UNFPAState of World Population 2003
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HOME: STATE OF WORLD POPULATION 2003: Overview of Adolescent Life
State of World Population
Overview of Adolescent Life
Gender Inequality and Reproductive Health
HIV/AIDS and Adolescents
Promoting Healthier Behavior
Meeting Reproductive Health Services Needs
Comprehensive Programmes for Adolescents
Giving Priority to Adolescents
Sources for Boxes
Graphs and Tables

Overview of Adolescent Life

Why is Reproductive Health Important?
Adolescent Reproductive Health and Poverty
A Changing World
Education and Employment
Ensuring a Better Future: Investment in Youth

A Changing World

Adolescents are inheriting a rapidly changing world increasingly shaped by global influences, among them:

  • Globalization of trade, investment and economic relationships.
  • Mass communications media and the development of a youth culture.
  • Modes of governance and exclusion of certain social groups.
  • Decentralization of decision-making.
  • Changing nature of work, requiring new skills and capacities.
  • Urbanization and migration.
  • Emerging and resurgent diseases, particularly HIV/AIDS.
  • Changing family structures and dispersal of family members.
  • Trafficking in illicit drugs and human trafficking.
  • Conflict and social disruption.

Political, social and economic changes and resulting social problems are affecting parent-child relationships, views of parental authority and the institutions that serve adolescents. There is great diversity in the circumstances of young people between and within countries. Some of these dimensions are addressed below.

CHANGING FAMILIES AND LIVING CONDITIONS In many settings, child-parent relationships have traditionally been just one component of a web of extended family relations. But migration, new values and understandings, poverty, family dispersal and the impacts of HIV/AIDS have reduced reliance on the extended family, particularly in cities. This has increased demands on parents while depriving them of systems of support.

Many young people are living without one or both of their parents, and may not be able to rely on their families for support. An analysis of survey data for selected countries in the late 1990s(12) shows the proportions of young adolescents aged 10-14 not living with either parent ranged from less than 3 per cent in Jordan and 13 per cent in Nicaragua to more than 20 per cent in some African countries, and that more girls than boys were in this situation. Those living with one parent (more often the mother than the father in most countries) ranged from less than 10 per cent in Jordan to 32 per cent in Nicaragua. While data on urban-rural differences are scarce, in Ethiopia 60 per cent of rural young adolescents shared living quarters with both parents compared to 41 per cent of urban girls and 47 per cent of boys.

ORPHANS AND STREET CHILDREN The loss of one or both parents dramatically changes adolescents’ lives, forcing them to become heads of households or onto the streets. Poverty and political and ethnic conflict exacerbate the situation.

AIDS has so far orphaned at least 13 million children currently under the age of 15. The total number of children orphaned by the epidemic since it began is forecast to more than double by 2010.(13) Before the onset of AIDS, about 2 per cent of children in developing countries were orphans. Today, in 10 countries of sub-Saharan Africa—Botswana, Burundi, Central African Republic, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe—more than 15 per cent of children under age 15 have been orphaned.(14)

There are many other reasons for adolescents to seek refuge in the streets. Homes and families disintegrate through war or civil emergency.(15) Children may be driven out by extreme poverty, violence or substance abuse in the family, or conflict with their relatives. They may be escaping physical or mental abuse, failure at school, mental health or behavioural problems, boredom, lack of opportunity or unsatisfactory peer relations.(16)

Global estimates of street children vary from 100 million, with half of them in Latin America,(17) to 250 million.(18) Their numbers are rapidly increasing, and more younger children are on the street than ever before.(19)

In the Philippines, for example, 220,859 street children were reported in 1991 and 1.5 million in 1999.(20) In developing countries, street children may be as young as 8, while in developed countries they tend to be over age 12.(21) Asian street children are much more likely to be male than female. Girls are less visible on the streets, possibly because fewer girls leave or are abandoned by their families; or because girls are picked up more rapidly by authorities or are confined and exploited.


The group El Caracol (The Snail) in Mexico works with street youth aged 15-23. Street educators build relationships with the young people; make presentations on HIV/AIDS, drug use and other health and social issues; and then work with the young people to identify their own needs. El Caracol runs a restaurant, a print shop and a rabbit farm, where street youth work as interns and apprentices. A transitional living programme provides considerable freedom and responsibility. Staff work with young people to construct new identities, helping them to shed the self-definition as “street kids.”

In Nepal, the Child Welfare Scheme works in the slum areas of Pokhara and provides street youth with a health clinic and a vocational training and reintegration centre. It started in 2002 with former drug addicts and trafficked girls. Students receive three years of vocational training, and also study mathematics, science, English and Nepali. The programme builds self-esteem, offers training in first aid and social welfare to make street youth independent, and provides ongoing counselling for youths with psychological scars. See Sources

Because of their precarious residential and economic circumstances and lack of access to social service institutions, homeless young people are often malnourished, in poor health, addicted to drugs, and susceptible to sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS.(22) Generally considered “too old” to adopt, homeless adolescents are among the most neglected subgroups where any rehabilitation effort or HIV strategy is concerned.(23) Often seen as a menace to order, street youth are targets of violence by law enforcement and vigilantes alike.

URBANIZATION AND MIGRATION Rural areas are changing, small towns are becoming cities and big cities are still expanding. Urbanization is an especially important influence in the least developed countries. People migrate in response to opportunity, economic deprivation or environmental emergency, reflecting both under-investment in rural development and poor resource management.(24)

The urban experience simultaneously offers young people opportunity and exposes them to risks. In every area of their lives, migrant adolescents remain a highly vulnerable and often hard-to-reach group.

Young people may move with their families or on their own, in search of work or education. Information on why adolescents migrate is very thin and much has to be inferred from other data. Data from Togo in 1998, for example, show that 34 per cent of girls aged 10-14 lived in cities, compared to 28 per cent of boys, and that the difference increased for those aged 15-19—44 per cent of girls and 34 per cent of boys.(25) This suggests that Togo’s cities offer—or seem to offer—better educational or economic opportunities for girls (Table 1). Similar patterns are seen in Bolivia and the Philippines.

Table 1: Percentage of Adolescents Living in Cities, by Sex and Age, Selected Countries

Girls Boys
  10-14 15-19 10-14 15-19
Chad (1996-1997) 22   23   23   29
Togo (1998) 34   44   28   34
Bolivia (1998) 61   75   60   69
Nicaragua (1998) 58   62   55   60
Philippines (1998) 45   57   45   51
Kyrgyzstan (1997) 26   29   25   26
Source: The Population Council

The experience of rural-to-urban migrants varies considerably. In many developing countries, domestic work is one of the main sources of income for girls and young women in urban areas. In Bangladesh, textile work in cities has offered young women migrants unprecedented opportunities to earn money, save for dowries and postpone marriage; most of their experience has been very positive.(26) In Nigeria, in contrast, young women apprenticing to be tailors are very vulnerable to sexual abuse because of their subordinate position at work and separation from their families.(27)

Young women frequently migrate to cities or abroad to live with their husbands’ families. This may not be a free choice, especially if the woman is poor or orphaned.(28)

In Thailand, 15-19 year olds make up the largest proportion of migrants; they report facing difficulties in the cities, and have few adults who can assist them with their problems.(29)

A study of international migrants returning to Mexico from the United States (where an estimated 8 million Mexicans work) found that 24 per cent were under age 25.(30) Eighty per cent of these young people found work in the United States, nearly all of those aged 12-17 in industry or services.

CHILDREN AND WAR Conflicts in the 1990s killed nearly 2 million children. Six million were seriously injured or permanently disabled.(31) In 2000, an estimated 300,000 child soldiers were involved in 30 conflicts around the world.(32)

Each day, 5,000 children become refugees, and one in every 230 persons in the world is a child or adolescent who has been forced to flee his or her home.(33) After more than two decades of war in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of adolescents are refugees in Pakistan; family poverty and a lack of access to education have led these young people to work as carpet weavers, garbage pickers, brick makers, house servants and even drug sellers.(34)

In 1998, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Afghanistan, children as young as 13 years of age were forcibly recruited by military forces.(35) In 1999, groups of young men were rounded up from street markets by the Angolan armed forces. In Myanmar, the army is reported to have forcibly recruited underage children from schools. In El Salvador, Ethiopia and Uganda, a third of all child soldiers were girls.


Several years after Sierra Leone’s civil war, countless youths and adolescents, particularly girls, are still impoverished, orphaned and often sexually exploited while being excluded from reconstruction efforts, according to a 2002 research study in which the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children relied on adolescents as the principal researchers and respondents.

During the conflict, which ended in 1999, youth fighting for opposing sides became both perpetrators and victims of violence. Warlords promised a portion of Sierra Leone’s diamond resources to youth that enlisted in the military cause, but denied the adolescent soldiers their promised payment and continuously violated their human rights. As post-war reconstruction began, adolescents were excluded from policy-making efforts, leaving them unemployed, uneducated, and without access to medical attention.

Sierra Leone lacks health clinics that are affordable and adolescent-friendly, and health education remains unattainable to most. Many youths express disbelief in sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.

Many orphaned adolescents are involved in crime, drug use and street life. Girls and young women are often forced into early marriage or turn to sex work due to economic or parental pressure, further subjecting them to physical, mental, and sexual trauma—and the risk of contracting STIs including HIV/AIDS—as they were during the war, when rape was widespread. Recent initiatives to counter gender-based violence have not been implemented or enforced.

The combination of adolescents’ distrust of adults and government, and the adults’ exclusion of young people in reconstruction efforts has hindered the process of integration and peace maintenance.

A variety of children’s welfare agencies offer assistance to Sierra Leone’s reconstruction and to protect children’s rights, but support is fragmented and there is often competition for aid packages directed to vulnerable groups. Multiple government departments handling different aspects of ensuring children’s welfare lack coordination. Youth organizations lack the resources to move into policy-making.

The youth-led study recommends changes in national policies and legal frameworks to better protect children, adolescents and youth, while involving young people in policy-making, implementation, and enforcement. Citing adolescents’ primary concern as the lack of education, it calls for more attention to education and vocational training. Gender equality and reproductive health are essential, it stresses, urging action to reduce sexual and physical violence and provide educational opportunities for women. See Sources

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