NIAMEY, Niger—A new regional initiative by the World Bank Group and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, will improve maternal and reproductive health and address issues related to adolescent girls in the Sahel. The Bank’s $200 million Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographics Project—which builds on its existing $150 million in commitments over the next two years for maternal and child health in the region—will improve the availability and affordability of reproductive health commodities, strengthen specialized training centres for rural-based midwifery and nursing services, and pilot and share knowledge on adolescent girls’ initiatives.
Of the Bank’s new funding, $100 million has been committed to UNFPA, which will help to create the preconditions for a demographic dividend by addressing fertility levels, population growth, gender equality and access to reproductive health commodities and services. The goal is to accelerate the region’s economic and social development and strengthen the resilience of its people, communities and countries.
The new funding was announced during last week’s visit to Niger by a high-level delegation composed of the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, and World Bank President, Dr. Jim Yong Kim. The delegation also included European Union Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs, African Union Commission Chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, and African Development Bank President, Donald Kaberuka. The visit was part of a four-day mission to the Sahel intended to promote regional security, resilience and development.
The Niger visit focused on the country’s maternal and reproductive health and its growing fertility rate. Niger continues to stand alone as the country with the highest fertility rate in the world; its population of more than 17 million is increasing by 3.4 per cent per year.
“Too many children still die, too many mothers are lost to complications of childbirth, and too few girls are in secondary school. So we need to do much more,” said Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou.
This high population growth—further complicated by the youth bulge—creates huge challenges in terms of demand for social services, including education, where girls pay the highest cost. The spread of gender-based violence also has significant social and economic costs for women and girls.
As one of the world’s poorest, most fragile countries, Niger is also highly vulnerable to droughts and prone to political instability, leaving a large portion of its population without food security. Building stability and resilience in countries like Niger is vital to the peace and stability of sub-Saharan Africa.
The World Bank Group and UNFPA recognize that achieving the demographic dividend is essential for inclusive social, economic and sustainable development. It is also critical to decreasing the fragility of the Sahel countries and to strengthening their health systems, improving girls’ education, tackling social norms that favour harmful cultural practices and other barriers that hinder gender equality and ensuring other social and economic policies are in place.
“The challenges of the Sahel respect no borders—neither should our solutions,” said the UN Secretary-General. “These challenges cannot be overcome by any government or organization alone. The issues are connected and we need an approach that connects our efforts.”
“High fertility, rapid population growth and a large youth population present unique challenges in the Sahel. Where choices improve for women and girls, fertility declines and opportunities expand,” said Dr. Osotimehin. “Raising the age of marriage, keeping girls in school, enabling women through family planning to decide the spacing and number of their children, and investing in the health and education of young people, particularly young girls, can unlock a powerful demographic dividend and set countries in the Sahel on the path to sustained, inclusive social and economic growth. The time to act is now.”
Gender-based violence (GBV) will also be a key entry point to addressing the complex, multi-dimensional challenges facing the Sahel’s women and girls. GBV is a primary intervention of UNFPA’s work, both as a stand-alone focus and as an integrated—and critical—element of the Fund’s work in the areas of sexual and reproductive health, advancing gender equality, ensuring the rights of adolescent girls, engaging men and boys, and promoting the use of high-quality population data to drive evidence-based programmes. Eliminating such violence in countries like Niger produces significant social and economic benefits for women and girls, which can help build stability and resilience in the Sahel’s communities and countries.
Efforts of the World Bank/UNFPA regional initiative will focus on countries furthest behind in their demographic transitions, and where there is greatest opportunity to realize a demographic dividend. A rights-based, gender-responsive, pro-youth and pro-adolescents approach will be undertaken in implementing this programme.
“As we work towards ending poverty across the developing world, we know that educating adolescent girls and getting health services to women will lead to greater prosperity not just for individual families but also for entire economies,” said Dr. Kim. “This link is even more critical when countries, such as those of the Sahel, have fast-growing youth populations and are trying to make timely investments to reap a major set of economic gains known as the demographic dividend.”
UNFPA, which is deeply engaged in the Sahel, intends to strengthen its role with this new initiative. The Fund remains committed to working with partners to improve women’s reproductive health and girls’ education, which would go a long way in establishing the region’s stability and security.
UNFPA brings to this partnership its leadership on issues related to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, gender-based violence, gender equality and its advocacy for most affected populations in humanitarian and transition countries. The World Bank has a strong track record in helping countries respond to crisis and strengthening resilience, as well as in longer term reconstruction and development planning.
Omar Gharzeddine; Tel: +1 212 297 5028, Email: [email protected]