Population issues are fundamentally about people. No one knows this better than the United Nations Population Fund. Over the past year, the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in particular highlighted the need to invest more in public health and education, as well as the empowerment of women and grils. Only through such an investiment can we hope to break the debilitating cycle of ill health and poverty and place the Millenium Development Goals within our reach.
Kofi A. Annan
Secretary-General of the United Nations
The largest generation of adolescents in history—over 1.2 billion strong—are preparing to enter adulthood in a rapidly changing world. The State of World Population 2003 report from UNFPA examines the challenges and risks they face. It finds that investing in young people will yield generous returns, but that their needs continue to be shortchanged.
A common thread runs through all of their lives: the hope for a better future. This hope is bolstered by the Millennium Development Goals agreed to by world leaders in 2000 to reduce extreme poverty and hunger, slow the spread of HIV/AIDS, reduce maternal and child mortality, ensure universal primary education and improve sustainable development by 2015.
Within the framework of human rights established and accepted by the global community, certain rights are particularly relevant to youth, including gender equality and the rights to education and health. Exercising the right to health requires access to reproductive and sexual health information and services appropriate to their age, capacities and circumstances. UNFPA is working with a wide range of partners and with young people themselves to address their needs in ways that are participatory, culturally sensitive, locally driven and in line with international human rights standards.
Most young people have some access to school. Nevertheless, 57 million young men and 96 million young women aged 15-24 in developing countries cannot read or write. However, in all regions women are gaining access to literacy and education, and at a faster rate than men. About 90 countries are on track to meet global goals for ending gender inequality in primary education by 2015. Keeping girls in school longer is an urgent development priority. Girls who stay in school marry and bear children later in life, which decreases their health risks and increases their potential economic contributions.
Additional Risks and Disadvantages For Young Women
Most countries now recognize that investing in and empowering women and girls is one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways to advance the development agenda. Yet young women face pervasive discrimination and disenfranchisement. Unequal power relations between males and females lead to widespread violations of health and human rights. Among the most persistent and pernicious are early or child marriage, sexual violence and coercion, sexual trafficking and female genital cutting.
Entrenched gender norms may limit young women’s control over their sexual and reproductive lives. Adolescent girls are especially vulnerable to risks from unprotected sexual activity. Biologically, women’s risk of infection during unprotected sexual relations is two to four times that of men. Younger women are even more vulnerable because their reproductive tracts are still maturing.
Social expectations often put pressure on girls to marry and begin bearing children before they are ready. Despite a shift toward later marriage in many parts of the world, 82 million girls in developing countries who are now between the ages of 10 and 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Early marriage jeopardizes the health and opportunities afforded to women and their children, usually disrupts their education and often violates their human rights. Married adolescent girls often find it difficult to negotiate use of contraceptive methods, or to access reproductive health services. Of married women aged 15-19 in less developed countries, only 17 per cent use contraception.
Some 14 million women and girls between ages 15 and 19—both married and unmarried—give birth each year. For this age group, complications of pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death, with unsafe abortion being a major factor. The risks are significantly higher for girls under 15. Adolescent girls are also vulnerable to various forms of sexual violence, the extent of which is only beginning to be understood.
Today more than 1.2 billion adolescents are coming of age. Their success and happiness depend on the support, the examples, the education, the opportunities and the resources with which they are provided. They must be empowered to make responsible and healthy choices and provided with information and services. Investing in the well-being and ensuring the participation of the world's largest youth generation will yield benefits for generations to come.