Be Bold for Change: Invest More in Young People and Women
~ By Mabingue Ngom, Director for West and Central Africa Region, United Nations Population Fund .
To ‘be bold for change’ Governments must take the bold step to put money in smart investments. Two of the smartest investments for Africa are investing in young people and in maternal health.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, Be Bold for Change, echoes the need for bold action to accelerate gender parity, eliminate maternal mortality and invest in young people especially young women and girls. Taking bold action requires setting the right priorities, ensuring equitable distribution, and avoiding the costly mistakes of the past. Therefore the most important question is ‘where do we put our money, time and resources to get the maximum return?’
While motherhood is often a positive experience, for too many women it is associated with suffering, ill-health and even death. Yet, almost all these deaths can be prevented. Africa has the highest maternal mortality burden in the world. For example, although West and Central Africa accounts for 6% of the world population, it contributes to 40% of the world maternal mortality burden.
Smart investments can be defined as ‘investments that put people first and prioritize those most in need, and have high-payoffs for improved well-being and quality of life, poverty eradication, economic growth and sustainable development, with multiplier and inter-generational effects that will yield benefits for decades to come’. Two of these smart investments are (a) investing in young people and (b) investing in maternal health.
The world currently has the largest generation of young people in history with 3 billion, or 43% of the world population, is under 25 years of age. Almost half of them, or 1.2 billion, are adolescents (10-19 years old). Of this 1.2 billion adolescents, 230 million are in Africa. Africa has an estimated population growth rate of 2.5%, twice as high as the global average of 1.2%. This youthful population is Africa’s greatest asset if carefully managed but could be a ticking bomb if ignored. Many of these young people are living in poverty and have limited opportunities, are out of school, out of work, and facing violence, abuse, and exploitation. They are susceptible to radicalization by extremist groups.
Investing in young people is key to reaping demographic dividend, the boost to economic growth that happens when countries have a growing number of working age population relative to dependent population (i.e. children and elderly) and therefore spend less on dependents, save more and have more disposable resources to invest.
According to a study by the World Bank, keeping girls in education in developing countries could yield higher returns than any other type of spending. An extra year of primary school can increase women’s eventual wages by 10-20%, and an extra year of secondary school increases them by 15-25%. Raising the share of women with secondary education by one percentage point boosts a country’s annual per capita income growth by an average of 0.3 percentage points. Adolescent childbearing translates into opportunity costs for national economies.
In addition, keeping girls in school reduces teenage pregnancy. Teenage mothers tend to have larger family sizes, are poorer and their children are more likely to drop out of school. Early marriage and early pregnancy perpetuate a vicious cycle of illiteracy and poverty which is a recipe for social turbulence, radicalization and insecurity. Keeping girls in school, ending child marriage and preventing adolescent pregnancy increases economic productivity and national Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
In addition, girls who get married before 18 are physically and emotionally immature to become mothers. They (as well as their babies) are more likely to die or develop vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) during childbirth.
In order to convert the large population of young people into a resource and reap the demographic dividend, the Government needs to empower, educate, and provide health services and create a favorable business environment for employment of young people especially young women and girls. Empowered young people will propel their families, communities and the nation towards development and poverty elimination.
Another smart investment is giving everybody access to maternal health. Maternal health problems undermine poverty eradication efforts and the achievement of gender equality, drain household incomes and public budgets, lead to poor health and poor educational outcomes, lower productivity and women participation in labour force, and results in missed opportunities for economic growth.
Access to modern contraception, especially for young people, is an essential element for reaping the demographic dividend, an opportunity which Africa is poised to seize. Access to voluntary family planning could reduce maternal deaths by a third (30%) and child deaths by as much as one fifth (20%). This amounts to averting over 12000 maternal deaths and 100000 under-five deaths per year in Nigeria.
Nigeria is the most populous African country. For this bold change to have a significant effect in Africa, it must occur in Nigeria. A change in Nigeria will have obvious positive externalities in the rest of the continent and all over the world. Bold engagement in Nigeria is therefore an important step toward the Africa We Want but also the World we want by 2063.
Worldwide, maternal deaths and subsequent newborn mortality are estimated to generate annual productivity losses of US$15 billion every year. This represents a loss of 1.5 billion USD every year for Nigeria. Saving lives has high returns on investments - achieving universal access to maternal health services could yield a return of $120 for every dollar spent.
African countries as well as the international community stands to pay a high price if no bold action is taken to invest in young people and maternal health . The costs of not taking action now on these critical developmental issues means that poverty eradication efforts will be undermined, economic growth slowed, inequalities sustained, and countries will miss out on a vast source of human capital needed to take sustainable development forward in the 21st century.
While this is the role of the Government, the mandate of the United Nations Population Fund and an area of interest of many organisations, the role of the community and individual champions cannot be underestimated. In particular, we need high profile public advocates for maternal health and the rights of young people to reach their full potential in Africa.