Youth and Population Momentum
At 1.05 billion, this is history's largest generation of young people between 15 and
24, and their number is rapidly expanding in many countries. It is critical that all
societies address their education, health and employment needs. (1)
The reproductive behavior of these young people will determine the planet's future. If
they are enabled to realize their potential, they will be a real "demographic
bonus" an unprecedented bulge of human resources for future development.
Ending Discrimination Against Girls Discrimination against girls and women is a
persistent barrier to generational achievement. Several national declarations and treaties
have labeled it a violation of human rights as well as a threat to development. Ending
discrimination must be a priority worldwide.
- Discrimination against girls often begins before birth in the preference for sons, and
in too many places continues with denial of medical care and education and with forced
teen or even preteen marriage, sex and pregnancy.
- Women may be restricted to the home, sexually and physically abused without remedy, and
denied rights to own or inherit property, to receive training or credit, or to take part
in political and social discourse.
- Girls may be prepared by their societies only to be mothers, restricted in education and
employment. Boys may be prepared only to be providers and heads of families, restricted in
emotional, communication and caring skills. At puberty, both girls and boys have specific
needs that should be addressed.
Adolescents, more than other age groups, are exposed to reproductive health risks.
- As the average age of marriage goes up worldwide, the period of sexual activity before
marriage is increasing. But young people are often denied the information and the means
they need to avoid unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
- Of the 260 million women aged 15-19 worldwide, about 11% (29 million) lack access to
effective contraceptive protection. A majority of these (16.2 million) are married and say
they want to delay childbirth; 9.8 million are unmarried and sexually active; 3.2 million
are adolescents, both married and unmarried, who use traditional methods. (2)
- Half of all new HIV infections occur in people aged 15-24. The infection rates among
young women are higher than among young men. Marginalized young people, such as street
children, show higher infection rates than do better-off young people. (2)
Providing Quality Information In most of Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, North
Africa and the Middle East, more than 60% of adolescents (often more than 80%) have heard
of a modern method of family planning. (2) But that does not mean they have access to one,
or that they always know how to use it properly. Better communication about sexuality,
gender relations, unwanted pregnancy and STDs is essential if young people are to make
responsible choices and broaden their life options.
- A survey of secondary school students in Kenya found that only one in three males and
one in four females knew that contraceptive pills had to be taken by the woman and not by
the man. Even fewer knew the pills had to be taken daily, not just before sex. (2)
- In Latin America, surveys show that 44% to 76% of the pregnancies of young unmarried
women are unwanted. In Kenya, 74% of unmarried women aged 15-19 (and 47% of the married
women) report their current pregnancy unwanted. (2)
Families remain the strongest influence on adolescents' behavior and choices, but
traditional sources of sex and gender education - grandparents, teachers and community
leaders are losing influence to modern media culture and urbanization. Teens see their
elders' lives and priorities as less relevant to their own. While teenagers and service
providers may seek to avoid pregnancy and other consequences of sexual activity, their
elders may see sexual activity itself as the problem.
- Sex education does not increase promiscuity. Of 68 studies on family life and sex
education in a scientific review, 65 found no associated increases in sexual behaviour. Of
the 53 studies that evaluated specific interventions, 21 found that young people taking
part in such programs had higher levels of abstinence, later start of sexual activity,
higher use of contraceptives, fewer sexual partners and/or reduced rates of STDs and
unplanned pregnancy. (3)
Broadening Sex Education Beyond the Schoolroom Sex education must not be restricted to
school students. Not all young people are students, and in some countries they are not
even the majority.
- Restricting sex education to secondary schools further reduces those reached, because
the gender gap in education is biggest in secondary school and a large percentage of girls
will be missed. In many countries, students may also enter primary school as teenagers and
go no further. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, a majority of adolescents in school
are in primary schools. (4)
- Mass media campaigns have succeeded in addressing some reproductive health needs, such
as HIV/AIDS. Soap operas, comic books, posters, teenage magazines, drama and music are
effective ways to inform young people. Surveys show they are especially useful when
combined with training programs for young people who can then spread the word among their
Sources: (1) UNFPA, State of the World Population
1998 (New York: UNFPA), p. 2; (2) Alan Guttmacher Institute, Into a New World
(Washington DC: 1998); (3) UNFPA, State of the World Population 1998 (New York:
UNFPA), p. 31; (4) Ibid., p. 32.