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Press centre


Remarks of Hilde F. Johnson, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, at launch of 2011 State of the World’s Children

To check for delivery, see http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/webcast/2011/02/press-conference-launch-of-unicef-worlds-children-report.html

25 February 2011

Good morning and welcome.    

Given the events of recent days, there is considerable focus on youth – and rightly so.  But as the State of the World’s Children report makes very clear, if we want to break the cycle of poverty and build a stronger, more equitable world, we must also focus on adolescents.

Nearly one out of every five people on the planet today is an adolescent.  Nearly 90 percent of them live in the developing world.   And far too many of them are being left behind. 

Consider a few alarming statistics from the report:

  • Almost half of the world’s adolescents do not attend secondary school.
  • 150 million children between the ages of 5 and 14 are engaged in child labour.
  • An untold number of adolescents are trafficked – with an estimated one million exploited for cheap labour or the sex trade every year.
  • Hundreds of thousands are associated with armed groups – as soldiers, spies, messengers and sex slaves.
  • And around 70 million girls and women have undergone female genital mutilation. 

These outrageous statistics don’t even begin to cover the countless millions of adolescents who are denied adequate nutrition, who lack access to basic health care, who become mothers in childhood – at great risk to their lives – and who are simply not acquiring the skills they need to make the most of their potential. 

The impact of these deprivations is profound – not only on adolescents themselves, but on their – on our – societies.  

As this report shows so clearly, adolescence is a pivot point – an opportunity to consolidate the gains we are making in early childhood, or risk seeing those gains wiped out. 

To give you just one example, in Brazil between 1998 and 2008, infant mortality dropped significantly, with 26,000 lives saved from preventable diseases and conditions.  That is a victory.  In the same period, 3 times that many Brazilian teenagers aged 15 to 19 years old were murdered.   That is a tragedy.

Adolescence is also the period during which poverty and inequity most often pass from one generation to the next.  As you’ll hear more about today, nothing illustrates this more clearly than the plight of the adolescent girl.

The figures speak for themselves – and they are shocking.  Among adolescent girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in the developing world excluding China, 1 out of 2 do not attend secondary school. 1 out of 5 is married.  4 out of 5 don’t know how to protect themselves against HIV. And 1 out of 5 women between the ages of 20 and 24 became mothers as teenagers. 

All of these ratios are worse in the least developed countries, and among the poorest and most marginalized social and economic groups within developing nations. 

Girls in such circumstances not only are unlikely to break out of poverty themselves, they are far more likely to pass it on to their children – who are themselves more vulnerable to disease, undernourishment, and lack of access to education and health care.   And, if they’re girls, they are likely to face early marriage, early childbearing, low status and profound disempowerment.  And so the vicious cycle continues.

But the reverse is also true.  Just as multiple deprivations both exacerbate and entrench the impoverishment of young girls, investing in adolescent girls can have cascading benefits – the so-called “Girl Effect.” 

Consider the fact that even a single year of education can greatly improve a girl’s ability to provide for her family, just as it can help to ensure her future children’s survival.  Time and again, evidence shows that giving education to girls has a multiplier effect. Educated girls are less likely to marry early, less likely to become pregnant as teenagers, and more likely to have healthy children when they do become mothers – and to send those children to school.  The poverty cycle is broken.

And we shouldn’t forget about adolescent boys, either.  Among other risks, adolescence is the point at which boys are most often pressed to join gangs – or recruited to become involved with armed groups in conflict situations.  And these exposures to violence, especially combined with inadequate access to education and health care, have long-lasting effects. 

Finally, we need to realize that adolescents are not just victims.  When given a chance to make their voices heard, to influence the decisions that affect their lives, and to exercise their right to participate, they can – quite literally – change the world.
We cannot continue to ignore adolescents. We cannot continue to pretend they are of marginal importance in our fight against poverty and deprivation.  It is not true.  In fact, we cannot afford to consign an entire generation to lives of missed opportunity and lost potential.

The time has come to invest in the future by investing in adolescents today.  This is the right thing to do, enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in the Millennium Declaration and, most fundamentally, embedded in the human instinct to protect and nurture our children. 

But it also the smart thing to do – enabling us to consolidate our historic gains in early childhood and to accelerate progress, breaking the cycle of poverty, discrimination and inequity. 

The choice is ours to make.  We called this report Adolescence: The Age of Opportunity for a reason.  We must not make this decade one of missed opportunities for the adolescents of today – or for the society of tomorrow.

So, I thank you once again for joining us, and I look forward to continuing this discussion. 




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