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Adolescents and youth

Health and Wellbeing

© UNICEF/SLRA2013-0491/Asselin
Sierra Leone: A girl demonstrates to her classmates how to wash hands with soap.
Our results

Adolescents are often the most effective agents of change in their own lives. UNICEF supports programs that encourage adolescent participation in innovative ideas. Innovative technology in Haiti and Brazil helps empower adolescent girls and boys to map vulnerability factors in the communities, including risks for HIV and other diseases. 

In these programmes, participants used smartphones to record the location of health and sanitation concerns, medical facilities and unsafe areas, and through geo-tagged photos and videos, a real-time portrait could be drawn of risk factors in these neighborhoods. The training provided not only knowledge about HIV but also skills to empower other young people to advocate for positive change in their community.  

In India, UNICEF and national partners run a holistic service delivery, awareness and behavior change programme that has increased participation in an anemia prevention program for adolescent girls from less than 50% to over 80%.  A similar comprehensive package has been delivered in Bangladesh with adolescent girls in leadership positions.  

What we do

Improving the health and nutrition of pregnant women and providing quality reproductive health services is a priority for UNICEF. However, there is also growing recognition that a holistic and rights based approach to maternal and adolescent girls’ reproductive health is essential. In many parts of the world, adolescent girls’ right to the highest attainable standard of health is hampered by social and cultural norms, so UNICEF is increasingly emphasizing the links to child marriage, girls’ education, female genital mutilation/cutting and improving life skills as crucial for improving adolescent girls’ health outcomes as well as broader child mortality outcomes.

While there is still a long way to go in the area of developing integrated health, nutrition and education policies and programmes for adolescent girls, UNICEF is supporting programmes that pioneer effective interventions, such as those to reduce the prevalence and severity of anemia. In India, UNICEF has supported the government in providing integrated packages of nutrition and non-nutrition services targeting primarily out-of-school adolescent girls.

UNICEF supports countries to advocate for and implement high-impact HIV prevention, treatment, and care for adolescents. These programmes emphasize condom use, HIV testing and counselling, treatment and harm reduction for adolescents who use drugs and voluntary male circumcision in countries with high HIV prevalence. 

UNICEF supports integrated programming to protect the rights of excluded adolescent populations affected by HIV by addressing the root causes of vulnerability. This involves increased emphasis on the promotion of comprehensive sexuality education in formal and non-formal education and the promotion of innovative approaches that empower adolescents to be active participants in shaping HIV programming.

Why we do it

Nearly 50 per cent of adolescent girls aged 15–19 in India are underweight, with a body mass index of less than 18.5, and more than one quarter are underweight in 10 other countries.  In 21 out of 41 countries with data, more than one third of girls aged 15–19 are anemic.  

Child marriage is associated with an increased risk of sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies. Pregnancies are often not a result of choices made by the girls themselves but a consequence of sexual abuse, parental absence and poverty. The younger a girl is when she becomes pregnant, whether she is married or not, the greater the risks to her health. Girls who give birth before the age of 16 are at much greater risk to suffer maternal death than women in their twenties. Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death worldwide for adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19. 

A further serious risk related to adolescent pregnancy are unsafe abortions, which directly causes the deaths of many adolescent girls and injures many more. A 2003 study by the World Health Organization estimates that 14 per cent of all unsafe abortions that take place in the developing world – amounting to 2.5 million that year – involve adolescents under age 20.

Approximately 2.2 million adolescents are living with HIV, 1.3 million of them girls. Many of them do not even know they are infected, reflecting a lack of knowledge, low use of HIV testing and other services, and the stigma associated with AIDS. 



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