NGOM: Women’s sexual health at the heart of Africa’s growth

Saturday November 9 2019

Mabingué Ngom,

Mabingué Ngom, United Nations Population Fund regional director for West and Central Africa. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The EastAfrican
By The EastAfrican
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The International Conference on Population and Development in Nairobi reviews progress on reproductive health and the ICPD25 Agenda. UNFPA’s regional director for West and Central Africa Mabingué Ngom explains why it matters.

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What outcomes do you expect from the ICPD25 Nairobi summit (Nov 12-14)?

In 1994, the ICPD meeting in Cairo agreed to change the way the world looks at demography. At stake is not only managing demographic growth in the developing world, but also the social changes and advancement of women’s rights to go beyond birth control and family planning to policies on sexual and reproductive health, as well as better education for girls.

ICPD therefore led to a global vision of converged relations between population, development and individual well-being, with 179 countries adopting the Action Plan.

The agenda of the Nairobi summit is to protect what has been accomplished and make sure the Action Plan is fully implemented, hence the theme ‘Accelerating the Promise. We hope to speed up change and build on good practices by amplifying efforts, plans and programmes.

What does it mean for African countries?

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UNFPA is supporting the African Union’s vision of investing in youth. There is a direct link between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Agenda 2030 and the AU's roadmap to harness the demographic dividend. The summit is about scaling up the implementation of this roadmap.

What is ICPD’s programme of action and why should governments take it seriously?

Adequate investment in health and education will speed up economic growth as a direct result of the age structure of the population, which translates into fewer dependants per working person and more savings and investments, making the demographic dividend possible. Going by the progress of Agenda 2063 of the AU and the SDGs, the demographic dividend is expected throughout the continent.

Projections have shown economic growth in Africa can generate $500 billion annually over a 30-year period, at least, drawing from the Asian experience.

What key gains has Africa made so far?

Cases of female genital mutilation and child marriages have declined. In the 30 countries where FGM was prevalent, half of the girls were subjected to the retrogressive tradition in 1994, today they are fewer than a third.

At that time too, a third of the girls were married before the age of 18. Today, less than 25 per cent get are married early.

Fertility rates are also declining, from an average 5.7 children in 1990 to 4.4 children in 2015, with important regional variations.

During the same period, the rates have declined to 2.3 children from 3.5 per woman in Southern Africa; 2.9 from 4.1 in North Africa; 5.3 from 6.4 in West Africa; 5.2 from 6.9 in Central Africa and 4.5 from 6.4 in East Africa. The African population is the youngest in the world.

What challenges do African countries face in implementing the ICPD Action Plan?

The first is of strategic nature. We have not built on successful experiences to get the critical mass that will deliver impact and transform the lives of our people.

Second, most African countries lack the fiscal space to finance the massive investments needed to go to scale.

Third, while we have made incredible progress in social mobilisation, behaviour change communication, mobilisation of religious and traditional leaders, there are still pockets of resistance.

The demographic agenda is often politicised. Fourth, despite the progress, engagement of youth, women’s groups, civil society and local governments is still a work in progress, especially in remote areas.

Finally, we tend to focus on the symptoms, rather than the root causes of the problems.

The deadline for achieving SDGs on health, gender equality, peace, justice and strong institutions is only 11 years away. How can the ICPD Action Plan help African countries achieve this?

There is a need to leverage partnerships for Africa. We must apply the demographic agenda in each country and we commend the launch by the United Nations Secretary-General of the “Decade of Action.”

The Nairobi Summit is an opportunity for the international community to accelerate progress on the ICPD Agenda and boost GDP.

A $500 billion annual revenue as mentioned earlier would help finance the SDGs. The demographic question lies at the heart of the security challenges that sometimes keep us from addressing the development issues.

How can African countries exploit their demographic diversity to drive economic growth and achieve SDGs?

The issue of data and evidence to inform policies and decision-making is at the heart of good governance. We must invest in data and guide its use. Having regular census data will help in targeting public investments.

How can politically and economically fragile states secure the health rights of women and youth to achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive health?

In the Chad Lake Basin, one of the poorest regions in the world and which has suffered violence due to the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, we have worked with women and youth by targeting health centers, schools and madrassas.

The fertility rates and child marriages in this region are the highest in the world, with 76 per cent and 69 per cent of the girls under 18 in Niger and Chad respectively affected.

In 2018, almost 7,500 deliveries were assisted by medical staff, 32,000 women had prenatal consultation, 4,000 received modern methods of contraception, 100 medical employees have been trained and 284,000 condoms distributed.

How does UNFPA raise funds for the ICPD Action plan?

We rely on the goodwill of development partners in and outside of Africa, hence, our idea of launching a global coalition for the demographic dividend in Africa in 2020, to focus on the action plan.