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To Tackle Poverty in Africa, Provide Job Training for Teenage Girls

Skills training programs must target those under age 18 to reduce adolescent birth rates and unemployment.

By , a writer and international affairs analyst from Ghana.
A tailoring workshop in Lome, Togo in September 2016.
A tailoring workshop in Lome, Togo in September 2016.
A tailoring workshop in Lome, Togo in September 2016. Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest birth rates globally among girls ages 15 to 19. According to the World Health Organization, the region recorded 101 births for every 1,000 girls in this age bracket in 2021. The region was followed by Latin America and the Caribbean—at 53.2 births per 1,000 girls for the same year.

Reducing sub-Saharan Africa’s high adolescent birth rate must be a top priority. Africa has the highest population growth rate globally, and the continent’s development prospects will remain dim if so many young girls become mothers early, hindering their education and career prospects. The children they bring forth will—in most cases—face poverty and limited opportunities. Like their parents, they will lack the ability to contribute significantly to their countries’ development.

Some sub-Saharan African countries have tried to reduce adolescent pregnancies by increasing access to sexual and reproductive health information, counseling services, and contraceptives. Ethiopia, for instance, provides access to sex education and contraceptives as part of its health extension program, which the government launched in 2003 to train community health workers to deliver primary health care services to their communities. As a result of this program, the country observed a marked increase in contraceptive use by married adolescent girls ages 15 to 19, from 3 percent in 2000 to 36.5 percent in 2019.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest birth rates globally among girls ages 15 to 19. According to the World Health Organization, the region recorded 101 births for every 1,000 girls in this age bracket in 2021. The region was followed by Latin America and the Caribbean—at 53.2 births per 1,000 girls for the same year.

Reducing sub-Saharan Africa’s high adolescent birth rate must be a top priority. Africa has the highest population growth rate globally, and the continent’s development prospects will remain dim if so many young girls become mothers early, hindering their education and career prospects. The children they bring forth will—in most cases—face poverty and limited opportunities. Like their parents, they will lack the ability to contribute significantly to their countries’ development.

Some sub-Saharan African countries have tried to reduce adolescent pregnancies by increasing access to sexual and reproductive health information, counseling services, and contraceptives. Ethiopia, for instance, provides access to sex education and contraceptives as part of its health extension program, which the government launched in 2003 to train community health workers to deliver primary health care services to their communities. As a result of this program, the country observed a marked increase in contraceptive use by married adolescent girls ages 15 to 19, from 3 percent in 2000 to 36.5 percent in 2019.

Strategies that directly tackle poverty among adolescent girls by increasing their earning power are imperative to ensure a drastic and enduring reduction of birth rates.

Among the same age group of married adolescent girls, postpartum contraceptive use increased from 8.5 percent in 2005 to 46.3 percent in 2016. However, access to sexual and reproductive health care remains limited across much of the continent. Many adolescents don’t know how to access sexual and reproductive health services, and unmarried adolescents are deterred from seeking such services in many cases because of the stigma they would likely face from judgmental health personnel.

Sustained campaigns by international nongovernmental organizations and local civil society coalitions have resulted in more liberalized abortion laws across an increasing number of African countries, including Benin and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, while access to safe abortions has reduced the incidence of complications and death from unsafe abortions, it has not lowered adolescent birth rates significantly.

Meanwhile, policies like free primary and high school education as well as school meal programs—which provide younger children attending some public schools a hot meal each day they attend—not only help eliminate financial barriers to attending and remaining in school but also reduce early marriages and adolescent pregnancies. Girls who stay in school longer are more likely to delay getting married and having children.

Poverty is indeed a major reason young girls get married and have children early. Families that can’t provide for their daughters are compelled to marry them off early to suitors who will take over financial responsibility. Thus, strategies that directly tackle poverty among adolescent girls by increasing their earning power are imperative to ensure a drastic and enduring reduction of adolescent birth rates in the region, ever more so in the current economic crisis, when more girls—especially those of low economic status—will be forced to engage in transactional sex to meet their financial needs.

African governments, international organizations, and NGOs can increase the financial independence of adolescent girls by introducing skills-based training programs that are targeted at girls under age 18. Skills training programs have so far mainly targeted girls and women ages 18 and above who are out of school and will apply the skills learned at full-time jobs. Unlike developed countries where part-time, hourly jobs are very common and young people can easily find work on temporary, flexible schedules, formal and contracted employment in much of sub-Saharan Africa is mainly on a full-time basis. Therefore, youth who are still in school have very limited employment options—beyond the low-paying informal market—and mostly depend on their parents to meet their needs.

But training girls who are still in school will enable them to earn money by using their skills to work independently outside of school. Trainings can be conducted over school holidays and can cover a variety of skills, such as making jewelry and beads; knitting items like bags and place mats; weaving baskets; sewing clothes; baking pastries; braiding hair; making visual art, including calligraphy; and creating graphic designs.

Even skills like writing, acting, and playing musical instruments can be sources of income for adolescents in Africa. Skilled young writers can tutor their schoolmates and other children, and they can win money competing in local and international writing contests. Adolescent actors can earn money staging plays in their communities, and those who play musical instruments can get paid to perform at church services and other events.

Adolescent girls who independently cater to some of their personal needs will be unlikely to engage in the sort of transactional sex that leads to unintended pregnancies. Moreover, men and boys might (to some extent) reduce their predatory advances toward girls who are working and asserting their economic independence. Their lasciviousness toward adolescent girls is often largely due to their disdain for, and perceived superiority over, girls and women. Skills training programs for adolescent girls could therefore be a crucial means of increasing girls’ confidence and fostering gender equality from an early age.

These programs could have even more spillover effects. When other girls—as well as boys—observe beneficiaries of the skills training programs earning money using the skills they acquire, they will be inspired to develop their hobbies and abilities and thereby apply these skills toward earning an income of their own. The program will consequently imbue young girls and boys with a problem-solving mentality from an early age. In addition, these temporary jobs will become permanent sources of sustenance for most of these adolescents, considering the dearth of job opportunities for youth in Africa.

African countries will have brighter economic prospects when they harness the potential of broad segments of their populations, including adolescent girls. Moreover, investing resources to train young girls early will not just increase the girls’ sense of responsibility, professionalism, and competence in their work, but it would also generate a greater sense of affinity for their countries and, hence, patriotism—sentiments that are largely lacking among African youth who feel let down by their governments.

For all these reasons, governments and NGOs must begin implementing skills training programs for adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve the double victory of reduced adolescent pregnancies and lower youth unemployment.

Audrey Donkor is a writer and international affairs analyst from Ghana. Twitter: @AudreyDonkor

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