I would like to begin by extending a heartfelt congratulation on behalf of UNICEF and its sisters UN agencies to the Organization of American States and to the government of Colombia for making Youth and Democratic Values the central theme for the thirty-eighth regular session of the General Assembly.
UNICEF is particularly pleased that this year the issues pertaining to our youth are at the core of both this meeting and the upcoming Iberoamerican Summit in El Salvador. This topic is of particular importance to this region. Currently there are 106 million young people between 15 and 24 years of age living in Latin America and the Caribbean, the largest cohort of young people in the region’s history. Their potential to make a difference is enormous and yet we are lagging behind in ensuring that young people have an active, positive role in shaping the future of this region.
While statistical data shows that the Latin America and the Caribbean region is making substantial progress in terms of its social indicators, gaping chasms of social and economic inequality remain and many of the region’s young people are falling behind. In UNICEF we often refer to the “tyranny of averages” which hides the region’s many flagrant gaps in indicators between the richest and poorest segments of society. These disparities particularly affect Indigenous and Afro-descendent families, women and children working in the informal economy, those living in rural or border areas far away from services of all kinds, people not accounted for in official statistics (including migrant populations) and the disabled.
Poverty affects the Latin American and Caribbean youth disproportionately, with an average of 39% of them living in poverty. High levels of extreme poverty, discrimination, exclusion and family destabilization lead to a disproportional high level of alcoholism, drug addiction and suicides among Indigenous adolescents.
Young people are also at the receiving end of violence: Latin America and the Caribbean is considered to be one of the most violent regions in the world with six million children and adolescents suffering severe abuse, including abandonment, each year. Close to 220 children and adolescents under 18 years of age die every day of domestic violence – that means 80.000 children a year. The Caribbean ranks first, globally, when it comes to murder rates and claims the highest rates of homicides among young people aged 15–17. Boys are six times more likely to be victims than girls.
Alarmingly, there are 10 million unemployed young people in the region, and 22 million young people (approximately 25% of young people in Latin America and the Caribbean) who are unemployed AND out of school.
Adolescents and young people are also bearing the brunt of the AIDS epidemic: It has been estimated that approximately 420,000 young people between 15 and 24 years old are living with HIV in the region and the face of HIV/AIDS is becoming, increasingly, an adolescent female face.
When we talk about young people we must not forget the adolescents among them. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable because they are at a unique crossroads in life: full of opportunities and fraught with challenges. The choices that an adolescent makes are likely to color the rest of his or her life and those choices are most likely the result of the circumstances they are living in.
An adolescent living in poverty, with little or no access to education, health services and protection is more likely to engage in violence, to become infected with HIV and to miss out on an education. An adolescent who has seen his rights upheld is more likely to become a positive member of society.
If we want to ensure that young people are able to play a political role in the social and productive context of a democratic environment it is imperative that we forge a new way of dealing with them. To date, most of the public policies for young people in Latin America and the Caribbean have been reactive and repressive. We now have an opportunity to make sure that interventions are timely and effective. To do so we must begin by investing in young people before they are even born.
Investing in the future generation must begin while they are still in the womb by making sure that mothers – especially adolescent mothers -- receive adequate health care during pregnancy and delivery and are given the tools to care for their children.
Investing in early childhood is just as crucial. Depriving infants and young children of basic health care and denying them the nutrients needed for growth and development sets them up to fail in life. But when children are well nourished and cared for and provided with a safe and stimulating environment, they are more likely to survive, to have fewer illnesses, and to fully develop thinking, language, emotional and social skills. When they enter school they are more likely to succeed. And, later in life, they have a greater chance of becoming creative and productive members of society.
Investing in adolescents is the next step in the continuum of care which begins before birth and extends through infancy and early childhood and into adolescence. Adolescents and young people have rights – as expressed in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child – including those to information and skills; access to services, such as education, health, recreation and justice; a safe and supportive environment; and opportunities to participate and to have their voices heard. Countries that have ratified the Convention are required to take all necessary measures to secure these rights.
Yet time and again around the globe, societies are faced with the symptoms of their collective failure to fulfill and protect adolescents’ rights. As a result, thousands of our adolescents and young people are making decisions that have lifelong consequences without adult guidance and support, and without the knowledge and skills to protect themselves. We need to invest in them. They need access to information, skills and services. They also need to feel safe, supported and connected to adults in their lives.
Too often, society views adolescents and young people as a “problem” and a “burden”. Yet adolescents represent a tremendous resource for every society. Tapping their energy and enthusiasm, through their exercise of their right to participation, strengthens society. Helping adolescents adopt healthy lifestyles and develop “life projects” serves to reduce the costs to society of the many social problems which afflict teenagers and, even more important, educates and empowers them to mature into their role as future leaders and contributors to a democratic society.
There are no simple solutions, no single intervention that can respond to the multiple challenges facing young people today. Society has an obligation to shepherd them through this critical time period and to treat them with respect and understanding. When it assumes these responsibilities, the benefits multiply in ways never imagined and young people become what all of us here would like to see: involved and committed participants in the process of social, economic and political change for the countries of the hemisphere.
UNICEF and its sister agencies in the UN system are eager to support initiatives, programmes and policies that will make this happen. How society responds can make or break a young person’s future.