Adolescent health and development

Adolescents are crucial partners for the achievement of sustainable economic and social development

Kabul Futsal Tournament
UNICEF Afghanistan/2019/Hussaini

Programming with and for adolescents

Afghanistan is home to one of the world’s youngest and fastest growing populations and adolescents account for 26 per cent of it. The United Nations defines an adolescent as someone aged between 10-19 years old.

At the crossroads between childhood and adulthood, adolescents naturally face many changes and uncertainties in their lives. While adolescence is a time of both opportunity and vulnerability for girls and boys, adolescent girls are a particularly vulnerable population in Afghanistan.

UNICEF supports young people to access quality education, gain life skills, receive proper nutrition and encourage them to participate actively in their future and the future of their communities. Working with adolescents today means that there is greater chance of breaking generational cycles of deprivation and harmful practices, including child marriage.

The risks 
The process of growing up in Afghanistan is difficult and the gap between childhood and adulthood is often too narrow.  Still affected by conflict and violence every day, pervading insecurity combined with periodic natural disasters disproportionately affect children and adolescents, often eroding development gains that may have been achieved in other areas.

Adolescent boys playing soccer in front of Darulaman Palace in Kabul
UNICEF Afghanistan/Turkmani

Poor access to proper healthcare, basic ‘facts for life’ information and life skills, nutrition, education, livelihood opportunities, as well as the risks of sexual abuse and violence, can have long-term effects on the health and development of adolescents and the well-being of their communities and future children.

Girls face restrictions on their movement and have less control over major decisions in their lives than boys. They are vulnerable to child marriage, early pregnancy, poor education and health, sexual abuse, exploitation and violence. Boys tend to gain greater freedom as they enter adolescence, but this brings with it pressures to contribute to household incomes that can lead to dropping out of school, exploitative and hazardous work, migration, and recruitment by armed groups. Boys are also vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.                                                       
Child marriage 
While there has been a steady decline in child marriage rates in the last two decades, one third of girls in Afghanistan are still married before their 18th birthday.  Tribal social customs are the norm in many parts of the country, especially in rural areas where communities are isolated and law enforcement is scarce. This has contributed to an environment where the underage marriage of children is still widespread.

UNICEF advocates to set the minimum legal age of marriage at 18 for both boys and girls, in line with international standards.

Afghanistan has two parallel legal systems: Article 70 of the Civil Law of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan sets the legal marriage of girls at 16 and boys at 18. The marriage of a girl under the age of 15 shall never be permissible. But under a system of Sharia law, the age of marriage for girls is defined as “the age at which a girl reaches maturity”. This has resulted in different interpretations for different girls. 

Girls married too young are less likely to be able to give informed consent, less likely to go to school, may not have access to reproductive health care, and face restrictions on their movement. Early marriage can be tantamount to bonded labour or enslavement, subjecting them to repeated sexual abuse and economic exploitation.

UNICEF’s strategic approach to programming with and for adolescents 
Since 2014, UNICEF has been working on key issues related to adolescents. Our work with and for adolescents emphasizes an intersectoral collaboration to improve the lives of adolescents in critical areas for their well-being – education, health, nutrition, protection, water, sanitation and hygiene – and encourages civic engagement and participation to raise their voices about the issues that impact their lives.

Adolescent and youth participation is also supported via Afghanistan’s Membership in the Global Youth Council, providing girls and boys with a platform to advocate for key issues that affect them. The #WeTheFuture South Asia regional digital campaign and Activate Talks are additional support platforms for adolescent girls and boys to advocate for themselves and share their ideas with key policy makers at national level.

UNICEF supported the Government of Afghanistan to develop key policies and strategies, and adapt national plans to better meet the specific needs of adolescents through the National Education Strategic Plan (2017-2021), with a key focus on girls’ education, the National Youth Policy (2014) and the National Child and Adolescent Health Strategy (2016-2020).