Harnessing the power of youth for a more sustainable and equal Africa

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka Education & Youth Development

Achieving Planet 50-50 – a world where women, men, girls and boys live as equals – by 2030 is an ambitious aim but fully in line with the long-term vision for Africa’s transformation, Agenda 2063, “where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of women and youth”. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Goals (SDGs), explicitly recognizes the role of youth, seeking to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls as well as to realize the human rights of all. The dedicated Goal for gender equality (Goal 5) reiterates this emphasis (the only goal to mention young people), supported by several connected, gender-related targets, and firmly establishes the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls as central to establishing a more peaceful, just and sustainable world for all. Although there is no specific SDG on youth, they will all require youth action if ultimately they are to succeed.


Closing the gender gap in Africa, while accelerating efforts to improve the economic empowerment, legal and social standing, political participation, health outcomes and educational opportunities of women and girls on the continent, will be crucial to matching these agendas’ ambition with achievement. Inequality has been called the biggest challenge facing youth today globally, with around 500 million youth living on less than $2 a day, while 74 million are unemployed.

The youth population is rising around the world, but especially in Africa. By 2025, more than 65 per cent of the continent’s 430 million inhabitants will be under the age of 25. Right now, more than a quarter of the world’s girls live in Africa and the number of African girls is expected to grow by 30 per cent between 2015 and 2030. Although underemployment is a pressing issue, if this youth power can be celebrated and harnessed, up to US $500 billion per year could be added to African economies for as many as 30 years.

The African Union (AU) declared 2017 the year of “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend Through Investments in the Youth” and recognized the crucial role that young people play in Africa’s future, building on previous commitments to young people, such as the African Youth Charter, the African Youth Decade 2009-2018 and its Plan of Action, the Africa Protocol on the Rights of Women and Agenda 2063.

Recent decades have brought vast changes and measurable success to many parts of the continent. Since 2000, economic growth has been relatively robust, with Sub-Saharan Africa posting the world’s fastest economic growth between 2005 and 2015 (Bloomberg) and life expectancy has grown by 8.8 years in this region since 2000 (UNDP, 2017). The situation for women and girls has also improved in many respects. A number of countries, including Benin, Botswana, the Gambia, Guinea, Lesotho, Mauritania and Namibia, narrowed their gender gap in education (UN); maternal mortality dropped considerably; significant numbers of women have joined the labour force; and the average representation of women in national parliaments more than doubled (WB). Among the IPU’s top twelve countries with the highest proportion of women in parliament, five nations are African.

Yet, for all this promising news, there remain persistent challenges; in Sub-Saharan Africa almost two thirds of girls who are out-of-school are expected never to attend; the gender pay gap there is 30 per cent, compared to 23 per cent, globally; and the World Bank estimates that youth in that region currently account for 60 per cent of the unemployed.

The critical role of youth in peacebuilding is increasingly being recognized, including with the unanimous adoption by the UN Security Council in December 2015 of resolution 2250, its first on youth, peace and security. It recognizes that youth’s vulnerabilities, experiences of conflict, and contribution to lasting peace and security, in particular through conflict prevention and sustainable peacebuilding, must be differentiated. Across Africa, fifteen countries are currently experiencing conflict or post-conflict situations. However, although research shows that with women at the table there is a 35 per cent increase in the probability of a peace agreement lasting 15 years, this is a lost opportunity in many countries, as in most peace negotiations in Africa over the last 15 years, only 1 per cent to 13 per cent featured women in the mediation.

Women’s economic empowerment is another key component to reaching all of the SDGs. In the African continent, many women work in insecure or informal situations, face bias and discrimination, and lack upward mobility. Rural women are 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the informal sector contributes about 55 per cent of GDP and 80 per cent of the labour force. These women often lack access to social protection and job security, as well as to the critical land, machinery, fertilizers, seeds and technologies needed to fully reap the rewards of their work. The UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which recently released its final report, offers suggestions for addressing many such issues, including women in the informal sector, women’s digital and financial inclusion, and the care economy, with a particular focus on the most marginalized. If we are to fulfill the aspiration of the SDGs – to “leave no one behind,” we must look toward an array of concerted interventions that address those most marginalized: women and girls facing discrimination based on factors such as age, ethnicity, location, disability or sexual orientation.

It is also essential to develop strategies to adapt to an increasingly digital, flexible and globalized labour market. This is especially critical for young people, as by 2030 many of today’s job will no longer exist and estimates show that 90 per cent of future jobs will need some degree of skill in technology. This year’s Commission on the Status of Women, including the second-annual CSW Youth Forum, focused on this “changing world of work” and the need to ensure that technological and digital changes work for women and girls. This starts with boosting access – in several of Africa’s poorer and more fragile countries, only one person in 10 has access to the internet – but bridging the digital divide also means ensuring that women and girls are fully equipped with the education, training, and vocational and entrepreneurial skills to achieve equal outcomes in critical STEAM and ICT subjects.

UN Women is addressing the skills gap through its Virtual Skills School, which will target “second-chance” learners who have missed out on education opportunities because of poverty, geographic isolation, early marriage or pregnancy, conflict or humanitarian disasters. The curriculum will offer ICT and STEAM skills, while overturning the stereotypes that hold women back from vital and rewarding careers in science and technology.

In order to take full advantage of Africa’s demographic dividend, girls must be healthy, well-educated and capable of being productive. This can only happen when they enjoy access to sexual and reproductive health and rights. When women are in control of their own bodies, they can make critical health decisions, including negotiating safe, consensual sex, deciding when to have children, and protecting themselves against HIV and sexually transmitted infections. Young women (ages 15-24) comprise 60 per cent of all young people living with HIV. Having bodily autonomy also means freedom from violence and harassment – in the home, in situations of conflict, and on public transportation and city streets – and from harmful practices such as child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C). Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before the age of 18, and at least 200 million women and girls today have undergone FGM/C in 30 countries.

Each of these issues is fundamental, but none of them stand alone. They are part of an interlinked set of obstacles which will affect the broader ability of the next generation of women to engage in community politics, start a business or enroll in educational programmes. These obstacles in turn can damage social growth, economic diversity and community resilience. While it is ultimately up to governments and legislators to address these concerns, achieving the SDGs is in everyone’s interest, and youth advocates have made impressive strides in changing the status quo. For example, the recent law and constitutional amendment to end child marriage in Malawi was passed in part due to the efforts of girl activists who lobbied village chiefs, as well as Members of Parliament. Since 2015, UN Women’s HeForShe movement has also worked to engage men and boys in gender equality, including through the participation of three HeForShe IMPACT 10x10x10 Champions on the continent; President Arthur Peter Mutharika of the Republic of Malawi, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and Adam Habib, Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, in South Africa.

We will only be able to take advantage of Africa’s demographic dividend if we have access to the resources to turn our commitments into action. Partnership and political will must be coupled with efforts to tackle the chronic and persistent lack of investment in gender equality, which has resulted in a massive gap between our visionary commitments and reality on the ground. It is critical that all policy actions at the national level are used to mobilize resources for gender equality, including ensuring women’s access to financial services, land and productive assets; that all developed countries meet, and ensure stronger focus on gender equality in, their Official Development Assistance commitments; and that interventions address both the structural causes and the consequences of gender inequality.

The Sustainable Development Goals and the Africa vision for 2063 call upon us to leave no one behind. At the same time, let us commit to leaving no talent or potential untapped. In Africa, there are millions of young entrepreneurs, politicians, athletes and gender equality activists who can help to fulfil the promise of a better and more equal world for all. I had the opportunity to meet some of them in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the 9th African Union Gender Pre-Summit in January, which focused on harnessing the demographic dividend. Their ideas, energy and dedication show that Africa’s future is indeed bright. Let us look to these women and girls of Africa as the creators of their own destiny and the guides toward a planet of equality.

Written by

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women since August 2013, served as Deputy President of South Africa from 2005-2008, before which she held Ministerial positions and was a Member of Parliament. Focusing on human rights, equality and social justice, she began as a teacher, gaining international experience at the World YWCA. She founded the non-profit Umlambo Foundation.