Jay Gribble | Palladium - Apr 10 2019
How to Increase the Age of a Continent: A Response to the Gates Letter

A Young reporter from Mchinji station interviews youth about a youth-friendly health services clinic in Lilongwe. Credit: Chiko Moyo

From community radio to the hours of operation at a health clinic, Palladium’s Jay Gribble explores the youngest continent and what’s really driving its age.

Africa is the world’s youngest continent. As Bill and Melinda Gates point out in their annual Gates Letter, when young people have access to education and health, they have a much better chance of contributing to economic growth, driving their nations in new directions.

But proximity to schools and health facilities isn’t enough; we first need to overcome the social and cultural distances that serve as barriers to better health and education.

Africa is Youngest, but Getting Older

“The world’s youngest continent” means that Africa has a median population age that is less than the other populated continents. It means there is opportunity for growth, and a spirit of optimism.

Historically, Africa’s median age was decreasing (19.3 in 1950 to 17.5 in 1985); the population was getting younger because more people were having more children, and basic health interventions allowed more of those children to survive. However, since 1985, Africa’s median age has increased by 2.5 years, and is estimated to be 19.8 years by 2020. This is a substantial increase when we realize it is driven largely by women and couples having fewer children.

Africa’s Diversity

Much of Africa’s diversity is also hidden behind statistical averages. Southern Africa has a median age of almost 27 years, compared to Middle Africa’s median age of just over 17 years. In the 1950s, all of Africa’s regions had fertility rates of 6 or higher, but by 2015-2020, women in Southern Africa were having on average 2.5 children, compared to 5.5 children in Middle Africa and 5.3 children in Western Africa.

Underlying this demographic variation is sociocultural, economic, and political diversity. To talk about “African youth” is to talk about more than 420 million people between the ages of 10 and 24, each of whom has distinct needs. A 13-year-old child bride in Niger is far different from a 23-year-old man with a college education in South Africa; her opportunities to contribute to economic growth are much fewer than his, reinforcing that a cookie-cutter approach will not address the challenges African youth face.

Using Africa’s Diversity to Increase Its Age

Fortunately, there have been tremendous strides in addressing the diverse needs of young people in Africa, which are also contributing to increasing the median age. A key driver is increased attention to reproductive health: helping young women avoid unintended pregnancies, HIV, and sexually transmitted infections, while also encouraging young men to take a more active, responsible role in helping prevent these things from happening.

In Malawi – a country experiencing an increasing teenage pregnancy rate and where 4.5% of young women are living with HIV – working with youth, health service providers, and decision-makers to understand and implement the nationally-approved Youth Friendly Health Services (YFHS) Policy is key. This ground-breaking policy guarantees young people the right to high-quality, affordable, appropriate, and acceptable sexual and reproductive health services.

By using community radio, engaging youth, parents, religious leaders, and health providers, we’re seeing an increased number of youth seeking condoms, contraception, and HIV testing. Village chiefs are enforcing legal marriage ages and health facilities have changed their hours of operation to better fit young people’s schedules.

Increasing the median age of Western and Middle Africa is more challenging as child marriage and polygamy, patriarchal gender norms that limit opportunities for women, and greater acceptance of gender-based violence are long-standing elements of the sociocultural environment.

Data from Middle and Western African countries show that the percentage of 15-19 year old girls who are married has decreased since the mid-1980s, but remains stubbornly high:

  • Niger: 31% of 15-19 year-olds married in 1992, compared to 23.7% in 2012
  • Nigeria: 21.0% in 1990, compared to 11.6% in 2013
  • Chad: 18.6% in 1996-97, compared to 16.4% in 2014-15

Health and Education are Key

Progress is occurring, and helping young women avoid early marriage and delaying their first pregnancies can help create more economic opportunities for them, as well as healthier children and smaller families. Advocating for reproductive health support and giving young people a voice in the policy process builds a stronger citizenry, while also drawing attention to their myriad needs.

Melinda Gates says, “…the future depends on young people’s access to high-quality health and education services.” Africa’s human capital is improving and there is reason to be optimistic that things will continue to improve. To help, we must focus on improving equitable access to quality health and education, which requires us to look beyond the continent’s blanket statistic and cater improvements to its diverse people’s diverse needs.

Palladium manages the implementation of the USAID Health Policy Plus (HP+) project. For more information, contact Ruth Berg.