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Reimagining youth engagement in public health in Africa

By Reem Elsayed
on October 13, 2023

Africa, today, has one of the youngest population demographics in the world, with the median age at around 19 years. Nearly 60% of its population is younger than 25 years, it is projected to be home to nearly 42% of the world’s youth by 2030.

The 2022 Africa New Public Health Order laid out a roadmap for improving health outcomes and health security of countries on the continent, urging African governments to strengthen health systems. Young people can play an important role in achieving these objectives as active partners and change agents. Reimaging youth engagement for better public health in Africa is crucial to address the continent’s health challenges and ensuring a healthier and more secure future. Their energy, creativity, and commitment can drive positive change and contribute to building resilient healthcare systems on the continent. This youthful demographic presents tremendous opportunities for Africa, this also requires critical investments to ensure the youth have the required skills and education, safety for them to fully realize their potential. It necessitates investments in health, education, nutrition, economic opportunities, and meaningful engagement – to harness the opportunities that this demographic presents.

The roles of youth in public health

Young people can enrich health and development initiatives with their skills, abilities, and perspectives. They can play an important role in community-level health prevention and promotion activities. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the African Union, through its COVID-19 Vaccination Bingwa Initiative engaged ‘youth champions’ in community mobilizations during the pandemic. Launched in 2022, the initiative engaged a cadre of volunteers between the ages of 18-35 years with community and youth engagement or professional experience in public health to mobilize increased uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations to cover at least 100 million individuals. The youth champions were selected via a competitive process (managed by the Africa CDC) and trained in effective community mobilization. The initiative was received positively with the African CDC aiming to engage with Bingwas to address wider public health issues.

“From Youth to Youth” – the motto of Y-peer is another example of youth engagement. The initiative pioneered with UNFPA  in Africa works with young people from 18 to 28 years old on issues related to gender equality, sexual and reproductive health (SRH), and women’s empowerment. Y-peer members are engaged as trainers of trainers, active peer educators and youth advocates for adolescents sexual and reproductive health. The young people benefited and contributed to the resource materials and provided awareness campaign by Y-peer networks. The initiative led to increased access to knowledge, information, and services on SRH, gender equality sharing lessons learned across borders and between cultures, and the development of national youth strategies.

African youth are also at the forefront of innovation and technology, with contributions to developing and implementing innovative solutions to healthcare challenges, like health apps, telemedicine, and data analytics for disease surveillance. With their familiarity and adaptability to technology, youth could actively participate in public health emergency preparedness and response efforts, which include disseminating emergency information and assisting in logistics.

It is equally important and relevant to engage with the  youth in Africa in formulating and reforming health-related policies, by creating opportunities for them to engage with development organizations, international organizations and governments to shape the global and continental health policy arena. Including and empowering youth in public health matters from program designing, monitoring, and managing would have better results and address their real needs and aspirations. A Youth Advisory Team For Health (YAT4H) was established in 2023 to represent African youth and ensure the African CDC’s initiatives take into account the needs of the young people. I represent the Northern Africa Region in the Africa CDC Youth Advisory Team for Health. The team’s role includes advising Africa CDC’s DG on conceptualizing and development of Africa CDC’s Youth Health Policy, creating a fund for Youth-led Initiatives to advance the implementation of the New Public Health Order for Africa, the development of a Youth Mentorship Programme in Public Health, and Africa CDC’s Youth Conference 2023 in Lusaka, Zambia.

What is the way forward?

Going forward, empowering young people to engage in decision-making in public health is important in the creation of policies and initiatives that reflect their needs and concerns. For example, establishing youth advisory boards to share their unique insights, feedback on policies and programs, and take their recommendations into consideration  There is a need to involve young people in public health research as their input could provide valuable insights into the preferences and challenges of their demographic. Also, establishing mentorship programs which connect young people with experienced public health professionals is a must. This mentorship could provide support and guidance to empower young people to navigate the complexities of the decision-making processes.

A multi-stakeholder approach may be employed to enhance youth engagement in public health in Africa. The multi-stakeholder approach would provide an inclusive and holistic framework through involving different stakeholders such as government agencies, healthcare professionals, NGOs, youth-led initiatives, and community leaders, guarantees a diverse range of prospects. This diversity is vital for understanding the needs and challenges faced by the youth in various regions of Africa. This does not include only the funding for financing youth engagement, but also solid investigation to fully understand the funding dynamic of the different activities involving youth engagement in public health. In case of internships, volunteering activities and learning opportunities, it would be important to ensure decent renumeration – stipend, support to young people.  

The recent the global forum for adolescents highlighted the role of youth engagement and contribution in global health. Regional initiatives such as this can enhance visibility and engagement of the youth. Efforts to empower and involve youth should be a sincere priority for governments, organizations, and communities across Africa to achieve the agenda of 2063, towards a prosperous and peaceful Africa.

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