World population officially topped 8 billion this week, as the largest generation of young people in history – 1.8 billion adolescents and youth (aged 10 to 24) – faces an unprecedented number of challenges to health and wellbeing.
Adolescence is a critical stage of development, but between 2003 and 2015, only 1.6% of development health assistance supported adolescent programming. The situation has been exacerbated considerably by the triple threat of conflict, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ensuring high quality sexual and reproductive care for adolescents and young people was high on the agenda this week at the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP2022) in Pattaya, Thailand.
The world’s largest scientific conference on family planning and reproductive health and rights attracted more than 3,500 delegates from across governments, parliaments, NGOs, UN agencies, youth organizations, the private sector, academia and more.
Approximately 12 million girls aged 15–19 years and at least 777,000 girls under 15 years give birth each year in developing regions.
At least 10 million unintended pregnancies occur each year among adolescent girls aged 15–19 years in low-and-middle income countries, while pregnancy and childbirth while pregnancy and childbirth complications are among the leading causes of death among girls aged 15-19 years globally.
Due to age-related stigma and discrimination and unclear or restrictive laws, adolescents are particularly at risk of having unsafe abortions. Of the estimated 5.6 million abortions that occur each year among adolescent girls aged 15–19 years, 3.9 million are unsafe, contributing to maternal mortality, morbidity and lasting health problems.
Existing gaps in adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) have been exacerbated by COVID-19, which is estimated to reduce adolescent access to modern contraceptives by 12% and access to maternity care by 25%.
ICFP2022 concluded with the launch of a global consensus report, Let Them Know: A Youth-Led AYSRHR Global Roadmap for Action. The roadmap is dedicated to achieving the full realization of sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice for all young people, developed among more than 40 youth-led organizations.
PMNCH, the world’s largest alliance for women’s, children’s and adolescents’ health, is cited in the report as a key platform for encouraging the participation and leadership of adolescents and girls. PMNCH’s 1.8 Billion Young People for Change campaign will include the world’s largest convening of young people, to be held in October 2023 as the Global Forum for Adolescents.
“More often than not, policies and programmes are developed and designed for young people, and not by young people,” said Sahil Tandon, Packard Foundation; Vice Chair of the PMNCH Strategic Advocacy Committee; and Co-Chair of the Programme Action Group for the Global Forum for Adolescents. “There is potential, power, and push among young leaders and they should be shaping the agenda that impacts them with their asks, demands and aspirations for their well-being.”
At the conference, young people took part in an intergenerational dialogue with national and global leaders. The Lunch with Leaders event, co-hosted by PMNCH with UNFPA, provided an opportunity to speak directly to leaders and policymakers about their agenda for change.
“Policymakers should ask their constituents what young people want, work across sectors and adopt a comprehensive approach to adolescent well-being,” said Dr David Imbago, YIELD Hub manager and a Board Member at PMNCH, representing its Adolescent and Youth constituency. “It’s an opportunity for you to think about conditions and partnerships that will last for many years,” he said to policymakers during the lunch.
All the evidence points to the fact that an investment in adolescents makes economic sense and provides a high return. It is estimated that returns of between US$5 – $10 for every dollar invested in programmes for young people are common, with some interventions showing even higher returns.
Lucy Fagan, UN Major Group for Children and Youth, member of the PMNCH Accountability working group and Co-chair of the Partnership and Communication Action Group, highlighted the importance of capitalizing on opportunities that the digital age brings for navigating and claiming rights, and the need to invest more in adolescent SRHR services and involve young people in designing and developing the services they use.
“Money needs to trickle down to us, to youth-led organisations,” said Ms Fagan. “Many of us are already delivering change on the ground and providing access to stigma-free information, services and peer-led support. Access to agile and sustainable funding can allow us to do our work and do it right. We want our rights, we want accountability, we want to be an equal partner on this journey together for SRHR and we want change now.”