Young people in Africa, a continent of almost 1.2 billion people, carry the collective hope that their continent will realize the goal of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5: Achieve Gender Equality for all Women and Girls. From Cairo to Cape Town, from Dakar to Nairobi, Khartoum to Harare, across the beautiful landscape of the great Rift Valley that extends up to Maputo of Southern Africa from Jordan, Africa’s young people navigate the transition from “growing up” to “grown up”, and what that means for them.
Today, some 65% of Africa’s 1.2 billion population are young people beneath the age of 35, making them the most instrumental demographic in driving national and regional change. Young people with an education and motivation to progress the African agenda are placed to significantly leading on challenging harmful cultural practices. A number of societies in Africa have held strongly to outdated and regressive practices that threaten the health and wellbeing of its people, with women and girls the most affected. Most of these practices result in sexual and reproductive health challenges that contribute to poor health. What, then, is the role of young people as Africa boldly looks into the future? What is the fate of adolescent girls seeking agency and bodily autonomy?
Child marriage and female genital mutilation – both of which are inherently forced even in circumstances in which the minors involved believe they are giving consent – are prime examples of harmful cultural practices that must be eradicated across the African continent. Every girl in the continent from East to West, North to South will at one stage or other in her life ask herself, her family, or the world at large one big question. “Will I ever marry at will?”
Lwam*, a young girl aged 14 in Ethiopia, is scared of time. Her biggest fear is the day that she will turn 15 years old. Her early adolescence has not gone unnoticed, and her community has begun to whisper she is ready to be someone’s wife. Until now, Lwam* has had the opportunity to attend school, which empowered her to visualize her future in a number of different forms. Most recently, she has decided that wants to study International Diplomacy and work at the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa. However, her family has made it clear to her that this is not an option. Not only will Lwam* be married off upon turning 15, she will also be subjected to female genital mutilation, which has a very high prevalence in Ethiopia in particular – WHO estimates that this is done to four out of five girls nationally by the age of 15. Unluckily for Lwam*, her dice has been cast against her will. Millions of girls just like her face a similar situation.
“Why are African boys not subjected to child marriage?”, one might ask. The answer is, of course, gendered: boys are seen as autonomous from a young age, whilst girls are considered transactional; an economic resource at the end of the day. The young people of Africa recognize, if only instinctively, that education is a tool to bring about social change to combat this. Globally, the world has set targets under the SDGs to change the life trajectory of millions of girls in Africa who face the risk of barbaric and harmful violation, young people must work together to achieve SDG 5.
The biggest responsibility for African youth is to end all forms of violence against women and girls – not just to realize this target of SDG 5, but to create a cultural shift that recognizes young men and women in Africa as equal and equitable. Africa, like many other parts of the world, is still struggling to evolved gender discourses, which often results in impingement upon the rights of women and girls, particularly with regard to their sexual reproductive health and rights. Women cannot be empowered to break the barriers that are discriminatory against them without the support of men who must view them as equal beings.
The next generation of Africa should be – must be – different from their predecessors. Equal opportunities should be given to both girls and boys; if not organically at first, then at least deliberately. Education curricula across Africa should embrace transformative approaches to gender and social justice in order to create a free society where respect is valued. The new generation of Africa has the potential to end harmful traditional practices forever, thereby transforming African societies.
But there is much yet to do. Africa is, in many ways, a progressive continent that should be defined and led with legislation that seek to promote dignity and protective of peoples’ rights. A report by the World Health Organization asserts that every year, 200 million girls face the risk of being subjected to female genital mutilation. A sizeable number of these girls are located in sub-Saharan Africa. A few African countries are taking the lead to establish legislation that criminalizes female genital mutilation and child marriage. The challenge is to create an understanding within the community about the necessity of such measures. With the demonstrated malleability of young minds, Africa is well-placed to achieve social change if young people can be advocates for change.
Maternal mortality and birth-related complications end the lives of many girls across Africa, the majority of which are aged between 15-19 years. The sexual debut for some of these girls is directly attributed to forced marriage or in the immediate aftermath of female genital mutilation. A fallacious assumption is made that they are now women and should bear children.
The countermeasure to this is education. Studies have shown that keeping girls in school increases their knowledge on basic sexual reproductive health and rights, which in turn can empower them to make informed choices, including the decision to delay marriage and stand against female genital mutilation. Education not only benefits girls, but the boys who are also in school who are then better-placed to form healthy relationships with their adolescent partners. They become more respectful and empathetic, and less inclined to perpetuate or incite violence. They learn to value and protect the rights of girls and women, which greatly reduces the likelihood of committing rape or other forms of gender-based violence, which have unfortunately been glorified in many societies in the African set-up as the way to define a man.
The future of Africa is bright. Our young people today see the value of education as the cornerstone for the other pillars of development in socio-economic and political spaces. An all-inclusive and respectful society where girls and women have increased opportunities to learn with the knowledge that their sexual reproductive health and rights are protected will reduce the poor health indicators significantly. By the year 2030, I am confident that we will have made great steps towards the realization of the targets in SDG 5, if only because it will be led by the young people of Africa.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Article by Meshack Ian Acholla | Twitter @Acholla_