Youth: Asset or Burden?
New York, 25 February 1999
Mr. Gregorian, Mr. Jacobs, Professor Tienda, Dr. Hamburg, Distinguished Participants, Ladies and Gentlemen: It is a privilege to join you for this vital Conference, devoted as it is to a subject that is at once of such immense import and yet one that is so little understood by much of the adult world – that is, the situation of youth, especially those struggling to grow up amid crushing adversity.
Ladies and gentlemen, the extraordinary expertise represented here, and the enormous range of constructive ideas that are in play – some of them first put forward at the youth Conference last October in Germany – are a testament to the dedication of the Johann Jacobs Foundation of Switzerland and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
Both institutions deserve immense credit for their ongoing efforts to throw a spotlight on the overarching importance of youth – especially in emphasising the need for development, beyond simply addressing the problems that arise for adolescents when development is inadequate.
I know I speak for everyone here in saluting the Jacobs Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, not only for their enlightened generosity, but for bringing together such a galaxy of distinguished figures for this Conference, of whom for brevity’s sake I will mention but two: our Conference President, Professor Marta Tienda of Princeton’s Office of Population Research as well as a Board member of both foundations – and my old friend Dr. David A. Hamburg, President Emeritus of the Carnegie Corporation.
Ladies and gentlemen, this Conference on Youth: Asset or Burden, has already reaffirmed the heart of the issue: that far from being a “burden,” the youth of the world are an immeasurably rich resource – people whose right to health and development is central to preventing not only a whole range of immediate threats like HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and violence, but also to combating a host of later problems that can threaten not only their lives, but their children’s.
Indeed, I would say that to the extent that youth are a burden at all, it is because adults make them so – and that we can effectively address the problems of young people only if we first move beyond the kind of thinking that reduces us to trying to picture our youth as one thing or another.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is adults, not young people, who create the most onerous burdens, and they do so by denying children their fundamental human rights – the right not to be drawn into armed conflicts as child soldiers or sexual slaves, for example; the right not to pressed into hazardous and exploitative forms of child labour; the right to participate and to make their views heard; the right to a basic quality education, to health services and nutrition, to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation; and to a supportive environment free of exploitation and coercion – especially sexual coercion. Ladies and gentlemen, the rights of adolescents – indeed, the human rights of all children – are set out in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, history’s most universally embraced rights instrument – and UNICEF’s guide in its role as the world’s leading advocate for children.
Adolescents make up some 40 per cent of all children as defined under the Convention, and the realisation of these rights are fundamental to their development.
Of course, many adolescents would prefer that they not be categorised as children at all.
But the Convention’s inclusion of adolescents is important, for it reminds us all of how heavily adolescents rely on adults to realise their rights to health and development – and that many of the most serious adolescent problems can be traced to the behaviour of adults.
By New Year’s Day 2000, young people between the ages of 10 and 19 will comprise 20 per cent of the human race – 1.2 billion people – and it is not an exaggeration to say that how effectively they navigate the shoals of adolescence will be a crucial element in how well all of humanity weathers the coming challenges of the next century.
Yet with dismaying short-sightedness, many adults continue to regard young people more as a passel of problems to be sorted out than as a vital global resource. That is why, beyond the urgent need for expanded programmes that promote the human rights of adolescents, we have a great deal of “consciousness-raising” to do – as an earlier generation of adolescents might have put it.
We’re all aware from personal experience that adolescents are people who are experiencing the most awkward, the most experimental, the most exhilarating – and also one of the most vulnerable – periods of their lives.
That vulnerability is laid bare in the latest UN statistics, which show, for example, that 70 per cent of all premature deaths among adults are the result of behaviours that began during adolescence, such as the contraction of HIV or the use of tobacco.
Every day, more than 7,000 young people become infected with HIV – a figure that represents 50 per cent of all new sexually transmitted cases – and adolescent girls have infection rates that are up to five times higher than boys.
Altogether, some 10 million adolescents are living with HIV, and the numbers are continuing to climb. The disease has already seriously undermined a decades’ worth of development gains for many countries, including improvements in child survival rates – and the long-term implications for the social and economic viability of entire societies, especially in Africa, are chilling.
By way of further example, there are these facts:
* That over 100 million adolescents are likely to be exposed to the effects of armed conflict by the year 2000, as child soldiers, porters, sexual slaves and refugees;
* That 1 out of every 10 births is to an adolescent mother – and that every year, at least 60,000 adolescent girls die from complications in pregnancy or labour;
* That there are at least 73 million child labourers between the age of 10 and 14;
* That every year up to 4.4 million girls between the age of 15 and 19 undergo unsafe abortions;
* That some 300 million adolescents use tobacco, and that half will die of tobacco-related diseases later in life;
* And that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among young men worldwide, and that these deaths are often related to the use of alcohol and other drugs.
UNICEF and our many partners throughout civil society and the UN System have been focusing on adolescents since the early 1990s for one major reason: because that period in a child’s life is a unique window of opportunity to break a range of vicious cycles – cycles that perpetuate structural problems that undermine child rights, and that are passed down from one generation to the next, like poverty, gender discrimination, violence, and poor health and nutrition.
UNICEF has long been an advocate for the rights of adolescents in need of special protection – child soldiers, institutionalised children, children caught up in sexual trafficking and exploitation, and all those we number among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
However, in the last seven years, galvanised especially by the rapid spread of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, we have been moving to redouble our efforts to mobilise and support programmes to address adolescents’ rights to development and to participation. These include:
Supporting the right of adolescents to information and life skills, which UNICEF and its partners are doing through a range of activities in schools and through NGOs and the media in countries like Uganda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and the Mekong region in South East Asia;
Facilitating adolescents’ access to education, especially girls’ education, using innovative teaching and learning approaches of the sort that are under way in countries like Egypt and Thailand;
Promoting youth-friendly services, such as health care in countries like Zambia, Russia and Kenya, and recreational programmes in Gaza and the West Bank;
Building safe and supportive environments with programmes that draw on the help of peers, parents, teachers and health workers in countries like Cote d'Ivoire, Mali, Jordan, and Costa Rica;
And providing opportunities for adolescents to participate in decisions, not only in matters that affect them directly, but in the larger decisions that are taken in civil society.
Ladies and gentlemen, adolescence is a period of enormous transition in a child’s life in terms of physical and psycho-social development – but by the same token, it is also a period when children themselves become a potential force for great change within their families and communities.
Our experience in the field has shown the remarkable extent to which participating adolescents are a positive force for needed social change
The examples are everywhere, from the Children’s Movement for Peace in Colombia to young people’s contributions to ending apartheid in South Africa – and the courageous boys and girls in places like Rwanda who have taken the reins of family responsibility and are raising their younger siblings amid war, AIDS and other disasters that have deprived them of parents.
Yet societies tend not to count these contributions, and social policies make no provisions to support the children who do this.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic is an issue that cuts across both the personal and the societal sphere – and it is not a coincidence that this year’s theme for the World AIDS Campaign is “mobilising young people as a force for change.”
The new figures from UNAIDS show the extreme urgency of the situation. And those numbers are framed by one terrible, inescapable fact – that it is young people who are bearing the brunt of the HIV/AIDS casualties.
Young people are disproportionately at risk to the virus because, in a time of sexual awakening, they are deprived of the right to health services and nutrition, to a safe and supportive environment free of exploitation and abuse – including protection from coerced sex. And they are denied the right to participate and to make their views heard.
Yet it is clear, ladies and gentlemen, that the future course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic lies in the hands of young people – and that is why it is absolutely vital that we do everything necessary to arm them with the knowledge they need to protect themselves and their communities.
UNICEF and its development partners have already developed clear programming principles based on the importance of placing young people and their concerns at the centre of the battle against HIV/AIDS – beginning with the needs of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable.
What is needed now are increased efforts to promote youth participation and commitment; more services aimed at youth; more parental involvement; more education and information, using schools and other sites; more protection for girls, orphaned children, and young women; and more partnerships with people with HIV and AIDS.
In fact, those principles are already being put to use in such places as Zambia, where increasing numbers of young people are working as educators and peer counsellors, helping to de-stigmatise HIV/AIDS for other youths, and easing the burden on overstretched health workers.
The same principles are also energising peer-driven programmes in Ukraine, Sri Lanka, Kenya, China, Swaziland and Viet Nam.
And they are being applied in Cote d’Ivoire, where members of the Scout movement are carrying HIV/AIDS-preventative messages to marketplaces, using songs and street theatre; and in Mexico, where pharmacy owners, barbers and hair-dressers are dispensing vital information on how to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS; and in Malawi and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where young people operate call-in radio shows and help write newspaper help-columns.
Indeed, UNICEF offices around the world, from the Philippines to Uganda, are increasingly involving young people in their overall assessments of conditions for children, which are carried out prior to developing five-year action plans with Governments.
This is an important innovation, not only because it involves young people in the action phases of UNICEF programmes, through peer education, for example – but because it allows children to contribute to the development and monitoring of the programmes themselves.
These and other experiences over the last decade have taught us many lessons.
We have learned the importance of focusing on adolescent development, which increases adolescents’ resiliency and helps them protect themselves against such specific problems as the use of harmful drugs, including alcohol and tobacco; violence and accidents; and poor nutrition and poor health, both physical and psychological.
We also understand the urgent need to confront underlying issues, such as gender inequalities, societal values and norms – and the importance of developing national capacity to support adolescents as parents and caregivers.
And we know that we must address the rights of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
It is now well established that the children of children are particularly vulnerable, and that once children become parents many of their rights are unlikely to be met.
Take the right of basic quality education.
In recent years, there has been a virtual explosion of knowledge about how to ensure primary education for all, especially for girls.
A essential component is early child care and early education, an approach designed to give children the best possible nurturing, health care and nutrition in their first years of life, so that their minds and bodies will be ready when they are old enough for primary education. That is a vital first step.
But societies must develop plans for children beyond the age of primary school.
We need to ensure that children have continuing opportunities to learn, to develop critical life and earning skills, and to find positive outlets for their natural outpouring of energy and creativity and yearning.
Ladies and gentlemen, using the power of young people to its fullest will require far more commitment and resources than we have yet seen – from governments, donors, and civil society, including non-governmental groups, communities and families.
This will require new and expanded partnerships, especially with the private sector, whose enlightened self-interest could serve young people while promoting private enterprise; and through innovative uses of new technologies that can help meet young people’s right to information and participation.
It is also up to governments to show real leadership – and to produce the financial resources necessary to launch effective educational programmes.
And of course, all of us will continue to ask more questions and further refine our interventions. But basically we already know a great deal about what needs to be done to ensure the rights of the youth of the world.
The real challenge we face is not so much in our not knowing what to do, but in our willingness to devote sufficient resources to doing the job. Thank you.