Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, at the inaugural Professor Babatunde Osotimehin Lecture, in London today:
It is an honour to be asked to give this inaugural lecture celebrating the memory and legacy of my friend, my brother, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.
Babatunde was a true global leader, always bold in advocating for public health and the rights and empowerment of women and young people. He understood that the world’s 1.8 billion young people are its greatest hope. It is therefore fitting that this first memorial lecture focuses on an issue that has youth at its very heart — family planning as a pillar in achieving the demographic dividend.
The key to harnessing the demographic dividend is enabling young people — and adolescent girls in particular — to enjoy their human rights and achieve their full potential. Babatunde firmly believed that our ability to tap into the energies that youth bring, their vitality and their ability to create and innovate, would stimulate and sustain growth around the world.
He advocated globally for countries to seize the opportunity of the demographic dividend for accelerated development, calling for increased investment in young people’s employment, education and health, including their sexual and reproductive health. Countries with the greatest potential to harness the demographic dividend are those undergoing fertility reduction.
A smaller number of children per household can lead to larger investments per child, more freedom for mothers to get paying jobs, and more household savings for a secure old age. When this happens, the national economic payoff can be substantial, leading to a demographic dividend.
In many countries — mainly, but not exclusively, in Africa and South Asia — the window for a demographic dividend is opening. In these countries, fertility has started to fall. At the same time, a large population of young people is about to reach working age.
In Africa in particular, more than 30 per cent of the population is between the ages of 10 and 24, and this will remain the case for at least the next 20 years. With the right investments in health, education and employment, this burgeoning youth population will have a profound opportunity to realize their full potential. Yet, the chance to realize this potential is derailed for millions of adolescents.
Girls are particularly affected. Early and forced child marriage, unplanned pregnancies, poor access to health care and limited education are holding back millions. And for the population as a whole, poor health, limited capabilities and restricted opportunities are undermining the chance of reaping a demographic dividend.
An age structure with fewer dependents is unlikely to occur, and each person’s ability to achieve their potential, save and invest, and be resilient in the face of climate change and other threats is less likely. That is why sexual and reproductive health and rights are central to inclusive national growth and the demographic dividend.
Girls absolutely must have the freedom to decide when and whom to marry, the timing and number of children, and the security and opportunity to balance work and family life.
We will empower societies through policies that advance gender equality and equity and social protection, including the elimination of all forms of gender based violence, discrimination and exploitation.
By investing in family planning, we can expand access to choices, allowing women and couples to decide on the timing, number and spacing of their children. By promoting equal access to universal primary and secondary education for boys and girls, providing comprehensive sexuality education, reducing dropout rates and fostering an environment that allows them to learn and thrive, we will inject new life into societies. And by promoting the engagement of youth and partnerships with the private sector we can stimulate full and decent employment opportunities with fair wages and good working conditions.
I am delighted, thanks in part to Babatunde’s advocacy efforts, that the African Union has recognized the great importance of this issue, devoting 2017 to Harnessing the Demographic Dividend for Youth. The African Union Roadmap for the Demographic Dividend has now been developed, endorsed and launched by African Heads of State and Governments. And Africa’s Regional Economic Communities are exploring how best to align their respective development plans with the demographic dividend agenda.
Many Governments are already taking steps for the next generation. In Uganda, for instance, the Office of the President has responded to evidence on the Demographic Dividend with new support for family planning. Six countries in West Africa — Burkina Faso, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — are tackling demographic challenges in the Sahel through support from UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] and the World Bank.
This Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend project is now a model that could be replicated throughout the continent. The demographic dividend is increasingly a platform for shared work in the areas of health, education, women’s empowerment, infrastructure and the underlying foundation of peace and security. It is a powerful lens for bringing together the multiple dimensions of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Yet for some Governments, the youth bulge is a source of apprehension. If these demographic changes are not wisely managed, peace, security and sustainable progress will suffer. The answer lies in understanding both the risks and opportunities and acting on them.
When young people are forced to stand idle and denied the opportunity to contribute constructively to their communities they can be drawn to crime or violent extremism. When an adolescent girl does not attend school; when she is not free to decide when to marry or about the spacing and number of her children; when she is unable to accrue wealth and to invest in her children; and when she lives an insecure old-age — she is a victim of a wasted opportunity.
But when an adolescent girl is not married during childhood, when she is not forced to leave school or exposed to unplanned pregnancies; when she is not at high risk of illness and death during pregnancy; when she has decent work and a secure old age — she becomes part of the demographic dividend.
The United Nations and other partners can provide critical guidance and promote proven initiatives that empower, educate and employ young people, particularly adolescent girls.
Under Babatunde’s leadership, UNFPA has been providing intellectual and operational leadership, along with other United Nations partners, on the demographic dividend as a cornerstone for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. It has supported countries to assess national prospects for a demographic dividend through an understanding of population dynamics and data.
Knowing where women and girls are falling behind, and where we need to defend their rights and support expanding their freedoms and opportunities will be critical moving forward.
UNFPA, along with UNICEF [United Nations Children’s Fund], UN-Women [United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women] and UNAIDS have been working closely with Governments to undertake such studies, diagnosing where harmful practices such as child marriage are highest, where HIV still undermines the prospects of young people, where women’s autonomy is challenged, where family planning is out of reach, and where youth unemployment is most severe.
These activities are all essential to UNFPA’s core mission of providing sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, including family planning, to all women and girls.
Babatunde understood that family planning is not only a human right but also a development imperative. He recognized the pivotal role that universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and, in particular, access to family planning, can play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Family planning is a trigger for progress. When all individuals can access and use affordable, quality contraceptives whenever they need them, here is what happens: fewer unintended pregnancies, fewer abortions, fewer maternal deaths, healthier families, communities and economies — even in the poorest countries.
As households have a smaller number of children to take care of, the breadwinners of the household can invest more of their resources in each child — in health, nutrition and education. Investments in early years in health and nutrition can have major effects on developmental prospects, educational outcomes, and consequently the income the individual can earn as an adult.
Households also save more money. If this higher level of saving is channelled into productive investment, it helps to accelerate the creation of employment, a rise in productivity and the overall growth of the economy.
Supporting countries to achieve their demographic dividends will therefore help ensure the attainment of all of the Sustainable Development Goals, and the full implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development.
Babatunde was deeply committed to this. As Co-Chair of Family Planning 2020 (FP2020), Babatunde represented the United Nations in this key part of the Every Woman, Every Child movement’s global efforts for achieving the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health.
The FP2020 partnership, which is in support of Every Woman, Every Child, has accelerated efforts to reach more women and girls with modern contraceptives across 69 of the world’s poorest countries. Our shared progress towards the FP2020 goal of enabling an additional 120 million women and girls to use voluntary modern contraception by 2020 is integral to harnessing the demographic dividend, particularly on the African continent. Progress is being made, but action must accelerate.
A focus on adolescents and youth is a key driver of change, in particular using a human-rights based approach to reach vulnerable and marginalized groups. In Niger, for example, adolescents who have participated in the Action for Adolescent Girls Initiative are marrying later. And, among married adolescents, the contraceptive prevalence rate has increased from 18 to 34 per cent. That in itself is going to give the adolescents who are already married time to go back to school. It will also reduce maternal mortality by almost 30 per cent.
Five years on from the commitments made at the first London Summit for Family Planning, we are at a key moment to reflect on lessons learned, understand challenges and bottlenecks. We are ready to live up to our promises to women, men, families and youth. We must ensure no one is left behind.
Babatunde’s vision was a zero unmet need for family planning by 2030. As he stated at the London Family Planning Summit in 2012: “until every girl and every woman and everybody, wherever they may be, can access reproductive health services, especially family planning, the work shall not be done.”
We must continue to focus on equity across all interventions, addressing the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach populations. Efforts to increase use of modern contraceptives can make no progress without life-saving supplies. Yet, in many countries, weak supply chains mean supplies do not reach the women and girls who need them most.
We need to ensure commodity security — so all individuals can obtain and use affordable, quality contraceptives of their choice whenever they need them. We must ensure that during conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies, sexual and reproductive health needs are no longer overlooked. Women and adolescents in fragile settings should not be exposed to unintended pregnancies due to lack of access to family planning.
We must safeguard precious financial resources, ensuring they are spent wisely and are used to support interventions with maximum impact. For this, data-driven accountability and programming at all levels must be strengthened, so progress is accurately tracked and obstacles are addressed.
As a former Minister of Health, Babatunde firmly understood that Governments have the primary responsibility to protect their citizens’ reproductive health and rights. And, in his role as Chair of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on the Demographic Dividend, he encouraged countries to make transformative change through investing in their people, particularly women and youth.
Countries must be strategic and efficient in investing limited resources to meet the growing demand for family planning. With adequate financial commitment by national leaders, especially in national budgets, national health systems will be able to meet the needs of their populations for family planning, including a choice of modern contraceptives, integrated quality services to support their use, and uptake by increasing numbers of people.
Sustainability of family planning programmes can be achieved through domestic and innovative financing that ensures commodities and services are adequately funded, affordable to all and made available to all who need them.
Cambodia is a prime example. Since 2016, the Government has been fully covering the contraceptive commodity needs for the public sector, providing its young population with choices of quality contraceptives.
An investment in voluntary family planning is an investment in a healthier, more prosperous future. Family planning creates pathways to self-determination, health and prosperity for everyone. It enables economies and communities to thrive.
Babatunde understood this. He dedicated his own life to the lives of millions of women and young people. He focused on human rights, equality, sustainability, and ensuring that no one is left behind.
His vision was for all young people, especially adolescent girls, to be free from early, forced or coercive marriage; for women to be able to choose the number and spacing of their children; and for families to be able to balance work life, and ensure the health and well-being of their children.
In closing, I urge you to consider these words from Babatunde during the African Union Summit in February this year: “If you don’t have a working family planning programme, it is unthinkable to reap the demographic dividend.”
Let us act on his wisdom. Let us honour the legacy of Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin by fulfilling our promise to the millions of women, girls, men and boys who want the chance to choose whether and when to have children, the chance to plan their futures and to fulfil their potential.
Let us uphold Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin’s grand vision in his memory, and intensify our efforts to ensure universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, for every woman, man, adolescent girl and young person. Let’s seize the opportunity of the demographic dividend for a sustainable future for all.