Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: Girls are half of Africa’s future. We must treat them as such.
Investing in girls’ education and women’s leadership will enable the African continent to benefit from its demographic dividend.
By Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
Africa is the youngest continent, with a median age of just 20—a whole ten years below the global average. This represents both a unique challenge and an incredible opportunity for our continent.
We can capitalize on this “demographic dividend” if we give young people the tools they need to spur economic growth and help countries emerge as true global players. But if we miss this window of opportunity, we risk falling backwards into a new era of social instability.
We cannot allow this to happen. We know that we must enact policies to tap into our young populations and their potential in order to ensure bright, stable futures for our youth.
But we cannot expect to realize the demographic dividend without targeted investment towards the half of our youth population that is disproportionately impacted by poverty; that has consistently lower educational attainment rates; and that is under-represented in leadership: girls.
Listen to research and invest in girls’ education
Academic research has proven time and again that when women and girls are oppressed, societies suffer. Likewise, there is significant evidence that everyone benefits when girls are empowered. More gender-equal societies have been found to be less prone to inter- and intra-state conflict and are less likely to resort to violence to resolve disputes.
One of the most important things we can do for girls is ensuring access to quality education. Girls who finish secondary school will earn twice as much as their female peers who never enter a classroom. If all girls finished secondary education by 2030, the gross domestic product (GDP) of developing countries would increase by an average of 10% over the next decade.
It’s no exaggeration to say that investing in girls’ education is one of the determining factors for shaping Africa’s future for decades to come.
We have already made progress over the last 25 years on this front. The percentage of girls who finish primary education in sub-Saharan Africa has increased from 41% in 1995 to 66% in 2019. However, even today fewer than 10 girls out of every 100 in sub-Saharan Africa complete their lower secondary education, and girls from poor households are far less likely to complete primary school.
And then there’s the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected women and girls around the world. According to UNESCO, the disruptions to education caused by COVID-19 pandemic could result in more than 11 million girls globally not returning to school.
In West Africa, we’ve already seen the impact of closed schools and devasted economies on girls. During the Ebola outbreak, teenage pregnancies increased—and in Sierra Leone at the time, pregnant girls were not allowed to attend school. When schools did reopen, many families could not afford to send girls back. In one survey of 1,000 Liberian girls, two thirds of those who had dropped out of school in the wake of the epidemic did so because of poverty. Rather than continue their studies, girls were expected to help their families earn money, sometimes selling sex in return for food.
We have the power to act
Development rarely follows a straight path. And while the pandemic has caused untold suffering and significant setbacks for women and girls in particular, it’s still within our power to achieve a future where they—and our continent—flourish.
For this to happen, we need to do more than just ensuring girls get to and stay in school. Governments must also implement policies that protect girls from early marriage, female genital mutilation and violence. They can also use legislation to make it easier for women to open bank accounts; prevent gender-based discrimination in employment; and increase women’s representation in leadership—to name a few.
Closing the gender gap in the labor force would have significant economic benefits. According to research from McKinsey, equal participation in the workforce could at $12 trillion to global GDP. Sadly, under current conditions, it will take nearly 268 years to close the gap in economic participation.
For our societies to thrive, we need more women in the upper echelons of leadership. There is evidence that more women policymakers leads to more policies that benefit women —such as increased funding for childcare or legislation protecting women from sexual harassment—and can even improve the overall health of populations.
In addition, the visibility of women leaders will inspire young girls to dream that they can reach the same heights and beyond. That’s one of the reasons why the EJS Center’s flagship program, the Amujae Initiative, is so important. We’re working to inspire and prepare women to unapologetically take up roles and excel in the highest echelons of public leadership, and to bring other women along.
As we mark the International Day of the Girl, we must remember that investing in girls’ education, economic empowerment, and leadership is a critical piece of the development puzzle. We cannot forget the potential that this half of the population can bring to our continent and to our world—and we cannot forget the risks if we neglect them.