high fertility rate play in outpacing continental economic growth rate. Working with the current cohort of young people about universal access to sexual and reproductive health information and services including commodities could bring us to fertility transition and an opportunity for us to benefit from our demographic dividend.

The cost of not working with them and for them is high. It eliminates them from the process of development. It denies them the right to participate and contribute. It creates the feeling that they are not a critical segment of society where adults monopolize everything And we know that isolating and disenfrenchizing 240 million young people from a population of one billion can only be counter-productive to the collective effort for creating a better world, and of course, a better Africa.

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