by Jay Gribble, vice president, International Programs
The ICFP 2011 High-Level Meeting organized for Ministers of Planning, Finance, and Health of African countries is focusing on achieving the demographic dividend. While it’s easy to talk about this process that led to the economic success of the “Asian Tigers” in abstract terms, it’s more difficult to speak in specifics about it. Fortunately, Ruth Levine of the Hewlett Foundation did focus her comments on the need to pay attention to the needs of youth—highlighting the “Millennium Development Babies” –the cohort born in 2000 which will soon be reaching age 12. As the largest birth cohort in human history, the outcome of this generation can either energize or destabilize societies around the world. I’d like to reflect on a few of Ruth’s comments.
While half of the world’s population is under age 25, the median ages in African countries range from 14 to 20 years of age. Imagine living in a country where half of the population is age 14 or younger! So what is life like for these young people? Although countries are successfully increasing educational enrollment, one also has to look at quality: In 14 countries, less than 1 in 5 girls who finished primary school can read a simple sentence. And 1 in 3 women ages 20 to 24 were married before age 18—they were child brides, and quickly become young mothers, posing risks to health and limiting economic opportunities. As more young people live in cities and urban areas, what opportunities do they have for an economically secure future?
While there are implications for engaging youth in political processes, leveraging the buying power of young people—recognizing them as a real economic force—and providing informal educational opportunities for young people not in school, decisionmakers can also work through the formal and informal health sectors to improve the future of young people. Through investing in the three “Cs” of reproductive health, young people can make decisions, act responsibly, and better achieve their potential:
- Convenient health services that remove barriers—time, financial, legal barriers—that keep young men and women from accessing the services they need. And we hear repeatedly that “family planning” isn’t a concept that resonates with young people, so reframing the very types of services that can help young people avoid unintended pregnancies is also critical.
- Confidential services that allow young people to get information about avoiding unplanned pregnancy and unsafely performed abortion, as well as getting answer to their questions about sexuality in general.
- Comprehensive services that respond to the range of health needs that young people have, whether it be knowledge of their bodies, gender-based violence, or negotiating interpersonal relationships.
There is an opportunity to “bend the trend” of high fertility, early childbearing, and lack of information by increasing access to family planning information and service within a broad range of reproductive health services. It’s not a new idea, but it’s certainly a timely one to promote the needed changes in population structure to make the demographic dividend a reality in the world’s developing countries.