Women and youth: The hope for Africa’s future

February 7, 2015

The Francophonie summit was one of the latest conferences to draw attention to the importance of women and youth in Africa’s future. Stephen Williams reports from Dakar, Senegal.

At the end of November, in Dakar’s brand new international conference centre, the International Organisation of La Francophonie met for a two-day Heads of State summit followed by a two-day economic forum.

The biannual event was entitled: “Women and Children in the Francophonie: Peacemakers and Key Players for Development”, though some suggested more pressing issues facing the continent should take precedence. When asked by New African about this, Richard Attias, whose company produced the economic forum, commented:

“The heads of state summit primarily focused on the Ebola crisis and trying to push for much more solidarity, much more commitment from governments about how regional cooperation can fight and resist Ebola, and how to diminish the impact of this terrible disease.

“The fact is that, yes it is dangerous, yes it is a very serious issue but we should not stop the whole economic investment process because of Ebola. Ebola is affecting just three nations in a continent of 54 countries.”

A second major issue discussed at the summit was who should succeed former Senegalese president Abdou Diouf as secretary-general of the organisation. There was much debate and lobbying behind the scenes trying to reach consensus on a single candidate to become the next secretary-general. In the end, the assembled heads of state appointed Canada’s Michaëlle Jean, a candidate who has a formidable record as a social activist, journalist, a documentary film-maker, and who served as Canada’s governor general from 2005 to 2010.

Almost inevitably, this decision did not please everyone. President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo left Dakar hastily to express his displeasure that his favoured candidate Henri Lopes was not nominated, while the Mauritian candidate, Jean-Claude de l’Estrac, responded with a blistering attack on the nomination process itself, saying it was not open or democratic.

Some others were dismayed that although Jean’s family is from Haiti, the new secretary-general was technically from Canada in the Global North, contravening the assumption that the Francophonie’s leader would be from the South.

Nevertheless, Jean was picked and becomes the first woman to head the 77-member organisation, and her dedication to the issues of the developing world is well established.

Her family fled Haiti for Canada after her father was arrested and tortured by the dictator “Papa Doc” Duvalier. She only returned to the island in 1986, just before the ousting of Duvalier’s son “Baby Doc”, in order to conduct research for a documentary film about the women of Haiti.

Jean’s work was recognised by Canada’s National Film Board and she was invited to make a film on the 1987 Haitian elections that was shown on the French-language Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Radio Canada subsequently hired her as a journalist, and she also worked for the French television news programme, becoming the first black person reporting on shows such as Actuel, Montréal ce Soir, Virages and hosting Le Journal RDI before launching her own current affairs show, Michaëlle.

Jean also continued her film-making, with husband Jean-Daniel Lafond, making several documentaries including Tropique Nord about the experiences of black people in Quebec.

In 2005, Canada’s then prime minister, Paul Martin, appointed Jean as Canada’s new governor-general, the first black person to serve in this office.

Her focus on women’s affairs, and in particular domestic violence against women, was particularly notable. And her foundation’s support for youth projects also makes her nomination, in this the Francophonie’s year of focusing on Women and Youth, appropriate.

She says that she will attempt to bring a renewed focus on economic development to a body that has often had to address serious conflicts in its member-states. Currently, there is ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic, instability in DRCongo, political uncertainty in Burkina Faso, and a continuing militant threat across the Sahel.

Speaking to the press shortly after being elected, Jean argued that the economic strategy adopted at the summit represented hope and the possibility that the organisation will gain a new relevance.

“You know, countries, peoples and civilisations came together by doing business together,” she said. “I believe that this magnificent project is to do that within La Francophonie, to use this very rich language and make it an extraordinary space to move forward together for the development of the economies of our countries.”

It is in this endeavour that the two groups mentioned in the summit’s theme – women and youth – will be crucial.

Women and children first
For several years, the African Development Bank (AfDB) amongst others has been reiterating the need to stimulate youth employment in Africa. For example, in 2013, working in partnership with the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Bank arrived at a joint recommendations for the international community.

The fact is that Africa is the world’s youngest continent and is experiencing an unprecedented youth bulge. According to some estimates, around 65% of Africa’s population is under 35, and if trends continue its under-18 population is set to increase by two-thirds by 2050.

This presents the continent with a huge opportunity, though in order to take it, “full employment should be a policy goal for societies at all levels of development,” as stated by the 2014 UNDP Human Development Report.

The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) similarly emphasises the importance of Africa’s youth but takes a slightly different approach.

To begin with, it stresses the need for a strategy to reduce child mortality through vaccinations, health care, sanitation and safe drinking water as well as to empower girls through secondary education, sexual and reproductive health advice and access to supplies such as contraception.

The UN Population Fund foresees that when a country reduces its high mortality and birth rates, a young working- age population will emerge that can propel economies forward. As Babatunde Osotimehin, the UNFPA’s Executive Director says: “Youth can’t be left out when we plan the future.”

However, when New African asked Osotimehin at the report’s launch if compulsory retirement might be used as a strategy to allow young people to progress faster up career ladders, he replied: “Ooh, that’s really below the belt! You know that I am 65 years old! But no, to be serious, I take a different view. We believe in inclusiveness. If people still have the capacity to contribute to society, they should not be excluded.”

“We need to find opportunities for them to participate,” he continued.

Source: New African Magazine</strong>

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