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Making 1 billion count: investing in adolescents heath and rights

By October 7, 2003News

– Release date: 08 October 2003

It is a pleasure, once again, to be in Dublin to launch The State of World Population report of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. This year’s title is ‘Making 1 billion count: investing in adolescents’ health and rights’.

This report is a wake-up call. It is a wake-up call to listen to young people and acknowledge their needs. It is a wake-up call to increase funding and expand information and services to young people. It is a wake-up call to support them so that they can lead healthy, productive and dignified lives.

Today, there are more young people than ever before- one in five people on Earth are adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19- and they face serious risks to their health and well-being. These risks include HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, early pregnancy and marriage, and pervasive gender discrimination and violence. All of these factors are aggravated by poverty. Today, 238 million youth live in poverty, on less than $1 a day.

How well societies address these issues will have major impacts on health, development and human rights, not only today but also well into the future.

Today, a staggering 50 per cent of the world’s population is under 25 years of age. Young people are growing up in a rapidly changing world. Many are bombarded with sexually explicit images. And, yet, they lack basic information on reproductive health and how to protect themselves from early pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

AIDS has become a disease of young people; fuelled by poverty, gender inequality and a severe lack of information and services. Today, half of all new HIV infections occur among youth aged 15 to 24. An estimated 6,000 youth a day become infected with HIV/AIDS — one every 14 seconds.

The world can no longer afford to take half measures as AIDS wipes out growing numbers of the new generation. This is not just a public health issue. This is a global catastrophe that demands urgent global action.

There is clear evidence from Africa, Asia and Latin America that well-designed information and education programmes do lead to safer, healthier behaviour. Far greater support is needed for sexuality education and HIV prevention programmes for young people both in and out of school.

The State of World Population 2003 report stresses that education, information and health services are urgently needed in all regions of the world. And I would like to stress that studies repeatedly show that sexuality education leads young people to take positive action to protect themselves, and often leads them to abstain or delay their first sexual experience. There is, however, international agreement that information and services must be age-appropriate and culturally sensitive.

We must also remember that many adolescents and young people are married. In some countries, most girls are married before the age of 18. Globally, there are 82 million girls aged 10 to 17 who will marry before they turn 18. Every year, 14 million teenage girls give birth, and this brings with it great risk. Girls in their late teenage years are twice as likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than are young women in their 20s. So, this report calls for expanded health services for married young people, whose needs are not being met.

Although sexuality remains a highly sensitive subject in many countries, especially with regard to adolescents and young people, some progress has been made in coming up with programmes that work. The best programmes provide information on life skills, including reproductive health, so that young people have real choices and opportunities. But, we must multiply that progress substantially if we are to meet international targets. We will not be able to reverse the spread of AIDS, reduce maternal mortality, and reduce extreme poverty, as called for in the Millennium Development Goals, unless greater investments are made in and for young people.

Supporting young people in their efforts to delay or avoid pregnancy and to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS can bring enormous health and economic benefits. Yet, international funding for population and reproductive health programmes is just 40 per cent of what was agreed upon by governments in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

So, this report is a call to leaders to keep the promises they have made to youth. This is particularly important for Ireland, which has lead the way by increasing government support to UNFPA over the past few years. UNFPA is very grateful for this support. With Ireland taking on the presidency of the European Union in January 2004 it is critical that Ireland maintains and deepens its role in supporting population and reproductive health during this critical time.

This report is also a call to community leaders, to parents, to teachers, and to all adults who interact with and deal with youth. Finally, it is a call to youth themselves to speak out and participate actively in matters related to their lives and well-being.

Useful Link: United Nations Population Fund Website