Her Royal Highness Princess Mathilde of Belgium

Adult responsibility: Listen to adolescent voices

Being young these days is not easy. Most adolescents, while still children under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are pressured to take on adult roles and make decisions they are not yet equipped to understand. Moreover, adolescents are vulnerable. Still in the phase of rapid physical, cognitive and emotional growth, they seek independence and self-discovery. In this period, they need space to learn both their strengths and their limits. As adults – parents, teachers, friends and advocates – we are faced with a specific question: What is our role at this time in their lives?

In the 20 years since the Convention on the Rights of the Child entered into force, the global community has pledged to safeguard children’s rights in education, health, participation and protection. These rights entail moral and legal obligations. Governments the world over are held accountable through the Committee on the Rights of the Child for the welfare of their children.

Considerable progress has been made across the world in reducing mortality, improving access to basic health care and ensuring schooling for children during their first decade of life. These accomplishments have paved the way for promising strides in adolescence. We have seen increased secondary school enrolment, albeit from a low base; a decline in early marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting; and an increase in knowledge of HIV transmission. Thanks to global and local efforts to raise awareness, encourage dialogue and build policy, adolescents are better protected from abuse and exploitation. Still, for millions of adolescents, daily life remains a struggle.

A happy upbringing with opportunities to learn, play and feel safe – is still a distant prospect for many. Instead, millions of teenagers face hazardous employment, early pregnancy and participation in armed conflict. Burdened with adult roles and deprived of their rights as children, adolescents are exposed to protection abuses. Denying this age group their childhood heightens their risk of exploitation in labour, social isolation associated with early marriage, and mortality or morbidity for adolescent girls from pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications. The enormous challenge of protecting adolescents at this vital time in their lives should not be underestimated – and adults have a crucial part to play in meeting it.

Adolescents currently make up 18 per cent of the world’s population, but they receive far less attention on the world stage than their numbers merit. Parents, family members and local communities bear a responsibility to promote and protect adolescent development. Implementing laws and pursuing concrete objectives such as the Millennium Development Goals are important ways of building momentum towards investment in adolescents. But if we really want these initiatives to be effective, we must invite young people to be part of the solution and ensure their voices are heard.

Adolescents do not consider themselves as “future adults”; they want to be taken seriously now. Article 13 of the Convention stipulates that children are free to express their ideas and opinions, through any channel of their choice. Exercising this right not only cultivates self-confidence but also helps prepare them for the active role of citizen.

Equally important, education encourages children to communicate and make their voices heard. Parents, friends and family members play an essential part in stimulating adolescents’ educational growth, as learning extends beyond the classroom. A parent’s role as mentor should not be underestimated; it deserves more support and appreciation.

I am heartened to hear young peoples’ responses to UNICEF Belgium’s What Do You Think? project. This effort sheds light on marginalized children: those who are disabled, live in institutions and hospitals, and suffer from poverty. I discovered during my visits with these children that their stories are not, as one might expect, expressions of despair. On the contrary, many articulate extraordinary hope for the future and eagerness to participate in the shaping of their world.

Listening to adolescents is the only way we will understand what they expect from us. This is a critical time in a person’s growth. Let us pay close attention to the particular needs and concerns of adolescents. Let us create opportunities for them to participate in society. Let us allow them freedom and opportunity to mature into healthy adults. As the 2015 deadline for the Millennium Development Goals draws near, every effort must be made to ensure the equal well-being of children worldwide. Their hopes and dreams are still very much alive. It is up to us to enable adolescents to reach their full potential. Let us work together with them to make life a positive adventure.

Her Royal Highness Princess Mathilde of Belgium is especially committed to children affected by and living with HIV. In her roles as Honorary Chair of UNICEF Belgium and UNICEF and UNAIDS Special Representative for Children and AIDS, HRH Princess Mathilde has undertaken field trips to Africa and Asia to promote the well-being of vulnerable people and generate awareness of children’s rights.

Panels

The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.

Essays

Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.