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

Education and Employment

Education and employment opportunities have direct and important indirect impacts on life quality, including health, and prospects for development. They are particularly important for adolescent girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights. Both allow girls and young women to gain knowledge, self-understanding, self-esteem and skills, and to earn an income. They also offer a chance to develop relationships with peers and adults outside their families, potentially important sources of information(36) that can open up new opportunities beyond early marriage and childbearing.

SCHOOLING AND GENDER DISPARITIES Most young people have some access to schooling opportunities, but the picture is very mixed: 115 million children currently do not attend primary school, 57 per cent of them girls;(37) and 57 million young men and 96 million young women aged 15-24 in developing countries cannot read or write.(38) Illiteracy excludes young people from a wide range of opportunities.

There is some good news, however. According to UNESCO, girls and women in all regions are gaining access to education, closing the gap with boys and men.(39) The United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative (UNGEI), launched in April 2000, seeks to accelerate educational advance by coordinating and focusing the financial and non-financial resources of multiple organizations, including governments, NGOs, and UN agencies to create a large advocacy campaign for girls’ education and providing support to countries that request assistance. About 90 countries are on track to meet global goals for ending gender inequality in primary education by 2015.(40)

However, the numbers out of school increase in times of conflict, social crisis and natural disasters.(41) Gaps in post-primary education have declined but remain significant in many poor countries. In some countries boys’ dropout rates exceed girls’ and boys’ enrolment has declined. Economic reversals and stagnation can impede progress.

In many developing countries, fewer than half of all children continue as far as secondary school. Education statistics show a sharp drop-off in girls’ attendance after primary school.(42) By age 18, girls have received on average 4.4 years less education than boys.(43)

Teachers may be unwittingly or consciously contributing to the problem. Research in Kenya, for example, has shown that teachers undermine girls in the classroom, contributing to girls’ feelings that they do not belong in school.(44) Teachers tolerate boys’ bullying of girls and have lower expectations about girls’ academic performance. Some teachers acknowledge that they preferred boys, and they often allot girls menial chores such as sweeping the classroom, while giving teaching-related tasks to boys.

Girls’ are often withdrawn from school, kept at home, and generally have their interactions much more closely regulated at the onset of menstruation, or menarche.(45) Data directly linking menarche with leaving school are hard to come by, but the anthropological evidence is ample. From South India to Mexico to Egypt, girls are kept under close supervision and their mobility restricted, to a significant extent because they are seen to be vulnerable to premarital pregnancy, which goes against social norms.(46)

An early age at first marriage and childbirth is more common among women with less education.(47)

Figure 3: Percentage of Women Giving Birth by Age 20, by Level of Education

Click here to enlarge image

Click here to enlarge image

Source: UN Population Division

Fertility decreases with educational attainment. The largest differentials within regions are in Africa, Western Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean, where women with secondary or higher education ultimately have three fewer children on average than those with no education. As overall family size declines, these differences become less apparent.

YOUNG PEOPLE AND EMPLOYMENT Worldwide, an estimated 352 million children between ages 5 and 17 were economically active in 2000, over 246 million of them working illegally and nearly 171 million in hazardous conditions.(48)

Despite laws against child labour, about 186 million children under age 15 were working in 2000;(49) this included 138 million children between 10 and 14—about one in four—mostly performing non-agricultural work.(50) Asia has the highest number of under-15 workers, 127.3 million, followed by 48 million in sub-Saharan Africa and 17.4 million in Latin America and the Caribbean.(51)

An estimated 141 million or 42 per cent of adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 were engaged in work in 2000.(52)

Youth unemployment rates are high—56 per cent in South Africa, 34 per cent in Jamaica—and almost everywhere at least double the adult average.(53) In many developing countries, gender discrimination in education and job opportunities results in higher unemployment among young women.(54) Lack of education limits many young people’s employment prospects, especially women’s, to poorly paid and often unsafe work as domestic servants, agricultural labourers or factory workers.

Table 2: Per Cent of Adolescents Employed in 2000, by Age, Sex and Region(55)

Girls Boys
  10-14   15-19   10-14   15-19
Eastern Africa 35 62 38 66
Middle Africa 26 53 29 60
Northern Africa 6 21 11 41
Southern Africa 2 35 3 40
Western Africa 21 44 31 60
Caribbean 7 23 13 39
Central America 4 30 9 54
South America 7 34 11 55
Eastern Asia 0 49 7 51
South-eastern Asia 9 43 10 47
South-central Asia 13 35 14 52
Western Asia 4 25 5 41
Australia-New Zealand 0 52 0 53
Europe—Total 0 25 0 30
Western Europe 0 23 0 27
Southern Europe 0 23 0 29
Northern Europe 0 41 0 44
Eastern Europe 0 23 0 27
Melanesia 13 49 17 59
Northern America 0 38 0 41
Source: International Labour Organization

COMBINING WORK AND EDUCATION Of the economically active children and adolescents, half work full-time and half combine work with school.(56) Many young people see work less as an obstacle to education or a risk to their health and safety than a positive survival strategy for themselves and their families, a route to resources for the future and an entry to responsible adulthood. Work can provide women with their own resources and increase their choices of timing and partners in marriage.

Research on the impact of combining work and education on future earnings and life opportunities is quite scarce. A study in Brazil found mixed effects. An early start to some occupations, such as civil construction, handicrafts or commercial activities, enhanced young men’s long-term prospects, but an early start usually reduced future income, primarily because work interfered with education. There were some benefits for girls in domestic employment, but their opportunities were much more limited.(57) As the skills needed for higher paid employment become more demanding, the tradeoffs may become more difficult. Further, young women who start working in adolescence have more children later.(58)

Another policy concern emerges from the large number of adolescents who are not working, in school or married. The circumstances of these young men and women are hard to discover and they are difficult to reach. In Pakistan, for example, around 12 per cent of boys aged 10 to 14 are in none of these roles and this increases to 15 per cent among those aged 15 to 19. Among girls, 30 per cent of 10-14 year olds and over 45 per cent of 15-19 year olds are “doing nothing”.(59)

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