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Focus on adolescents

Published : Nov 07, 2003 00:00 IST

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AT a time when there is a tendency to project the horrors of unbridled population growth, the "State of the World Population Report, 2003", released by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), sees the large number of young people alive as a unique economic opportunity. Emphasising the concept of "human resource", the report states that fertility rates are declining and the proportion of the population in the working age (15 to 60) is increasing as compared to that of the dependent ages (the age groups of zero to 15 and 60 and above). Thus, according to the UNFPA report, the adolescents constitute a "demographic window", which will close in as the population ages and dependency increases. Therefore the report calls upon countries to mobilise the potential of their young populations through adequate and appropriate investments in the fields of health and education, suitable economic policies and good governance in order to usher in economic and social transformation.

Rather than projecting alarming statistics about how the world's population, especially in developing and the least developed countries, is exhausting global resources, the UNFPA report focusses on the health and rights of adolescents. While such a paradigm change was expected, given the fact that popular discourses on population have changed ever since the 1994 U.N. International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), it would have been more pertinent to place the focus on adolescents in the changed economic and global context. For instance, there is no sufficient introspection as to why a quarter of the world's youth survive on less than one dollar a day or why 462 million young people live on less than two dollars a day. Eleven large countries account for 77 per cent of the 238 million young people living in extreme poverty - India, China, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Vietnam, Brazil, Ethiopia, Indonesia and Mexico. Youth poverty and national indebtedness go hand in hand, says the report. So do high fertility and poverty, the report says.

Countries ought to take advantage of this demographic window by making investments in health (including reproductive health) and education for the poorest families, the report suggests. But while laying stress on the reproductive health needs and priorities of the adolescent age group, the report does not emphasise enough on their nutritional and other health needs. Education too should ideally aim at making people more than just functionally literate, which is the reality in most developing countries. It is the quality of education, the report says, that should be looked at closely and not the swelling number of `literates'.

The UNFPA report informs one that the largest generation of adolescents in history - 1.2 billion - is preparing to enter adulthood. It suggests that increasing knowledge, opportunities, choices and participation of young people will help them lead healthy and productive lives. There has been a growth in the number of orphans and street children the world over. According to global estimates, in Latin America alone there are between 100 million and 250 million street children. Their number, the report cautions, is rapidly increasing and a greater proportion of younger children are on the streets. In fact, there are more young boys than girls visible in this category; this is not to say that the situation with respect to girls is any better.

Similarly, trafficking in young women and girls has grown considerably over the past decade. The report says that extreme poverty, the low status of women and girls, lax border checks, and the collusion of the law enforcement machinery contribute to the growth of trafficking in young women. In Asia and Eastern Europe, girls as young as 13 years are trafficked as "mail order brides".

According to a study quoted in the report, in India, an estimated two in five sex workers are below the age of 18. Many women, mostly under the age of 16, are taken from the States of the former Soviet Union to Israel, parts of West Asia and Western Europe. The winds of change that swept the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the wake of the former's disintegration have taken a terrible toll on the women in these countries. A critique of the impact of globalisation on these countries could have provided some answers because these trends seem to be an outcome of some policies that ought to be reversed if the future of our adolescents has to be salvaged. But there is little introspection and analysis on the links between global policies and people's conditions.

Gender discrimination has not abated and in fact newer forms of discrimination, aided at times by technology, have entered the arena. Apart from a general lack of access in services, adolescents face the prospect of risky sexual behaviour. The report focusses a little too much on the reproductive aspect of rights, especially in the context of the Human Immunodeficieny Virus - Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV-AIDS). While this is important, it will not suffice to have a reductionist approach to the problems faced by adolescents, especially their prolonged and acute economic deprivation. Differences in adolescent fertility are an outcome of several factors, including life opportunities, service access, provider attitudes, gender inequalities, educational aspirations and economic levels. In fact economic levels ought to be mentioned first as the report itself notes that modern contraceptive use increases with economic status. Investing in the fields of adolescent health and education is all the more important because it will be the adolescents of today who will soon become part of the working age group.

A good number of adolescents live in the cities and many of them are from migrant families. Migration from rural to urban areas, which is an outcome of under-investment in rural development and poor resource management, exposes them to new kinds of risks, including those relating to sexual behaviour. The report refers to several young women involved in textile work in Bangladesh with most of the experience being positive. What needs to be elaborated is that while employment per se may offer an opportunity to survive, it may not be free from drudgery and exploitation. However, it is significant that the report recognises that education and employment opportunities have direct and important indirect impacts on the quality of living, including health and prospects for development. And fertility decreases with educational attainment. The report says that the largest differentials within regions are in Africa, West Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, where women with secondary or higher education ultimately have on an average three or fewer children, fewer than those with no education.

It is largely acknowledged that the adoption of strategies and policies that increase enrollment and prolong the educational experience of adolescents has a greater impact on fertility than any other means of fertility control. And it should be recognised that apart from the reproductive health needs of adolescents, there are a host of other needs that are "unmet". Although the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child (CRC) recognise most of these rights, the record of countries, especially in the developing world, in implementing the CRC remains much below desired levels.

It is this investment in the economic, educational and health needs of adolescents that will help in delaying marriages and preventing early pregnancies, unsafe motherhood, coerced sex and sexually transmitted infections including HIV-AIDS. The provision of reproductive health services alone will not result in any meaningful amelioration of the condition of the world's adolescents. It may mitigate the problem to an extent but will not attack its roots. The report points out rightly that "early childbearing often goes hand in hand with high rates of poverty, lower levels of education, less mobility and fewer attended births". It can be assumed then that if poverty is taken care of, it could well result in an increased demand for other services.

There is little doubt today that only a rights-based approach to development can work. The state's obligations to enable individuals to enjoy their rights have to be made a reality. These basic human rights are enshrined in the CRC as well as the ICPD. But their implementation requires investment in avenues that will help adolescents reach their potential, not only in reproductive and sexual health but in other aspects of their diverse personalities. Although the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger was one of the millennium development goals signed by 189 governments in 2000, a lot remains to be done. The onus is on the states who have to fulfil their obligations to their adolescents who are their future citizens.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 07, 2003.)

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