Among a clutch of new studies surveying the fate of children globally in 2014, a year that may be remembered as the most violent and catastrophic in more than half a century, Unicef has looked into the future of Africa and found that an unexpectedly persistent population boom is not only robbing children of opportunity, but also hobbling the continent’s economic growth and changing the world’s demographic profile.
“The future of humanity is increasingly African,” the report, published in August, concludes.
Saying that its previous population projections have proved to be underestimates, Unicef reports that by 2050, Africa will account for around 41 percent of all the world’s births, 40 percent of all children under 5 years old and 37 percent of all children under 18. The survey, a revision of Unicef’s “Generation 2030/Africa: Child Demographics in Africa,” says that “on current trends, almost 2 billion babies will be born in Africa in the next 35 years.”
From 2015 to 2050, Africa’s population will double to 2.4 billion people from 1.2 billion. The global population is now about 7.2 billion, projected to rise to about 11 billion by the end of this century. By then, Africa is projected to have almost quadrupled its current population of more than 4 billion and will be home to almost 40 percent of the world’s people. The quality-of-life situation does not look promising.
Millions of African children suffer in persistent or recurring regional conflicts and already lack acceptable health care, nutritional food and adequate education in numerous countries. Where public services exist, they will be further strained under pressure of rapidly increasing numbers. Governments lack the imagination, ability or commitment — sometimes all three — to put in place policies to meet such challenges.
Money is not always the issue. Liberia and Sierra Leone are two examples where in the 1990s large sums of money from “blood diamonds” were squandered on civil wars among gangs that engaged in gruesome atrocities, many involving amputations of the limbs of teenage boys and young men. Though there has been mostly peace since then, no effort was made to construct a working public health service, making both countries unable to cope with the Ebola outbreak now raging in the region. Life expectancy in Africa, while rising, is still the world’s shortest, at 56.8 years in the sub-Saharan region, the UN calculates.
Unicef based its new survey on data and analysis from the United Nations Population Division and the World Bank, centers of demography and analysis free of the political pressures that are exerted sometimes by member nations on other UN entities. But systemwide, UN agencies do not disagree that poverty attends this population boom and could become more severe, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, where most nations are stuck at the very bottom of the UN’s annual Human Development Index. Conflict, poor development work by governments, corruption, violence against women and stubbornly high fertility — with women’s pleas for family planning often ignored by officials or rejected by male traditional leaders as culturally unacceptable — all play their parts in the African demographic story. Of the 34 countries classified by the World Bank in 2014 as having fragile and conflict-affected contexts, 20 are African, the Unicef survey found.
“About 60 percent of the African population — and 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa — survives on less than US$2 a day. Extreme poverty is also rife on the continent; around 40 percent of Africa’s population, and almost half (48 percent) of sub-Saharan Africa live on less US$1.25 per day.”
Three West African countries are singled out for attention because they are projected to have very high rates of population growth: Nigeria, Niger and Mali. Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, with about 174 million people, and impoverished Niger and Mali, with much smaller populations, nonetheless have the highest fertility rates in the world — 7.6 live births per woman in Niger, 6.9 births in Mali. Some African leaders still fall back on hopes of a “demographic dividend,” with large numbers of young people joining in building national economies.
Unicef warns: “Unless investment in the continent’s children is prioritized, the sheer burden of population expansion has the potential to undermine attempts to eradicate poverty through economic growth, and worse, could result in rising poverty and marginalization of many if economic growth were to falter.”
The status of African girls was addressed in another Unicef report in early September, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” which covered many forms of violence against children in 190 countries. It found that Nigeria had the world’s highest number of child homicides: 13,000. This year, the government and its experienced military were not able to find and free more than 200 girls kidnapped from their schools by Islamic militants four months ago. While about half of girls between 15 and 19 years old surveyed worldwide said they believed a husband was justified in hitting his wife under certain circumstances, the percentage rose to over 80 percent in Mali, a sign of low self-regard.
Unicef’s Africa demographic report in August, “Generation 2030,” listed child marriages among practices detrimental to girls that are holding back progress.”Expanded programs to end child marriage (defined as a union in which one or both parties are under age 18), which is highly prevalent across the continent, must also be included as part of efforts to address Africa’s demographic transition,” the agency advised.
On Sept. 5, a panel assembled at UN headquarters addressed the issue of child brides and the forced marriages of children. In the program, Girls Not Brides, panel participants from around the world looked for post-2015 development priorities and policies to end these widely practiced abuses of human rights, which usually result in girls being denied formal education, and greatly increase their vulnerability to death at an early age from premature (for their age) pregnancies or sexually transmitted infections. Unicef estimates that there are 700 million women alive today who were married before the age of 18. Almost a third of them before they were 15.
Among the experts speaking on the panel discussing child brides was John Hendra, the deputy director for policy and program at UN Women. He wrote to PassBlue after the event, saying: “As we heard from many speakers, child marriage has very clear impacts on development outcomes, but as importantly, child, early and forced marriage is a fundamental breach of the right to enter into marriage with free and full consent, and an extreme manifestation of gender inequality and structural, gender-based discrimination.” He added that this practice “violates girls’ rights and undermines girls’ and young women’s independence and autonomy.”
Looking ahead to new development policies, post-2015, Hendra said: “In the context of post-2015, there is simply no way we can achieve development goals, or realize the human rights of women and girls — both of which are intricately linked — while this harmful and very discriminatory practice continues. . . . It’s very important that ending child marriage be explicitly mentioned — as it is now in target three of Goal 5 — [and] that it be clear that it is not in any way optional, and that it is measurable. Putting indicators in place to measure progress is critical to hold governments to account.”
Countries, he added, “have an obligation to allocate sufficient funding to ensure that laws and policies are effectively implemented, as well as to support awareness raising and interventions that empower girls and women and protect their rights.”