There are approximately 1.5 million adolescents and young adults 15 to 24 years of age; they represent more than one fifth of the population.
This age group has endured the brunt of the economic, political, social and cultural changes since the independence of Tajikistan. They have grown up during the civil war and the rapid deterioration in education and the delivery of health services. They are now being confronted by the more limited options to acquire knowledge, skills, experience and confidence.
Girls are especially vulnerable. During the Soviet era, the status of women was about equal to that of men. Since independence, traditional ideas have returned. Girls are being taken out of school to help with domestic duties. On their own, they have begun to feel the weight of their disadvantage; many have come to believe there is no purpose in continuing their studies.
Early marriage is now more common. Upon marriage, girls and women in areas where traditional practices are dominant typically no longer support their own parents, but are part of the households of their husbands. Parents therefore often choose to concentrate their resources on boys, who will support them in old age.
Widespread during the Soviet era, university education is now out of the reach of most young people either because they cannot afford the high fees, or because of the low motivation: few jobs are available requiring university degrees, and, in any case, the salaries are very low.
Unemployment among young people constitutes 33 per cent of total unemployment. Given the limited job opportunities, a large number of young people are migrating seasonally for work to other countries, especially Russia.
Young people are exposing themselves to health risks, violence and exploitation in unprecedented numbers. Some juveniles are involved in prostitution. Many are resorting to drugs.
The share of young people becoming infected with HIV/AIDS is rising. According to official statistics, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is low, from fewer than 200 to close to 400 cases among people 0 to 49 years of age in 2003. However, the figures are of questionable accuracy, as very few people are tested, and an adequate surveillance system does not exist. The Ministry of Health has estimated that the number of people living with HIV/AIDS in 2004 may actually have been over 4,000 and rising.
A major factor in the spread of HIV/AIDS is the expanding rate of drug abuse. Tajikistan is on major drug transit routes from Afghanistan, and, as a result, drug use has increased, especially among young people. Estimates place the number of injecting drug users in the tens of thousands.
Knowledge of the disease and how to prevent it is generally low, and there are many misconceptions about the paths of transmission. Only about 5 per cent of girls and young women aged 15 to 24 are aware that condoms can prevent HIV infection, and only 8 per cent know that a person who is healthy in appearance can be infected. Almost 90 per cent of especially vulnerable young people, such as injecting drug users, commercial sex workers and street children, share needles, are sexually active and have multiple sex partners, and only about 17 per cent sometimes rely on condoms during sex.