The African Youth Charter outlines young citizens’ rights and responsibilities, affirming that “youth are partners, assets and a prerequisite for sustainable development and for the peace and prosperity of Africa” (African Union, 2006, p. 2).1 Article 11 of the charter gives every young citizen “the right to participate in all spheres of society” and mandates that states encourage youth activism and ensure gender equity in political representation and participation (p. 6). Among responsibilities, the charter cites full participation in civic duties such as voting in elections and volunteering. The African Union (AU) Assembly declared 2009-2018 the “African Youth Decade” and released an action plan to promote youth empowerment and development throughout the continent, including by raising young citizens’ representation and participation in political processes (African Union, 2011).
The latest results from Afrobarometer surveys in 36 countries reveal a wide gap between the aspirations set forth in the AU policy framework and the reality of youth political engagement in Africa today. The data show that African governments and development partners have considerable work to do to achieve the goal of increased civic and political participation among youth, particularly young women.
African youth (aged 18-35) report lower rates of political engagement than their elders across a variety of indicators, including voting in national elections. Young citizens are also less likely to engage in civic activities such as attending community meetings and joining others to raise an issue. While these findings are consistent with research on age differences in voter turnout in advanced democracies (e.g. International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 1999; Norris, 2002), the survey further finds that youth engagement levels have declined over time despite the introduction of regional and national youth empowerment policies.
Young women’s political engagement lags behind that of their male peers across all the indicators under consideration, although these differences are smaller for voting levels and attendance at demonstrations or protest marches. The findings on gender-based disparities in engagement levels are consistent with results from the previous round of the Afrobarometer surveys (2011/2013), which show that African women are generally less likely than men to participate in political processes, despite widespread support for gender equality across Africa (see Afrobarometer Policy Paper No. 8, available at http://bit.ly/2aFrCnA).
The persistence of gender gaps even among youth is a measure of the extent to which significantly more initiatives are required to empower young women and boost their participation – particularly in West African countries, which report the largest gaps on most indicators. Women make up less than one-quarter (23%) of parliamentary representatives in sub-Saharan Africa (average for single or lower house) and have even lower representation in Arab states (18%) (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2016). Boosting their representation to meet the AU’s target of gender parity likely requires raising engagement among young women at lower levels of the political process. Greater civic education for all youth, and particularly young women, may be one strategy for moving toward the AU aspiration of an empowered young citizenry that acts as an agent for prosperity, peace, and development on the continent.
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