“Mental health is vital to humanity, allowing us to lead fulfilling lives and contribute fully to our communities.”

This is the message of the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to mark World Mental Health Day on October 10. In Africa, it is an inspiration and an aspiration for us to come together to ensure that young African women and girls have the tools and support they need for a digitally empowered and mentally resilient future—for the betterment of our communities and the world.

Today's young women and girls are growing up in a world where digital technology is crucial to their lives. The proliferation of cell phones, and access to the internet, and social media platforms provide these young minds with unprecedented channels to knowledge, education, and possibilities. Education is no longer restricted to the four walls of a classroom, and knowledge is at their fingertips, widening horizons and increasing opportunities.

The digital era has resulted in extraordinary changes in the way we live, work, and communicate with one another. In East and Southern Africa where the digital revolution is gaining traction, these technological shifts are both encouraging and harmful for our young women and girls' mental health.

Doubled-edged sword

Technology provides immense information and personal growth chances, allowing these brilliant minds to overcome limitations, and make important contributions to their communities. However, it is a double-edged sword.  The digital transition creates new issues for child safety by exposing children to threats such as online exploitation, cyberbullying, and unsuitable information. 

In addition, the digital divide remains a big concern in Africa, with millions of youngsters missing access to the internet and requisite gadgets, resulting in a gap in opportunity. 

The rise of social media and online platforms has altered how these young women and girls engage with the world. While these platforms provide opportunities for self-expression, networking, and activism, it has also muted the volume that amplifies their own stories on what beauty is and has amplified the ever-present pressure to conform to what this era deems them to be. I find myself stepping into the feet of a young African women trying to navigate through her socially marginalized reality while trying to step into what the rest of the world has called her to be.

I think of the story of a young Kenyan girl, who experienced her period for the first time at school and was ridiculed not only by her peers but also by her teacher. In that space, she felt as if her only option was taking her own life. I can only imagine how detached from yourself you must feel, to think that taking your own life is the only way. Today, we find so many stories of young African women trending on social media, being torn apart by a stranger on the other side of the screen—all in the name of feeling empowered by the barrier the digital world has created.

We can’t afford to downplay the importance of the psychological well-being of these young women. We have a duty to not only protect them but empower their minds to navigate this digital landscape with resilience, self-awareness, and a sense of purpose. To echo the importance of being able to choose themselves regardless of the noise they’re exposed to, I urge us to remember that the well-being of young women and girls is a universal human right. It's an essential part of their overall health and development.

As part of our duty to work towards a healthier state of mind for young African women and girls, UNFPA came up with an initiative which aims at combating online violence and promoting digital safety, known as thebodyright. I stand with this initiative as it symbolizes our commitment to protecting the well-being of our young women and girls in the digital age.

As we traverse this new digital world, ensuring the safety of our young women and girls online is critical. This requires coordination among governments, civic society, and technology corporations while respecting their rights to privacy and freedom of speech.  

Together, we can nurture the minds of these young women and girls, ensuring that they thrive everywhere without suffocating their mental spaces. Let's empower their minds, so they may lead us out of the stigma around mental health.

On this special day, let us be the change-makers and advocates of mental well-being for all women, young and old. Our commitment to this cause will shape the narratives of young women and girls in Africa, fostering resilience, self-awareness, and a future filled with hope and possibilities.

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