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Youth Voices: Securing the future of women in Africa by standing with girls today

25 February 2019
Natasha Mwansa, a youth advocate from Zambia, appeals to African governments to invest in the health and well-being of girls and young women today for a better future for the continent tomorrow. © UNFPA/Cleopatra Okumu

"It is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that wherever you are, you empower girls to speak out. Girls have to demand a space for their voices to be heard. Therefore, we urge African Governments to support and uplift girls, and make a firm decision to end child marriage."

"We urge African governments to support and uplift girls, and make a firm decision to end child marriage" - Natasha Mwansa.

There are many ways to describe Natasha Mwansa, but shy and timid are not among them. The 17-year-old youth champion from Zambia is passionate about and relentless in her advocacy for women and girls – particularly against child marriage. And with good reason.

Every year, 12 million girls are married off before their 18th birthday worldwide. This number is unacceptable and keeping silent about it is worse, Natasha believes.

"I have been a child rights activist since 2014, when I was 12 years old," she said. "My interest in women’s and girls’ rights began at the first African Union Girls’ Summit in 2015, which I had the privilege to attend with support from UNFPA Zambia."

Her passionate call to action was made in her opening address at the Second African Union Girls’ Summit in Accra, Ghana, in which she emphasized that girls cannot afford to wait for Government's to give them a platform to talk about child marriage.

Youth participation was a high priority at this year’s summit, themed ‘Break the silence’, and so girls, boys, young women and young men took centre stage as session leads, panelists and presenters.

Natasha had the opportunity to play a prominent role. Child marriage featured high on her agenda.

The high cost of child marriage 

The cost of child marriage in Africa alone is $68 billion, according to a recent World Bank study. This figure refers to the loss in human capital wealth incurred by countries due to women marrying early.

Beyond this, girls who are married off as children are more likely to drop out of school and are exposed to high risk of gender-based violence, HIV and AIDS as well as complications related to pregnancy and childbirthand. They also typically lose their sense of self-worth and are not always given proper access to sexual and reproductive health services, including menstrual health and hygiene. 

"As the world marks 25 years of the Internationl Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) this year, the silence behind sexual and reproductive health must be overcome. How can this be done? By being bold, visible and vocal about these issues. And most importantly, by creating systems and programmes that are supportive, informative and action-oriented" said Natasha

"As the world marks 25 years of the Internationl Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) this year, the silence behind sexual and reproductive health must be overcome. How can this be done? By being bold, visible and vocal about these issues. And most importantly, by creating systems and programmes that are supportive, informative and action-oriented" - Natasha Mwansa.

UNFPA-UNICEF programme to end child marriage empowers girls

One such programme is the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage. Through the programme, adolescent girls are equipped with health, social and economic assets required to enhance self-efficacy and confidence, thereby preventing child marriage and teenage pregnancy.

In Zambia, the programme has so far reached 29,335 girls, including facilitated referrals to adolescent-friendly health services. 

"When a girl is empowered and given the right tools to make decisions about her body, her education and her finances, she is able to change the trajectory of her life – and the lives of her children. This is why ending child marriage for the African girl is a powerful action for the woman she will be tomorrow," - Natasha Mwansa.