Adam Fifield is in the Editorial & Creative Services Department at the U.S. Fund.
We all know that being a teenager isn’t easy. But in the world’s most marginalized and impoverished communities, adolescence is often an extremely arduous and dangerous time. With enough resources and support, it can also be a time of great opportunity and transformation.
Around the globe, there are 1.2 billion adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19. Nearly nine out of ten live in the developing world. The unique needs of these children do not get as much attention as those of younger kids, according to UNICEF’s annual flagship report The State of the World’s Children, which was released today.
More children than ever before are living past their fifth birthday, thanks to the efforts of UNICEF and its partners. The new report asks: what happens when those children turn 10, 12, 15?
While not as susceptible to disease and malnutrition as younger children, adolescents may in some ways be even more vulnerable–particularly when it comes to violence and exploitation.
All over the globe, adolescent boys and girls are forced to work, forced to fight in wars, and subjected to sexual abuse and other abhorrent forms of cruelty. In Brazil alone, 81,000 teenagers, 15-19 years old, were murdered between 1998 and 2008. Adolescent girls are particularly at risk throughout the world, suffering from early and forced marriage (around one out of every three women in the developing world–with the exception of China–is married before age 18). And early pregnancy can lead to fatal complications for teenage girls. Additionally, nearly 400,000 adolescents die each year from unintentional injuries (including car accidents). And HIV/AIDS presents a huge threat, especially for girls who are victims of sexual violence.
Another big problem: 70 million adolescents are not in school. The cost of missing out on an education is extreme, particularly for the world’s poorest children. School alleviates hardship and unlocks new possibilities, but its benefits do not end there. Educating girls is key–and not just for the girls’ sake. Worldwide, about half of the drop in under-five child mortality over the last four decades can be attributed to increases in girl’s education, according to a recent study published in the British medical journal The Lancet. More adolescent girls in school also means lower rates of early marriage and early pregnancy and improved maternal health as well as enhanced economic and social development for entire countries. It is a win-win for everybody.
UNICEF knocks down barriers to education for adolescents throughout the world. It also works to protect them from violence, conflict, and the threat of HIV/AIDS; teach them important life skills; provide crucial health care; and promote adolescent participation and empowerment.
As The State of the World’s Children makes clear, investing in adolescents will create a lasting difference for these children– and for the societies in which they live. Adolescents need the world’s help and attention, and the world needs them.