Jobs, sex, money - what Africa's young people think about

More than hashtags: 10 million young Africans join the labour market every year - by 2040 the working-age population will be the largest in the world.

AUGUST 12 was International Youth Day, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Global Citizen launched a #showyourselfie global campaign to urge world leaders to prioritise the needs and rights of young people in the post-2015 development agenda.

The social media campaign is simple: a young person takes a “selfie” and posts it onto Instagram or Twitter. It is expected to bring in thousands of photographs from all over the world and a clear message to leaders that it’s time to put young people in the spotlight.

If Africa’s youth were to start taking selfies and loading them the impact would be tremendous, after all this is the world’s most youthful continent with approximately 65% of the total population below the ages of 35 years, and 35% between the ages of 15 and 35 years.

This huge number puts Africa at the centre of international youth day, and yet they would probably be the least likely to join this feel-good #showyourselfie campaign. This is because Africa’s youth are experiencing huge challenges in employment, education, access to capital and health services – which are particularly pronounced in rural areas. While some of the global youth are preoccupied with perfecting the pout to load onto social media, Africans are busy trying to get an education, a job, avoiding illnesses and being used as political pawns or conscripts in armed struggles.

The importance of policies to focus on Africa’s youth is huge - by 2020, it is projected that 3 out of 4 people will be on average 20 years old. About 10 million young Africans will be joining the labour market every year, so the future progress of the continent is closely linked to the wellbeing of its young people.

The good news is that most African countries do not need a Twitter campaign and are acutely aware of the growing youth bulge, and are creating youth related policies and programs to address it.

According to data from the Population Reference Bureau status report on adolescents and young people in sub-Saharan Africa, although there are some countries performing badly, there are many more countries that are doing it right - progressing towards achieving targets or goals of various indicators.

Demand remains strong
Education is vital to ensuring Africa’s youth accumulate skills to enter the job market and start an independent livelihood. Over the last two decades, Africa has seen rapid progress towards universal primary education, with nearly all countries having implemented policies to ensure free access. But as more children are completing primary school, the demand for secondary schools is growing. 

Though the African average shows that approximately only half of its youth will enrolled in secondary school (44% female, 51% male) countries like Ghana, Swaziland, Cape Verde, Botswana and the Seychelles have more than 90% of both boys and girls. 

Positive mentions should also go to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where 76% of girls are going to secondary school, and The Gambia which is on the way to achieving gender parity in secondary education with 95%.

But many African youth are not making it to school, leaving them trapped in a cycle of poverty and with fewer opportunities. Approximately 38% of girls and 35% of boys are out of school in Africa, the highest in the world. While Niger presents the worst case scenario with 78% of youth out of school, Botswana, South Africa, the Seychelles and Kenya stand out as notable exceptions, with less than 5% of all adolescents out of school.

An education however can be a dangerous thing in African countries that have low employment opportunities. Today’s young people in sub-Saharan Africa are the best-educated generation ever. The increased access to education has given them the skills to be effective in the labour force, but it also presents a significant threat to political stability if there are not enough jobs to go around.

Between 2000 and 2008, Africa’s working-age population increased by 25% from 443 million to 550 million. If these trends continue, by 2040 the continent’s working-age population will be the largest in the world at 1 billion.  International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that although 73 million new jobs were created in sub-Saharan Africa between 2000 and 2008, only a fifth of those jobs went to young people.

The countries that are best dealing with this—and those that are lagging - are surprising. More than three-quarters of all youth aged 15 to 24 in Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Eritrea and Tanzania are working or looking for a job. This is compared to South Africa that has a youth labour force participation rate of only 25%. Algeria was the big shocker on the continent though with only 9% of it’s female youth participating in the labour force.

Along with jobs, a subject that also gains prominence at this stage in life is sex, as Africa’s young people make the transition from childhood to adulthood, entering their reproductive years. This makes it important for the youth to have access to sexual and reproductive health information and services so they can use contraception, prevent unintended pregnancy and decide if and when to have children.

Unfortunately Africa does not fare too well in these indicators.

The average adolescent fertility rate is 91 out of 1,000 women aged between 15-19. This is the highest in the world although there were large disparities between countries. For example, Libya had two whilst Niger had 192. 

In West Africa nearly 41% of women were married by the time they were 18 which puts them at a higher risk for early pregnancy, limiting their access to education and employment.

Countries such as Niger, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Liberia and Guinea all had the average age of sex at being younger than 17. Though this may seem like a normal age for some, waiting longer to become sexually active can save lives in Africa due to high HIV rates. 

Though the continent is showing some progress, with reductions in HIV prevalence of up to 25% in some countries, such as Kenya and Malawi, “high risk behavior” is still seen in other countries. In Lesotho and Madagascar for example, young men have multiple partners with only 11% of them using condoms in Madagascar.

Policies are clearly needed to address Africa’s youth bulge—perhaps engaging them in activities with more tangible gains in money, sex and jobs - rather than a hash-tag  campaign – would be better for next year.


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