UNFPA - United Nations Population Fund

State of World Population 2005



© Tim Dirven/Panos Pictures
Young Afghan mother and malnourished child wait at a nutrition centre run by Medecins Sans Frontieres.

The Unmapped Journey:
Adolescents, Poverty and Gender

-Adolescence: Opportunities and Risks

-Reproductive Health in the Lives of Adolescents
and Youth

-Young People and HIV/AIDS

-Child Marriage

-Young People and Employment

"Some groups think we are too young to know. They should know we are too young to die." - Hector, 20 years old, Honduras, member of UNFPA's Global Youth Partners programme

Today's generation of young people is the largest in human history. Nearly half the world's population- more than 3 billion people-are under the age of 25. Eighty-five per cent of youth live in developing countries.(1) Many of them are coming of age in the grip of poverty and facing the peril of HIV and AIDS. Nearly 45 per cent of all youth-515 million- survive on less than $2 a day.(2)

Within the world of the young, adolescents are at a particularly formative stage. These 1.2 billion adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19(3) are brimming with energy and possibilities. Their minds are open to acquiring knowledge, learning skills and absorbing values. Their attitudes are still being shaped. They need vocational and life skills and access to reproductive health information and services, both for their own well-being and to participate more fully in their countries' development.

Adolescents are not mentioned in the UN Millennium Declaration and are largely invisible in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Nevertheless, because they represent such a sizeable share of the world's poor, they both affect and are affected by all of the goals. Throughout the next 10 years, today's adolescents will participate in achieving the MDGs. By the 2015 deadline, today's 10-year-olds will be 20 and ready to fully take on the role as agents of development. Policy decisions regarding the education, health, employment and human rights of today's young people will also affect the next wave of 1.2 billion children who will be adolescents in 2015.(4) Decisions taken-or opportunities missed-today will reverberate for generations to come.(5)


Use and meanings of the terms "young people", "youth", and "adolescents" vary in different societies around the world, depending on political, economic and sociocultural context. This report uses the following United Nations definitions:

  • Adolescents: 10-19 year olds (early adolescence 10-14
    and late adolescence 15-19)

  • Youth: 15-24 year olds

  • Young People: 10-24 year olds

Adolescence: Opportunities and Risks

The experience of adolescence is diverse and depends on many factors including one's sex, place of residence, socio-cultural context, economic circumstances and marital status. A major determinant is whether an adolescent is protected and harboured by a nurturing family, or trying to survive with little or no help, like many AIDS orphans. This generation is also growing up in an increasingly globalized world, which poses a new set of challenges and possibilities.(6)

While millions of adolescents enjoy loving and supportive environments and benefit from expanding opportunities and freedom, millions of others face threats to their safe and healthy passage into adulthood. Poverty compounds the challenges and risks of adolescence and obliges many parents to put their children to work, often in harm's way. Many girls and boys do not get the chance to obtain an education.

In urban areas, boys may be forced by poverty to survive on the streets. In conflict situations, adolescent boys and girls are often recruited as soldiers or domestic and sexual slaves by armed rebel forces (see Chapter 8). Adolescent girls also face risks of exploitation and abuse and are being trafficked into sexual slavery on an unprecedented scale (see Chapter 7).(7)

FOR GIRLS, DIMINISHED OPPORTUNITIES AND INCREASED RISKS. Gender-based expectations greatly influence the experience of adolescence.(8) Girls are often left at a disadvantage. As they enter puberty, bias against girls puts them at higher risk than boys for dropping out of school, sexual violence and child marriage. Boys' freedoms and opportunities may expand, while girls' experiences are often the opposite.(9) During this period, differential treatment may become more pronounced, with girls schooled to become wives and mothers, and boys groomed to become providers. Girls are typically expected to be compliant, while boys are encouraged to project strength and control. The expectations placed on boys may contribute to aggressive or risky behaviour, with harmful effects for them and others (see Chapter 6).

For many girls, particularly those living in poverty, adolescence means more risks and fewer freedoms. New research from South Africa's most populated province, KwaZulu-Natal, finds that while poverty has a negative influence on the health and behaviour of all young people, its impact is greater on young women, who have less access to information and less negotiating power to influence decisions, including to protect themselves from HIV.(10) Girls are more likely than boys to drop out of school, either because of pregnancy or to help with household and child-rearing responsibilities or to care for ailing relatives.(11) This is reflected in lower literacy rates for young women: Of the 137 million illiterate youth in the world, 63 per cent are female.(12) Adolescent girls face higher risks of harmful practices and poor reproductive health and are especially at risk of contracting HIV. In some societies, girls are forbidden to socialize with boys and are restricted from playing or moving about outside the home. For the millions of girls who marry young, childhood comes to an abrupt halt.

Adolescents' perception of their own value and potential is strongly influenced by family members, friends, schools, communities and the media. Parents and other adults in the community can provide supportive guidance and foster inter-generational understanding as adolescents navigate the new challenges in their lives. Raising girls and boys to respect each other, to aspire equally to educational and work opportunities and to expect fair treatment in relationships and marriage helps build strong families and advance development goals.


Participatory research conducted in Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal informed the efforts of Family Care International and UNFPA to address the needs and rights of rural adolescent girls. It revealed some important insights into their lives:

Education: Girls in Mali believe in education, but 72 per cent of rural girls have never attended school. Education is often cut short by forced and child marriage, the cost and distance of secondary schools and the custom of rural girls spending a year in the city working as domestic servants to earn money for their wedding trousseaux. "Our village has never produced a girl with a diploma. For us, education is a remote dream," said an 18-year-old girl from Mali. "A girl does not really need to be educated, as she will leave in any case to establish a family elsewhere, and then the advantages of her education will benefit others," said a parent. This perception was widely echoed in the community.

Reproductive Health: Girls in the three countries often receive confusing and frightening information about puberty and menstruation. Reproductive health services and information about puberty and family planning are rudimentary. Fewer than 30 per cent of rural girls and women give birth with the assistance of a skilled attendant, and many are afraid to use the local medical facilities. "We don't go to the maternity to have our babies," said a married girl in Mali, "because the midwife is tough on us and shouts at us during the delivery. Plus, there is never any medicine and the beds are dirty. We prefer to have our babies at home."

Livelihoods: Rural girls work hard to contribute to the household economy, but their prospects of economic security are limited by their lack of education, child marriage and childbearing, lack of mobility and the poverty of their rural environments. See Sources

A MISSING LINK IN POLICIES AND BUDGETS. Many public programmes focus on children's health and primary education, but the needs of adolescents rarely attract attention. The resulting policy gaps deprive adolescents of much-needed support. At the same time, countries risk losing the returns of their earlier investments in children. For instance, while primary education has been the focus of international efforts, secondary and higher education-especially for girls-provide especially high returns for poverty reduction, economic growth, reproductive health and the MDGs overall.(13)

Adolescents have often been left out of poverty reduction policies, although this may be changing: 17 of the 31 countries that completed a Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) between 2002 and 2003 devoted considerable attention to youth.(14) However, only six identified youth as a specific group living in poverty.(15)

Though many countries have developed youth policies or programmes, few give youth concerns the concerted and sustained attention they deserve. Budgets are limited, and the share of funding for young people is rarely tracked or quantified. Countries lack reliable sex-disaggregated data on adolescents and youth, including poverty research or information documenting the macroeconomic and developmental benefits of investing in adolescents.(16) A nine-country evaluation sponsored by UNFPA found that when governments did collect reliable data on young people, policy attention soon followed.(17)

ACCOUNTABILITY TO YOUNG PEOPLE. Traditionally, adolescents have been left out of decisions that affect their lives. However, national governments, NGOs and UN agencies increasingly include young people in decision-making and advisory groups at both global and national levels. UNFPA, for example, set up a Youth Advisory Panel in 2004 as a forum for youth participation. The panel advises the Fund on how best to address young people's needs and rights in the national development plans and programmes it supports.(18) The International Planned Parenthood Federation includes youth as members of its board of directors.(19)

In Nicaragua, a countrywide consultation with adolescents, supported by UNFPA and UNICEF, led to the government's adoption of a comprehensive youth policy.(20) Panama's 1999 National Youth Pact drew public commitments from presidential candidates and contributed to the development of a national youth plan, a process supported by UNFPA.(21) National consultations in Tunisia, held every five years and led by the President, have involved tens of thousands of youths. In India, UNFPA collaborated with the national parliament and UNAIDS on a youth parliament special session on HIV/AIDS that involved some 3,000 students in 2004. During the special session, youth leaders deliberated or proposed legislation in the presence of senior political leaders.

A rights-based approach to poverty reduction requires attention to the needs of the most vulnerable and the most marginalized. However, the voices of neglected groups of adolescents are rarely heard during policy deliberations. With the support of UNICEF, groups of abused and trafficked youth from slums and brothels in Bangladesh influenced the formulation of the country's national plan of action against the sexual abuse and exploitation of children.(22) UNFPA has also supported pioneering work to give a voice and extend reproductive health education and services to particularly excluded groups. These include youth with disabilities in Jamaica;(23) Roma youth in Bulgaria; ethnic youth in Laos;(24) and indigenous adolescents in Panama.(25)

Removing legislative barriers to the participation of youth advocacy groups, and institutionalizing relevant mechanisms, can be a key step. In Bulgaria, for example, youth parliaments are attached to local governments. In Costa Rica, the 2002 General Law on the Young Person authorized the National Youth Assembly, a network of local youth committees, to draw up a national youth policy. UNFPA provided lead support to extensive consultations by the Vice Ministry of Youth with young people across the country, which led in turn to the inclusive, rights-based policy that Costa Rica adopted in 2003.(26) Mozambique's Youth Policy, drafted in 1996, led to the legalization of youth organizations and to the creation of the National Youth Council that gave voice to its 120 constituent youth organizations in governmental discussions. Kenya has formally established a Children's Parliament, with representatives under 21 serving as ministers for each area of government.(27)

INVESTING IN YOUNG PEOPLE. How many of today's young people will grow up to be healthy and productive citizens? How many will slip further into ill health and economic want? Failure to make the necessary investment in today's young people will have long-term repercussions on individual lives, health systems, security, demographics, economies and development.(28) However, action now to address gender disparities, poverty and powerlessness can secure the future. The UN Millennium Project Task Force on Education and Gender Equality recommends that adolescent girls living in poverty should be a priority for those investments.

The 1.5 billion young people who represent 29 per cent of the population of less developed regions are entitled to a fair share of resources.(29) This argument carries even more weight in the poorest countries, where young people's share of the population is greatest;(30) in countries with high socioeconomic structural inequities; and in post-war countries, where many young people served as combatants or lost their parents.

Investing in young people is not only a priority for furthering human rights and poverty reduction, but could also bring about a "demographic bonus". The population of the 50 poorest countries is projected to more than double by 2050, from 800 million in 2005 to 1.7 billion people.(31) With higher investments in their education, reproductive health, job skills and employment opportunities, these young people can be a source of increased productivity.(32) Enabling young couples to choose when to marry and have children will give them greater control over their own lives and will probably lead to smaller families and slower population growth. A larger workforce and relatively fewer older and younger dependents offers a unique opportunity for investment and economic growth, as East Asian countries have found (see Chapter 2). Conversely, failure to respond to the needs of youth could further entrench poverty and stall development for decades to come.

Appropriate investments in young people can reduce the risk of violence and civil disorder. Violent crime disproportionately involves young men.(33) Based on data from 145 countries, research shows that sizeable population groups of young men with few opportunities for education and decent employment increase the risk of civil unrest and armed conflict.(34) Investing in education can reduce the risks, but only when it is buttressed by the creation of jobs for large numbers of educated youth.(35)

Investments in young people can not only avert personal risks but save billions of dollars in lost productivity and direct public expenditures-the consequences of school drop out, teen pregnancy, substance abuse, crime, and HIV/AIDS. They will also yield long-term dividends to societies and economies.(36)


Nicaragua, a country with 65 per cent of its population under age 25, has one of the highest adolescent fertility rates in the Americas. Only six of every 10 adolescents attend school and only half of these make it to secondary school. Since 1998, UNFPA has worked with local partners to establish Adolescent and Youth Houses (Casas) in 21 municipalities that cover 25 per cent of the country's adolescent population.

The Casas promote the rights, citizenship and participation of young people and the importance of community empowerment and intergenerational dialogue. Adolescents receive information on and training in reproductive health, violence, drug abuse and vocational skills, and carry out community and media outreach on reproductive health and rights.

Enabling young people to take charge of their own destinies has paid off. Those trained as leaders and peer counsellors are playing a more active social role in their communities. Young people have changed their attitudes about harmful gender stereotypes and roles. From 1999 to 2003, practices to prevent pregnancy increased from 66 to 83 per cent and contraceptive use jumped from 52 to 80 per cent.

"The Municipal Adolescent House is a place where I feel important and where I learn to make others feel important too. . . . It's a place where I learn to organize activities and where I never finish learning. In a few words, it's an opportunity."
- Michael, adolescent from Estelí Municipality

Reproductive Health in the Lives of Adolescents and Youth >>
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