Women - Commentary

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Claiming the future

Geeta Rao Gupta

Adolescence has long been viewed as a distinct stage of life in the industrialized world. Now it is also emerging as a key interval between childhood and adulthood in the developing countries. Young people age 10 to 19 account for one sixth of the population on earth, making them a force for profound change. But they need the support of their families, communities and nations if they are to capitalize on their potential and avoid the perils ahead.

Copyright © UNICEF/93-1890/Zaman

Adolescence should be the time of greatest hope and promise in life. It can be a springboard, producing self-confident young adults equipped with the knowledge they need to create a successful future for themselves and their societies. Or it can be the point at which everything goes wrong -- when all their promise and potential are lost.

If it goes wrong for today's adolescents, it goes wrong for the world. The current generation of young people is the largest in history. Around 1 billion people -- one out of every six on the planet -- are between 10 and 19 years of age, 85 per cent of them in developing countries. And they face profound obstacles:

  • In 1997 alone, around 3 million young people age 15 to 24 became infected with HIV, about two thirds of them girls.
  • Girls age 15 to 19 give birth to 15 million babies a year, and more girls in this age group die from pregnancy-related causes than from any other cause.
  • Around the globe, 73 million children age 10 to 14 are working -- not counting the tens of millions, mostly girls, believed to be in domestic service.
  • In developing countries, 59 per cent of girls and 48 per cent of boys are not enrolled in secondary school.

For previous generations, the burden that fell on adolescent shoulders was at least foreseeable. Close on the heels of puberty came marriage, children and hard work to support the family. Young adults faced these challenges within the context of a familiar and supportive environment. Today, on top of the predictable problems of growing up, adolescents must confront the increasing challenges of exploitation and abuse, ethnic conflict and war. Communities are being uprooted, either literally, as families abandon the countryside in search of work, or figuratively, as media and other new influences disrupt familiar mores and traditions.

No longer children but not yet adults, adolescents are struggling to understand their own place in this confusing new world. Yet when it comes to government programmes and family decision-making, adolescents are hardly to be seen. After the age of 5, when their survival is relatively assured, they fall off the radar screen of health services, the girls showing up again only when they get pregnant; boys, at particular risk of accidents, violence and substance abuse, only receive attention when they break the rules. Just at the time of greatest potential and peril, adolescents are left to fend for themselves.

But this scenario is beginning to change. As the span of time between puberty and marriage has increased, as the HIV/AIDS pandemic has underscored the importance of equalizing the power in sexual relationships, as the child rights movement has taken hold, we have begun to realize that adolescence is a window of opportunity. Today's generation of young people, linked by threads as diverse as the tragedy of AIDS and the power of the media, can revolutionize the world -- girls and boys together. Young people can be the catalyst to transform the past into a just and egalitarian future that works for both men and women, and for all of society.

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