The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had a great article on its website recently: Empowering girls is key to Africa’s success. The key points are about how Africa can best harness the changing demographic structure in the Sub-Saharan countries – where declining birthrates lead to the so-called demographic dividend.

A demographic dividend occurs when falling fertility rates lead to a large working-age population with fewer dependents and, therefore, more household income. Demographic dividends played a major role in the economic ascension of Asian countries like Korea and India between the 1960s and 2000s.

But the dividend is not automatic. It requires a healthy, educated workforce with access to decent jobs. This means investing in the health, rights and skills of young people – especially adolescent girls, who remain marginalized in large numbers throughout the Sahel and the world.

 

Thus the core message is: Only by investing in the skills and rights of young people – particularly adolescent girls – can the region take advantage of a demographic dividend, a key opportunity to improve livelihoods and living standards.

As I read this article, and as I took a look at Michelle Obama’s video I kept thinking about a crucial aspect that plays into the whole equation: It is integral to highlight the importance of alcohol-free environments for our girls if they are to grow up empowered and be well rounded educated individuals who know the importance of work and play.

What I have noticed throughout my travels through East Africa and parts of Southern Africa is the chasm that is lack of safe environments for girls to spend their free time in. Bars, clubs, beerhalls, shebeens, dens, restaurants are ubiquitous in this part of the world and alcohol-free environments are as scarce as Tanzanite. It is amazing the sheer quantities of alcohol outlets spread across our continent. Girls need places where they can just be, without being bothered by alcohol users and enjoy their childhood as well as to build their self-esteem. Every time I see a new bar/restaurant opening up, I always think “why could it not be an alcohol-free place for children to have fun?” Because surely we all know alcohol is not fun for both adults and children!

The only people who are actually doing something to empower youth are Associations such as Girl Guides and Scouts. However, there is an immediate need of the scarce alcohol free spaces that encourage young people to be assertive, free, creative and to be themselves in a safe and conducive environment. I am extremely confident that parents and teenagers would be ecstatic to have places like these across our region. This would protect girls from some forms of violence as well as to give them a secure place where they can relay their fears and be free to talk about issues pertaining to their safety.

Many high school and university students say that they attend parties or go out using alcohol because “there is nothing else to do.” Like older adults, adolescents and young adults enjoy socializing and need a variety of avenues to interact with peers, make new friends, and pursue romantic relationships. In the absence of alcohol-free places to socialize, young people go to parties where alcohol is present, and may succumb to peer pressure to use alcohol. By promoting social, recreational, extracurricular, and public service options that do not include alcohol, students are given the opportunity to socialize in an alcohol-free environment.

The International Day of the Girl Child – 11 October 2014 had the theme of “Empowering adolescent girls: Ending the cycle of violence” and the focus has been to move beyond awareness-raising to investments in and support for this critical group that will shape the present and the future. It is especially critical in Africa to end child marriage, to empower adolescent girls and ensure that they are protected from harm, are supported by family and friends, and are able to act in their own interest. One of the effective and sustainable ways to do this is the creation of safe alcohol free environments for girls to hang out. These spaces would definitely ensure that our countries are:

  • Investing in adolescent girls to equip them with skills, confidence, and life options: through family, schools, technical and vocational education and training, and health, social and economic support systems;
  • Making infrastructure, services, and technology accessible to girls and effective in meeting their needs for safety, connectivity and mobility;
  • Facilitating adolescent girls’ engagement in civic, economic and political life;
  • Continuing to advocate for making violence against girls and women visible and unacceptable both in private and public domains;
  • Strengthening data, measurement and the evidence base in relation to the empowerment of
    and violence against adolescent girls.

It is time that Africans stop looking at the profit but concentrate on building wholesome societies that have good morals and only then will our children realize that sporting, art or music events can occur without the presence of alcohol. It is very important that teenagers have a space where they can have fun free from alcohol and other drugs. I view it a right for children to have fun spaces that are free from tobacco, alcohol and narcotic drugs. Such alcohol-free environments would help in no small way to change mindsets of our future generations, empower them and enable to them to live up to their fullest potential.