Today’s world has the largest generation of young people in history. The majority live in developing countries, many in poverty and with restricted rights, unequal access to quality health care, education, employment and livelihood opportunities.
The rights, opportunities and choices of young women and girls are especially diminished due to pervasive gender-based discrimination and violence, with serious consequences for the fulfillment of their life aspirations, as well as their sexual and reproductive rights, health, educational achievement and economic prospects. Too many young people around the world have limited options, exacerbating the challenges and inequities they face and reducing their chances for breaking out of poverty and realizing their full potential. Some examples of the how young people’s lives are affected due to inequalities, neglect and exclusion include:
- Despite progress, 71 million young adolescents are still not in school, and less than a quarter of young people complete secondary school. Girls of primary-school age from the poorest 60% of households are three times more likely to be out of school as those from the wealthiest households, and twice as many girls of secondary-school age are out of school compared to their wealthier peers.
- Young people are three times as likely as adults to be unemployed, and youth constitute almost a quarter of workers living in poverty.
- Five million young people live with HIV/AIDS, and new infection rates for young women are twice as high as for young men. Yet only about a third of young men and a quarter of young women know how to prevent the spread of HIV.
- Pregnancy and child-birth complications are the leading cause of death for adolescent girls in low and middle-income countries—with 50,000 dying every year. Sixteen million adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 years give birth annually and an estimated 3 million undergo unsafe abortions.
- Young women and girls are subjected to various forms of violence and harmful practices, including domestic abuse, sexual harassment, sexual violence, exploitation and trafficking and female genital mutilation. As many as 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16, and up to 30% of women and girls report that their first sexual experience is forced. There are over 60 million child brides in the world, often subjected to violence, forced to bear children before they are ready, with their opportunities for education, employment and escaping poverty severely curtailed.
These inequalities are interlinked and mutually reinforcing. Poverty, social exclusion, limited educational and decent income-earning opportunities, gender discrimination and violence, all collude to exacerbate poor opportunities and outcomes for young people. And these inequalities not only affect young people now, but can have a lasting negative impact on quality of life, health and economic security into old age. Young people were largely absent from the Millennium Development Goals.
Today, as the international community develops the framework for the future of global development, the human rights and empowerment of adolescents and youth should be placed as top priorities in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. This is a human rights and ethical imperative in its own right, and also enables the achievement of other global development objectives, including poverty reduction, women’s empowerment and gender equality, educational attainment, improved health and environmental sustainability. Channeling resources toward young people today is crucial for their quality of life and well-being, and an investment in their – and the world’s – future. Without making and fulfilling serious political and financial commitments to young people, we risk perpetuating inequalities as the largest generation of young people comes of age. The international community has the opportunity – and the obligation – to meaningfully invest in the rights and empowerment of young people, also as a high-impact strategy for building vibrant, just, resilient individuals, families, communities and nations in the years to come. To this end, the next global development agenda should ensure:
- Access to quality education for both boys and girls, with particular attention to girls’ completion of secondary education, which can in turn have high payoffs for poverty reduction, gender equality and economic growth, the education and health of any future children, better sexual and reproductive health and reduced child and maternal mortality and HIV. Enabling pregnant girls and young mothers to complete their education is essential and will require tailored supports.
- Recognition, respect, protection and fulfillment of young people’s sexual and reproductive rights as human rights, including through educational, legal and policy measures, with particular attention to adolescent girls and young women.
- Universal access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, that are high-quality, youth-friendly and respect the right to confidentiality, privacy and informed consent, with a focus on prevention of pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and timely support in cases of sexual assault and other forms of violence.
- Access to comprehensive sexuality education, in and out of school, as part of young people’s basic ‘life literacy’, to enable them to understand and make informed decisions about their sexuality and plan their lives, including to protect themselves from HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, and for girls to be able to complete their education, avoid unwanted pregnancy, unsafe abortion and related mortality; and to promote values of respect for human rights, tolerance, gender equality and non-violence.
- Ensuring legal measures, policies and public education to protect the human rights of girls and advance gender equality, especially from all forms of child abuse, violence, exploitation and trafficking, and for the elimination of harmful practices, including child marriage and female genital mutilation; prohibit expulsion from school due to pregnancy; and remove barriers to adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health information and services.
- The creation of decent employment and livelihood opportunities for youth, with attention to young women’s equal opportunities, through partnership building across schools, community organizations, the private sector and businesses, to create training programs and related economic opportunities, as well as access to productive assets and financial services, to foster youth entrepreneurship and enable their successful transition from school to the workforce.
- Implementation of policies and programs that address the roles of young men and boys in eliminating gender discrimination and gender-based violence, and fulfilling and protecting sexual and reproductive rights for young women and girls as well as themselves, through education and interventions that work to redress negative gender norms and behaviors and empower all youth to claim their rights and respect the rights of others.
- Ensuring the participation of young people in decision-making processes and putting in place robust, transparent accountability mechanisms to make sure that States meet their obligations, and that commitments made by States, development partners, including the UN system, donors, international NGOs, academia and research organizations and the private sector, are fulfilled. These mechanisms should be grounded in meaningful civil society involvement, with active engagement of young people, including from marginalized groups. Attention should be paid to both quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis, disaggregated by sex, age sub-groups and income levels, among other factors, to track outcomes for all groups but especially those most disadvantaged.