Critical cohort

Published : Apr 22, 2011 00:00 IST

Teenage girls, who were forced into arranged marriages, at a care centre in Palmerton, South Africa. In the developing world, the poorest adolescent girls are more likely to be married off under the age of 18 than their rich counterparts. - ALEXANDER JOE/AFP

Teenage girls, who were forced into arranged marriages, at a care centre in Palmerton, South Africa. In the developing world, the poorest adolescent girls are more likely to be married off under the age of 18 than their rich counterparts. - ALEXANDER JOE/AFP

The battle against poverty and inequity can be won only if governments focus on the welfare of adolescents, says a UNICEF report.

FINALLY, it has been recognised that adolescents constitute a very critical category in the overall battle against poverty and inequity. It is for this reason that the United Nations Children's Fund's (UNICEF) flagship report, The State of the World's Children 2011, focusses exclusively on adolescents and cautions against neglecting this segment of the population.

The report's understanding is that adolescence as a period cannot be neglected if the gains achieved in the early years of childhood are to be consolidated. It is at this stage of their lives that young people who are poor are less likely to make the transition to secondary or higher education and are instead most likely to be pushed into child labour or early marriage, and experience abuse and violence.

It is estimated that in the developing world, excluding China, the poorest adolescent girls are more likely to be married off under the age of 18 than their rich counterparts. This then leads to the cycle of early childbirth, repeated pregnancies, complications and finally infant and/or maternal mortality. The connection between, and transition to, adolescence and a healthy productive adulthood can, therefore, be hardly ignored. Child labour is one sector into which adolescent populations get drawn. The report estimates that though the aggregate numbers suggest that there are more boys than girls involved in child labour, nearly 90 per cent of the children in domestic labour are girls. There is evidence to show that while child labour as a whole may have declined, the employment of children in hazardous labour has increased. And there is little doubt that children from the most vulnerable sections are getting sucked into these forms of employment. In many developing countries, says the report, the lack of normal employment opportunities what is called organised forms of employment is a long-established reality. It is worrisome that the report should use such terms as long-established reality, which conveys a sense of deep foreboding. Many adolescents and young adults have to deal with issues relating to underemployment which can result in low pay, exploitative conditions and a compromise on health and safety standards.

Therefore, governments need to address all this and more before they launch programmes for adolescents. They should be talking about social protection mechanisms such as social insurance, labour market regulations and provisioning of basic services. In view of the slowing of fertility rates worldwide, the report says that this is the best time to invest in human capital.

The report identifies five crucial and critical areas in the approach towards adolescents. These are data collection and analysis, education and training, participation, establishing a supportive environment for adolescent rights and addressing poverty and inequities. Governments can participate and come together to achieve them. For many years, it was assumed that the only problem that needed to be addressed among adolescents related to reproductive issues, including teenage pregnancies, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Issues such as entitlements to health and education were left half way as the focus was on primary education. On the problem of teenage pregnancies, a 2003 study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 14 per cent of all teenage abortions took place in the developing world. The report admits that getting accurate data on adolescent abortions was impossible owing to the shame and secrecy involved. So it can be safely assumed that the numbers are far higher. According to the report, many of the girls and women who seek abortions do so because they have insufficient control over their fertility, because of poverty, ignorance or lack of access to contraception.

Teenage pregnancies and abortions, in any case, are only one of the outcomes of a more fundamental malaise, which is the lack of priority given by governments to the needs of adolescent girls and boys. It also cannot be assumed that the pregnancies are voluntary and consensual. In countries such as India, one of the main reasons, apart from poverty, why a girl is married off early is the fear that she might get pregnant out of wedlock.

Anaemic segment

Speaking at the release of the report in New Delhi, D.K. Sikri, Secretary, Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, pointed out that adolescent girls constituted 17 per cent of India's female population. Quoting from Selected Educational Statistics (an annual publication of the Department of Education, Ministry of Human Resource Development), he said that the dropout rate among girls in 2007-08 was 24.8 per cent in primary classes (Classes I to V) and 57.29 per cent at the secondary level. He noted that nearly 47 per cent of girls got married before the age of 18. He added that according to National Family Health Survey-III, 56 per cent of the adolescent girl population was anaemic.

The need to address the concerns of those in the 10-19 age group globally has become quite sharp in the wake of the economic recession, which impacted the global employment scenario in a big way. Global Employment Trends Reports brought out by the International Labour Organisation annually have cautioned that the recession might result in severe cutbacks on welfare funding by governments.

Interestingly, even the UNICEF report feels that the confidence in the world economy has plummeted in three years; while unemployment has risen sharply, real household incomes have fallen or stagnated. Policymakers in various countries, including India, however, tend to deny this. The report cautions that even at the time of its writing, the global economic outlook looked uncertain and the prospect of a prolonged economic malaise loomed over several developing and industrialised countries. The economic recession would be felt in the fiscal austerity measures imposed by governments, which normally means cuts in social spending. Adolescents across the world will have to willy-nilly grapple with the intergenerational implications of the current economic turmoil, including structural unemployment, warns the report. The worst, in a sense, is yet to come.

As compared with the younger age groups, or those less than 10 years of age, adolescents are considered tougher and to have higher survival rates.

However, it is precisely this notion that has led to complacency and the sidelining of this very important population cohort. The report argues that while it may seem hardly judicious to invest in adolescents, given their relative advantage over the younger population, lasting change in the lives of young people who finally grow up to be adults can only be achieved by complementing investment in the first decade of life with greater attention and resources for the second. The neglect of the latter can have serious consequences. In Brazil, apparently, more adolescents die because of violence as compared with children under five dying owing to ill health or disease.

In countries such as India, there is no separate budgetary allocation for the development of adolescents though the country is home to a significant number of the world's adolescents. It was only recently, in November 2010, that a scheme called the Rajiv Gandhi Scheme for Empowerment of Adolescent Girls was launched. This scheme is not universal and is aimed at a few districts only, and that too for girls alone, to address their unmet needs. Moreover, it is limited in outlook and conveys the impression that it has more to do with controlling their fertility than anything else.

In fact, this pilot project of the government, touted as the Indian perspective on adolescent girls, is aimed at out-of-school girls. It is unclear why adolescent boys have been left out of the project. Also, the government's failure to not address the fundamental issue of why these girls are out of school in the first place limits its good intentions. However, Sikri expressed hope that the scheme would serve as a model for other developing nations.

Focussing on adolescents as a group and recognising poverty as the biggest threat to their rights will be a step in the right direction. However, this requires a greater financial commitment from individual governments, the absence of which is worrying agencies such as UNICEF.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment