SWEDD is a seven-country initiative in the Sahel, designed to foster demographic transition and promote economic growth by investing in women’s empowerment. It is funded and supported by the World Bank and a wide range of private sector partners, with the backing of UN agencies including the WHO, UNICEF and UN Women. The flagship project now embarks on a second five-year term, where it is set to continue its work to address high maternal mortality rates, child marriages, female genital mutilation (FGM), and benefit women in areas including access to employment.
“We share a common vision on the challenges of the development of our continent, particularly the acceleration of the demographic transition, the greater empowerment of women and the development of human capital to accelerate economic growth and increase the well-being of African populations, particularly in the Sahel region.” says Mahamadou Issoufou, President of the Republic of Niger, during the SWEDD Resource Mobilisation Roundtable, on the sidelines of the recent African Union Summit in Niamey
The genesis of a project led by seven Sahel countries
The Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) initiative started with a call to action in November 2013 by Niger’s President, Mahamadou Issoufou. This appeal to invest in women’s empowerment in the Sahel to accelerate the demographic transition, and spur the demographic dividend, resulted in a project financed by the World Bank with $207m, over a five-year period (2013-19). This amount was increased to $295m when Benin joined SWEDD in 2018. In view of the project’s successful results, it has been renewed for the period 2019-2023 and other countries are considering taking part.
The project is based on a partnership between Sahelian countries concerned by the same issues: high fertility and maternal mortality rates, the persistence of early marriages and female genital mutilation (FGM), and women’s difficulties accessing employment.
Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad decided to pool their resources with the support of three major partners: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which started initial studies among other contributions; the UN Population Fund’s West and Central Africa Regional Office (UNFPA-WCARO), which coordinated technical assistance for the development of sub-projects and helped with the implementation of initiatives; and the West African Health Organisation (WAHO), an ECOWAS agency based in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, which has provided support for the medical component.
In addition, SWEDD countries have developed several other types of partnerships. They turned to NGOs to support community interventions to mobilise the leaders of neighbourhoods, villages and women’s associations, as well as traditional and religious leaders. The goal has been to spread the message of women’s empowerment by explaining to men (who make decisions about the health of their wives) why it is crucial to let women access prenatal and neonatal care, to give birth in dispensaries, space births, etc. Promundo, an organisation specialising in processes designed to change attitudes on gender issues, has contributed to the development of training manuals, and monitoring the implementation of these initiatives.
SWEDD, a programme built on partnerships
One of SWEDD’s levers for action is providing support for training institutes. The goal is to increase the ratio of midwives and nurses to women of childbearing age, and to reduce maternal mortality. Three teaching centres of excellence were launched at the end of 2018, each running four-semester Masters degrees in Nursing and Obstetrics Sciences, in Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Niger.
Côte d’Ivoire’s National Institute for Health Workers Training (INFAS), at the University Hospital of Treichville, Abidjan, provides a Masters in the Pedagogy of Health Sciences. Mali’s National Institute for Health Sciences Training (INFSS) in Bamako offers a Masters in Health Services Management. In Niger, the National School of Public Health / Damouré Zika (ENSP-DZ) in Niamey has a Masters in Obstetrics Gynaecology.
Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the leading Sunni Islamic educational institution, is also an important partner. In April 2018, the International Islamic Center for Population Studies and Research organised a training workshop at the university attended by 42 religious leaders from the Sahel, to bring the message of family planning to the most influential people in their communities.
Results and impact
Within the UN system, several agencies including UN Women, the WHO and UNICEF are involved in the partnership. More than 150 private sector entities have also committed to supporting SWEDD, including Facebook, Orange and Ecobank, either financially or through assisting with capacity building, or through joint projects to create employment opportunities for the target groups. A network of influential leaders has been established to strengthen the project, including First Ladies, Youth, Religious Leaders and Traditional Communicators.
A vast communication campaign was launched in a massive outreach effort, reaching more than 284m people through video spots picked up by TV channels, online media and social networks, as well as print media. The First Ladies have actively supported SWEDD projects through their Foundations. Their commitment resulted in a side-event at the African Union Summit in Niamey in July, led by Niger’s First Lady, Dr Lalla Malika Issoufou, advancing the campaign against early marriages, and at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Girls’ schooling is progressing, with an average admission rate of 81% for the 75 schools targeted by the SWEDD project in Mali. The dropout rate for girls in Côte d’Ivoire has declined thanks to nutritional support (hot meals served for all in schools). The prevalence of modern contraceptive methods has increased, with 4.3m new users from 2016 to 2018 in the six countries. In addition, the proportion of 15 to 19-year-old married girls everywhere showed a slight decline, falling in Burkina Faso from 28.4% to 26.3%, in Chad from 39% to 37.3%, and in Niger from 59% to 56.2%.
Apart from the 1,640 husbands’ clubs established to help men develop their knowledge in Burkina Faso, SWEDD has helped to build 3,400 ‘safe spaces’ across the Sahel that have benefited 102,000 adolescent girls. Similarly, 100,000 girls benefit from economic empowerment programmes, which include access to ‘non-traditional’ areas such as mechanics in Chad. Six National Observatories for the Demographic Dividend have been set up to allow each country to follow specific indicators.
Between 2015 and 2018, the number of midwives and nurses in the six SWEDD countries increased from 31,043 to 35,775. With the centres of excellence, the Sahel will have 126 Masters-level professionals by 2020, who will in turn be able to train their peers. The selected students commit themselves to serve as a trainer for three years.
Efforts continue with a review by a group of jurists of all existing texts on women’s empowerment. Lawyers, parliamentarians and activists gathered in Nouakchott, Mauritania in early 2019 to establish a plan to improve the legal environment for women’s rights, in areas such as family codes, home ownership, equality, etc. Each country is responsible for reviewing potential progress, with a view to general improvement that could be in line with the example of Senegal, the most advanced country in this field, even though it is not yet part of the SWEDD project.
In late 2018, the Follow-up Committee of the Addis Ababa Declaration on Population and Development, meeting in Accra, Ghana, adopted a resolution calling on the AU to move the SWEDD project to the continental level.
In the meantime, the potential of the partnership is wide-ranging. At the level of the countries involved, SWEDD is a tool for regional integration, sharing good practices and South-South cooperation. Teams from all seven countries make site visits, evaluate and learn from their experiences. If the projects had been launched individually, without consultation, they would not have been as impactful.
Gender issues are high on national agendas, with priority given to the necessary budgets. One study by SWEDD has assessed the scale of the challenges, identifying populations at risk, especially among adolescent girls, to provide interventions that will enable them to unleash their full potential as adults. The public-private partnership logic, which prevails for SWEDD, allows the private sector to provide funding, but also innovation.
For example, the Ivorian start-up Solar Pak has provided solar energy bags that enable young people to have the light to study. The Burkinabé Civil Project allows children to get their birth certificate from a central registry – a first step in the fight against early marriage. In addition to the political will of SWEDD member countries to participate in investing in women’s empowerment and human capital as a development strategy for growth, other commitments needed to scale up the project are coming to fruition, notably thanks to the SWEDD Resource Mobilisation Roundtable held on the sidelines of the AU Summit in Niamey. Here, bilateral, multilateral, private sector, NGO and civil society partners pledged to provide financial, material, technical and social support and contributions.