Amina Mohamed and Siddharth Chatterjee
When US President Barack Obama visited Kenya last year, one of the poignant messages he delivered was a call to communities to shun cultures that degrade women and girls.
“Imagine if you have a team and don’t let half of the team play. That makes no sense,” he said, referring to denying women opportunities to fully participate in development.
The President’s message could not have been more pertinent, coming as it did when the country is thinking how to reap a ‘demographic dividend’ – or boost in economic productivity – from its declining fertility rate and growing youthful population.
This occurs if the number of people in the workforce increases relative to the number of dependents. Countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan and Hong Kong also called the “Asian Tigers” lifted millions out of poverty by lowering dependency ratio.
Individuals and families were able to make savings which translated into investment and boosted economic growth. Combined with robust policies in education, health, employment and empowerment of its women, they were able to capitalise on their demographic window during the period 1965 and 1990. With over 70 per cent of Kenyans aged below 30, we are at the cusp of a demographic dividend.
For this dividend to become a reality, Kenya will have to surmount some formidable challenges, none more exigent than the empowerment of its women. However this youth bulge is “a window of opportunity”, which shuts in an average period of 29 years.
We have to take advantage of it and understand that there’s nothing pre-ordained about a youth bulge producing a growth dividend. The magnitude of the challenges Kenya faces was brought home through some sombre statistics in the just-released 2014 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS).
One emerging trend is the increasing role of women as stewards in Kenyan families, with one out of every three households in Kenya being headed by a woman.
This might not be of much concern were it not for another KDHS statistic: half of Kenyan women only have primary school education, meaning that their potential for participating in socio-economic processes is hampered, and their families are fated to the lower rungs of demographics.
In a new drive to change this narrative around the world, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has established the first high-level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, which will take the lead in developing strategies and plans for closing economic gender gaps around the world.
Any strategies for enjoying the demographic dividend that do not prioritise the education and health of its women will be futile.
In Kenya, the train may not even leave the station if half of its women have rudimentary education and many do not have access to sexual and reproductive health services and empowered with the knowledge of planning their families.
Globally, it is estimated that if women in every country were to play an identical role to men in markets, as much as US$28 trillion (equal to 26 per cent) would be added to the global economy by 2025.
Where women are healthy and educated, not only their families, but entire nations flourish as we have seen with the “Asian Tigers”. Conversely, where women are not empowered the demographic dividend will not be realised.
Kenya must focus on eliminating gender inequalities, not only in the health sector, but in traditional social norms and attitudes that value women less. —Ambassador Mohamed is Kenya’s Foreign Affairs CS while Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Population Fund Representative to Kenya.