The young ones

 Kathryn Bushkin
explains the importance of adolescent girls to our global future, and describes a programme that is giving them hope and skills for life.

The future of the world will be determined by today’s young people. They represent our best hopes and therefore we must nurture, care for and educate them. They are also barometers of our greatest challenges: their fears and vulnerabilities related to the environment, AIDS, poverty and opportunity illuminate global priorities. These values and responsibilities made young people, especially adolescent girls and their needs, central to the Programme of Action developed at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) ten years ago.

Almost half of the nearly 6.4 billion people in the world are under the age of 25. There are now more than 1 billion young people on the planet, including more than 750 million teenagers just entering their reproductive years. The large cadre of young people around the world ensures that, even as fertility rates continue to decline globally, there will be significant population growth in the decades to come. This phenomenon, known as ‘population momentum’, will account for 50 per cent of population growth in developing nations through 2100. Clearly, the choices and opportunities provided to, and the decisions made by, the emerging generation will shape the world of the future. Central to this equation are adolescent girls, who face significant social, economic, biological and political challenges.

Focus on youth
Since its founding by far-sighted businessman Ted Turner in 1998, the United Nations Foundation has had a special focus on youth generally (through children’s health programmes), and especially on adolescent girls (through our women and population programme). The rationale for UNF’s focus on adolescent girls is compelling.

In just about every corner of the world, adolescent girls face unique pressures – regarding sexuality, marriage, economic opportunity, education and violence. For a variety of reasons, adolescent girls, married and unmarried alike, have limited ability to protect themselves against unwanted, unsafe sexual encounters, as well as against unwanted and child marriage, pregnancy and disease.

Socio-economically, girls continue to have limited access to quality basic education in many parts of the world and this, in turn, limits opportunities for meaningful roles in their communities. Girls’ income-generating skills and professional opportunities are also constrained. They carry a disproportionate domestic work burden, and are denied leadership opportunities and active participation in community affairs. These many deficits, which ultimately stem from their low status in society, reinforce each other, compromising adolescent girls’ ability to fulfil their potential.
We are promoting opportunities for our best hope for the future – healthy, happy, educated and informed citizens
More recently, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has emerged as a major threat to the well-being of young women, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, where three quarters of all female cases of AIDS can be found. Women now constitute almost 60 per cent of all infections in sub-Saharan Africa: more than 15 million women and girls are affected. In much of southern African, HIV prevalence is four to seven times higher among girls under the age of 18 than among boys of similar age, while 67 per cent of all HIV-positive young people are female.

Most vulnerable
For all these reasons, the United Nations Foundation has been working with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) on the Southern African Youth (SAY) initiative. SAY is aiming to prevent the spread of AIDS among young people in eight southern African countries, focusing on the most vulnerable populations, such as girls without access to education, street children, refugees and migrants.

The SAY initiative is bringing hope and developing models of success in southern African communities. Health education and life-skills education has reached more than 100,000 adolescents in Angola. Youth clubs for thousands of girls have been established in Malawi to enhance self-esteem. School-based counselling programmes have been used in 62 Mozambican schools. Scores of successful HIV/AIDS prevention strategies and services have been initiated in South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Working together, the United Nations Foundation and the UN agencies it supports in the field are developing success stories in the effort to help young people avoid HIV infection. In the process, we are promoting opportunities for our best hope for the future – healthy, happy, educated and informed citizens equipped with the skills and opportunities they need to build a better tomorrow

Kathryn Bushkin is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the United Nations Foundation.

PHOTOGRAPH: United Nations Foundation

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Miles to go before we relax | Practical consensus | Power shift | Equally effective | People | Peace of mind, piece of land | The young ones | Fuelling change | At a glance: Women, health and the environment | Aishwarya Rai | Unprecedented opportunity | Books and products | Chemical inheritance | Toxic trespass | First empower | Citizen engagement | Adding feminine perspective | After all ‘nature’ is female... | A unique voice

Complementary issues:
Culture, values and the environment 1996
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001
World Summit on Sustainable Development 2002
Energy 2003
Water, Sanitation, People 2004

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources
Population, waste and chemicals

Timothy E. Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation and former U.S. Senator:
ICPD+10 speech September 2004