Source: All Africa

Africa's billion citizens are the continent's greatest asset - the potential source of a dynamic workforce and an increasingly compelling consumer market.

With an estimated 60 per cent of the population aged below 30, Africa is the youngest continent in the world. It stands to reap the benefits of a demographic dividend, which could be a game-changer in its growth trajectory as each year, tens of millions of young people with enter working age.

However, this vast potential will remain untapped and the demographic dividend will not be realised unless African leaders design smart and sustainable policies to overcome the continent's challenges.

Our burgeoning young population must be healthy, educated and able to work. If countries fail to address these issues, then the demographic dividend could become a time-bomb.

We need to recognise that our youth have a powerful role to play. It is they who will determine our continent's future, and if we can harness their energy and channel it positively, then Africa's future will be bright.

The most effective way to accelerate youth empowerment and harness it for sustainable development is by protecting and empowering African women, so that whatever their economic and social situation, they are able to look after their children and offer them the best chance of success in life.

Indeed, empowering women is one of the most important things governments and societies can do, for as women gain knowledge, children learn. As women become employed, economies grow. As women are given equality, nations become stronger, and justice and equity across the board become attainable.

Women are, of course, not all the same, and widows are a particularly vulnerable group. I feel very strongly about the rights of widows because prejudice against widowhood provokes a large, but under-discussed, proportion of violence and discrimination against women everywhere.

When I talk about the world's 245 million widows, it is not about elderly women. All across the world, widows are often women in the prime of life, young women who are left as sole carers for their children, alone responsible for their shelter, food, schooling and wellbeing.

These women, unprotected by law and often subject to degrading cultural practices, many illiterate, are often unable to earn a living, and are therefore left destitute and vulnerable to violence.

Frequently driven from their homes and robbed of all their property, they must find a way to continue providing for their children. At least 115 million widows live in extreme poverty. In many cases, their children have to leave school to go to work to plug the gap in the household income left by their father's death. Their daughters are often at a high risk of sexual exploitation.Worldwide, more than 500 million children of widows live in hostile environments and more than 1.5 million of these children die before the age of five. Widows' poverty affects the whole of society. It is a silent humanitarian crisis.

The first International Widows' Day was marked at a conference yesterday. The day was officially adopted by the UN General Assembly last December, and will become an annual occasion to highlight and address the plight of widows globally.

Supporting widows catalyses a developmental multiplier effect, generating wide social and economic benefits. It impacts directly on poverty, children's education, gender equality, child mortality, maternal health, and on the spread of Aids - six of the eight Millennium Development Goals.

The multiplier effect on children, in particular, created by empowering women, speaks for itself. For every year of schooling a mother has received, the likelihood that her child dies as an infant declines by 10 per cent.

Her wages will increase by 15 per cent, and if she controls the household income, her child's probability of survival through infancy is increased by 20 per cent.

To support women, then, is to support their children; and to support vulnerable women is to support even more vulnerable children. Families are the glue that holds societies together.

They create strong foundations on which to build, and they are the structures that help economic growth filter throughout the whole society.

As we work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, we need to initiate a new global dialogue on widows and their children. Starting this dialogue was the purpose of the conference organised by UN Women and Gabon.

Sylvia Bongo Odimba is the First Lady of the Republic of Gabon. She is a vocal advocate of women's and children's rights.

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