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The urgent need to invest in Benin’s female youth

At Batonga, we are often asked the question, “Why focus on Benin?” Besides being the home country of our founder, Angélique Kidjo, Benin is also a crucial location to invest in as the country possesses many opportunities for development. One major reason to invest in Benin, especially in Beninois girls and young women, is the current opportunity posed by the youth bulge in the population, or increase of young people in Benin. This greater number of youth in the population presents both an opportunity and a potential challenge for the country if the opportunity isn’t harnessed properly.

Benin’s high fertility rates have led to a rapid growth in its population these last few years.  In 2016, Benin had a population of 10.9 million and 43 percent of that population were under the age of 15.  At a 2.6 percent growth rate, Benin’s population could double in the next 30 years. 

This large increase of children and young adults in Benin’s population presents a window of opportunity in Benin. When a large share of the population is comprised of children and young adults due to an increase in fertility rates and a reduction of infant mortality rates, a youth bulge occurs. As these young adults begin entering the workforce and job market, an opportunity arises to increase the country’s average level of income per capita, or the average income earned per person in a given area, if there are employment opportunities for all of these youth. This opportunity to increase a country’s economic growth so that it may invest in economic development and family welfare by engaging youth in productive activities in the labor force is known as a demographic dividend. 

However, if not acted upon, the change in population demographics in Benin could be harmful to the country as it could lead to increased social and economic pressure. If a large cohort of young people cannot find employment and earn satisfactory income during this population change, the youth bulge could instead become a demographic bomb. This is a situation where a large mass of frustrated youth is created through being denied opportunities for employment. These frustrated youth could lead social and political restlessness and instability. This could be a huge problem for Benin and a security risk for the rest of the world. 

Benin is a country that remains among the most stable democracies in sub-Saharan Africa since its transition to democracy in 1991. The youth bulge presents an opportunity to transform the country if the right resources are dedicated to creating opportunities for the large population of youth. Therefore, the time to invest in Benin, especially in young adolescent girls, is now. As the World Bank Country Director of Benin, Pierre Laporte expresses, “Investing in the social and economic empowerment of adolescent girls is essential. Delaying early marriage and childbearing and improving access to secondary education and essential life skills for girls will help lower dependency ratios and increase young women’s and their future children’s human development outcomes and economic opportunity in the labor market.” 

Currently in Benin, many young girls are denied opportunities to contribute both economically and socially in society. Young girls and women are consistently left out of societal resources. Studies find that 1 in 3 girls are married before the age of 18, and 2 out of 3 of the adolescent population is unemployed. By the age of 19, 3 in 10 girls are already mothers. Therefore, incorporating these girls into society, especially the vulnerable young girls and young women, and empowering them with the tools they need to create change is crucial to transforming Benin. 

Due to the growing population of youth in Benin, integrating the most vulnerable female youth into the economy could serve to bolster economic growth, social development and stability. To effectively manage Benin’s population growth rate, the country must start by educating adolescent girls so that they can have a healthy and productive adulthood. In so doing, female youth are better able to gain knowledge, are less likely to become pregnant, and they will have more social and economic earning power. Here at Batonga, we recognize this vast potential of young women and girls in Benin and are working towards creating far more opportunities for the most vulnerable in Benin.

Our goal is to harness this potential in Benin through increasing educational and economic opportunity as well as the social well-being for off-track adolescent girls (aged 10-26) in the underserved regions of Benin. One way in which we do so is through our community-based Girls Clubs, where we deliver social and financial literacy education. Through safe spaces, girls learn to identify their needs and goals, run for leadership positions, and develop a business plan to generate income. To date, 97.6% of the girls who attended Batonga Girl’s Clubs reported that their future prospects had improved. This represents how Batonga creates an opportunity for young girls to take a path other than marriage and motherhood. Instead, vulnerable girls and young women are being empowered with the choice to determine their own futures through being presented with the opportunity to re-enroll in the formal education system, pursue job opportunities, or become entrepreneurs and create their own small businesses. 

Our work here at Batonga is more important now than ever before in the wake of this demographic dividend and many are beginning to recognize this growing need to invest in  Beninois young women and girls. In order to harness the opportunity of a demographic dividend in Benin, investments must be made in adolescent girl’s education and employment initiatives. With these types of investments, the entire country of Benin could be transformed as fertility levels could decline and Benin may experience rapid economic growth with the connection of female youth to meaningful and dignified work.

With a growing workforce and shrinking number of dependents, Benin faces an incredible and unique window of opportunity to seize a demographic dividend. If achieved, the youth of Benin will have the opportunity to live productive and healthy lives and will be empowered to make the best decisions for their future. While this will contribute to the economic and social development of the country of Benin, the benefits of this dividend will be reaped across the globe.