In July 2006, at the 7th ordinary AU summit held in Banjul, the Gambia, two months following the first ordinary session of the conference of Ministers in charge of Youth in the African Union (COMY 1), the Assembly of Heads of State and Government endorsed the African Youth Charter and declared the year 2008 as the year of the African youth and November 1 every year as, African Youth Day.
The African Youth Charter is a legal framework to guide and support policies, programmes and actions for youth development and empowerment across Africa. The Charter addresses the rights and freedoms, as well as the welfare, development and responsibilities of the youth. The Charter commits state parties to guaranteeing the rights of young people to own property, move freely, express themselves, associate freely with other members of their societies and practice whatever religion they choose (articles 2-9). It further addresses the issues related to youth development, participation, youth policy, education, health care, poverty reduction, employment security, leisure, recreation, environment, culture, youth with disabilities, girls’ issues, youth in the diaspora and law enforcement (articles 10-25).
The Charter defines youth as any individual between the ages of 15 and 35. While this puts to rest [or so it would seem] the issue of a clear definition for youth [within continental youth policy processes] on the continent, it also raises another very critical issue regarding personal growth and development. Youth is a transition period, and youth development programmes are put in place to support young people through this transition period. Given that life expectancy is significantly low for many countries, 50.5 years for the continent, and as low as 42 in Sierra Leone, how can we define being young up to the age of 35? When does the individual then grow up? At what age do they then contribute to national development efforts? At what age do they then become productive [citizens] and take responsibility for their own wellbeing?
The Charter [entered] into force on 8 August 2009, following the receipt of the 15th ratification on 8 July 2009. To date, 16 countries have ratified the Charter with Rwanda being the first and Nigeria being the most recent. Other countries that have ratified the Charter are: Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Gabon, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, South Africa, Togo and Uganda; 32 countries have also signed the Charter. Informally, information is available that Angola and Zimbabwe have ratified, but these are yet to be officially received or recorded by the AU Commission. What remains is to put in place the relevant mechanisms and structures and mechanisms to ensure that the Charter is implemented.
There has been some seeming confusion about how to implement the Charter. Some countries have proposed to develop separate implementation frameworks for the Charter, while others have indicated that the provisions of the Charter have been integrated into their respective national youth policies. However, the presentation by South Africa’s National Youth Commission points in the right direction: the Charter must be implemented within the framework of existing policies at national level, especially the National Youth Policy. Other policies to be adapted include the constitution as well as national policy frameworks on human rights, health, education, employment and various others.
If the implementation of the Charter is integrated into other national policies in this way, countries will incur little or no extra budgetary costs. Statutory budgetary allocations in the different sectors are often intended to provide services to the entire population. However, in implementing the provisions of the Youth Charter, each sector must keep in mind the need to create specific services for young people between ages 15-35 within that sector. Health services must take into account the need for this age bracket to access tailor-made reproductive health services including abortion services, advice on contraception and access to HIV medicines. Ensuring that services are tailor-made require that the regular trainings that are received by service personnel take into account training for these youth-specific issues without creating new programmes. For education and skills development training, these services are mainly targeted at the youth. However, more needs to be done to ensure that curriculum meets market demands, but these can be done within the broad framework of education sector reforms.
One critical question has been asked over and over again: is the African Youth Charter the solution to Africa’s youth development problems? The answer is both yes and no. The answer is yes because at the very minimum the Charter provides the basis for young people to advocate for their rights and it will serve as the guiding framework for youth development. Broadly, the Charter will also serve the means to guide long-term planning on youth development. Already, the declaration of the years 2009-2018 as the decade on youth development in Africa will assist many member states to think long-term in their youth development planning. Many member states have national planning horizons set quite far in the future (for example, 2016 for Botswana, 2020 for Nigeria, Rwanda and Malawi, or 2030 for Zambia), thus the Charter will assist these countries to integrate youth issues within their long-term national development frameworks. A plan of action for the years 2009-2018 is also being developed by the AU Commission as a means to advance the implementation of the Youth Charter over the next decade, this will in a significant way provide further guidance to the work of member states.
The African Youth Charter is a practical step towards the full empowerment and development of Africa’s youth, who constitute around 20 percent of the continent’s population. While the diverse efforts to ensure that the Charter is implemented are being undertaken, it is important for all stakeholders to clearly appreciate the importance of investing in youth, not just as a burden to society, but as a resource for development. Only when the youth are well served that the future of any nation can be fully guaranteed.
Excerpts of article ‘Beyond Banjul: It’s time to implement the African Youth Charter‘ published by the Open Society Institute in 2009.