The role of youth sexual and reproductive health in individual and national development

In honor of this year’s World Population Day, the theme of which is youth engagement and the sustainable development agenda, we are reflecting on youth — our future leaders, parents, entrepreneurs and citizens. Today’s generation of young people is the largest in history: there are 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24 on the planet. In many countries, more than half of the population is under age 25, creating opportunities for national economic growth but also underscoring the need for greater investment in their health — with consequences that will affect the world’s social, environmental and economic well-being for generations.

Investment in young people’s sexual and reproductive health in particular ensures that young people are not only protected from HIV and other STIs, but also that they have the number of children they desire, when and if they wish to have them. The ability to control one’s fertility increases individuals’ productive capacity and can lead to a decline in a country’s dependency ratio (number of working citizens compared to nonworking citizens). When the dependency ratio declines in conjunction with adequate investments in youth education and economic opportunity, per capita income can increase — a phenomenon known as the demographic dividend.

Unfortunately, many young people do not have access to the critical sexual and reproductive health information and services required to stay healthy and avoid unintended pregnancy. Many young women report not wanting to become pregnant, but the level of unmet need for contraception among adolescents is more than twice that of adults. In some regions of the world, the unmet need for contraception among adolescents is as high as 68 percent. Fulfilling the unmet need for contraceptives among adolescents alone could prevent an estimated 7.4 million unintended pregnancies annually.

Not only is the ability to control one’s fertility a right, but also early, unintended, and mistimed pregnancies create physical and social risks for many adolescent girls — affecting their health outcomes and those of their children. Pregnancy is one of the leading causes of death among young women ages 15–19. Maternal mortality among adolescents under 20 is about twice that of women over the age of 20. For girls under age 15, maternal mortality is five times that of women over age 20. Stillbirths and neonatal deaths are 50 percent higher among babies born to mothers under 20 than babies born to mothers ages 20–29. There are also negative social consequences. An unmarried girl who becomes pregnant may face discrimination within her community, drop out of school or be forced into early marriage. Meanwhile, young women who avoid unintended pregnancy are more likely to stay in school, participate in the work force and have healthier, better-educated children than their peers who begin childbearing in adolescence.

So, this World Population Day, we encourage governments, donors and civil society to consider devoting more attention and resources to young people’s sexual and reproductive health. This investment gives youth greater control over their own health and fertility, helps young women prevent negative consequences for themselves and their children, and opens up new possibilities for individual and national growth — all possibilities worth reflecting on.

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