Africa is the world's youngest continent, but how much does it love its children? For some, not so much

In Nigeria, Swaziland, Mauritania Namibia and Zimbabwe, a child as young as 7 years can be held criminally responsible.

WORLD leaders just ended their annual gathering at the United Nations where they  adopted the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The SDGs replaced the millennium development goals (MDGs) that some criticised as being too narrow.

But some voices have faulted the SDGs too, arguing for example that it does not address population growth, and instead aims to combating poverty, hunger and inequality, promoting peace with inclusive societies, protecting human rights, caring for the planet and its sustainability. 

However, while those goals are noble, the critics say reducing rapid rates of population growth will contribute substantially to the developmental efforts of those countries by making national goals easier and less costly to achieve. With the populations of Burundi, Chad, Niger, Somalia and Uganda, for example, expected to double by 2040, it raises questions how much these countries will be able to achieve the SDGs. How valid is this concern?

Uganda, for one, is among the youngest countries in the world, with half of the population under the age of 15, and 80% younger than 30. It’s a striking statistic, but it isn’t until you observe the streets of a city like Kampala in the early morning hours that that number comes to life.

As dawn breaks, children on their way to school fill the streets so completely that in the hour between 6:30am and 7:30am, children must outnumber adults four to one.

You see younger ones holding hands in groups of three and four, some accompanied by adults but most in the charge of older children, or on their own.

They walk to school or wait for a school bus, and some ride fearlessly on motorcycle taxis (boda bodas) with a look of nonchalance that shows they’ve done this a million times before, even as the motorcycles zip and weave dangerously between cars.

You might think that Uganda’s youthful population is the result of women having large families, but that isn’t necessarily the case.

Family sizes in Uganda, though still high, have fallen from 7.4 children in the 1988/89 demographic and housing survey, to 6.2 children in the 2011 edition. In the urban areas, it’s even lower, down to 3.8 children from 5.0 twenty-five years ago.

What happened is that there’s a whole cohort of Ugandans who survived infancy and childhood in the 1980s and 1990s, thanks to better health and education outcomes, and a return to peace and stability after a decade and a half of war and repression.

That generation had eight or more siblings, with parents hedging their bets in a way against high child mortality by having big families. But the better outcomes meant that they nearly all survived, so that even if as parents they are having smaller families today, the net effect is a baby boom.

Youngest continent

Uganda, along with Angola and Somalia, is one of the few countries in Africa that is going through that demographic turning point today, of a baby boom caused by a high survival rate of the current generation of parents.

Most other countries in Africa experienced the inflection point in the 1980s and 1990s, and are now aging slightly. Still, Africa remains the world’s youngest continent, and half of the world’s births in the next 35 years will happen in Africa.

Much of Africa’s population story is focused in the potential of the future demographic dividend, when the working-age population surges and drives economic growth and transformation.

But what of children today – what kind of world are African children growing up in?

Data from the African Report on Child Wellbeing shows that between 2008 and 2013, is that the African continent has become a more suitable place for its children today than it was a decade ago. On average, there was an increase of about 11.5% in the child-friendliness scores of African governments between 2008 and 2013.

In the 2013 child-friendliness rankings, Mauritius, South Africa, Tunisia, Egypt, Cape Verde, Rwanda, Lesotho, Algeria, Swaziland and Morocco emerged as the ten most child-friendly countries in Africa. 

These countries put in place national laws and policies to protect children from violence and mistreatment; and they have allocated adequate budgets for sectors targeting children, while ensuring that those allocations translate into better child wellbeing outcomes.

The ten least child-friendly governments were those of Chad, Eritrea, Sao Tome and Principe, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic (CAR), Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ivory Coast and Mauritania.

For instance, Chad and Eritrea were among the countries with the lowest expenditure on health as a percentage of the total budget; Comoros, Ivory Coast, DRC and Zimbabwe were among the countries that contributed none or very little of their national budgets to the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI); and most of these countries were among those with the lowest expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP.

A country’s child-friendliness is not related to its wealth or level of development. Rather, it is a matter of political commitment, shown in a government’s willingness to put children at the top of the policy agenda and prioritise budgets accordingly. 

Countries with relatively low GDP per capita, such as Rwanda and Lesotho, are good examples: despite their low GDP they are ranked among the ten most child-friendly countries in Africa. Meanwhile, countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Angola are assessed as “less child-friendly” despite their relatively high GDP per capita.

The data shows that a correlation exists between the minimum ages of marriage, sexual consent, employment, recruitment into the army and criminal responsibility, and protection of children from various forms of abuse and exploitation.

Most African countries – 33 in total – have set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for both girls and boys, while a further four have set it above the age of 18 for both.

But in some African countries, a discrepancy exists between the minimum age of marriage and that of sexual consent –as in Sudan, where the minimum age of sexual consent for a girl is 18, but children as young as 10 are legally allowed to marry, and the law specifically protects the husband from penal sanctions for sex within marriage to a girl under 18.

Almost all countries in Africa have set the mimimum age of recruitment into the army at 18 years, and in terms of the minimum age of employment, all but four comply with ILO conventions that prescribe 14 years as the appropriate minimum age of employment - even though in practice many children are employed at much younger ages.

And in terms of criminal responsibility, 16 countries are yet to comply with the internationally recommended minimum age of 12 years. 

In Lesotho, South Africa and Tanzania, children aged 10 can be held criminally responsible, it’s even lower in Zambia and Kenya (8 years), and in Nigeria, Namibia and Zimbabwe, a child as young as 7 years can be held criminally responsible.


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