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Adolescents at the heart of development

Aug 19, 2011

UNICEF's report The state of the World's children 2011 brings out the urgent need to invest in adolescents and their future, to successfully tackle poverty at its root.

The kind of world we will live in someday relies both on those who inherit it and on those who bequeath it to them. The State of the World’s Children 2011 echoes and builds on this fundamental insight. 


Today, 1.2 billion adolescents stand at the challenging crossroads between childhood and the adult world. Nine out of ten of these young people live in the developing world and face especially profound challenges, from obtaining an education to simply staying alive – challenges that are even more magnified for girls and young women.

Although there is no internationally accepted definition of adolescence, the United Nations defines adolescents as individuals aged 10–19: in effect, those in the second decade of their lives.

Lasting change in the lives of children and young people, a critical underlying motivation of the Millennium Declaration, can only be achieved and sustained by complementing investment in the first decade of life with greater attention and resources applied to the second.

Why invest in adolescents

The arguments for investing in adolescence are five-fold. 

The first is that it is right in principle under existing human rights treaties including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which applies to around 80 per cent of adolescents, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which applies to all adolescent females.

Second, investing in adolescence is the most effective way to consolidate the historic global gains achieved in early and middle childhood since 1990. 

Third, investing in adolescents can accelerate the fight against poverty, inequity and gender discrimination. Adolescence is the pivotal decade when poverty and inequity often pass to the next generation as poor adolescent girls give birth to impoverished children. This is particularly true among adolescents with low levels of education.

The inter-generational transmission of poverty is most apparent among adolescent girls. Educational disadvantage and gender discrimination are potent factors that force them into lives of exclusion and penury, child marriage and domestic violence. Around one third of girls in the developing world, excluding China, are married before age 18; in a few countries, almost 30 per cent of girls under 15 are also married.

Adopting a life-cycle approach to child development, with greater attention given to the care, empowerment and protection of adolescents, girls in particular, is the soundest way to break the intergenerational transmission of poverty. 

Rich and poor alike, adolescents will have to deal with the intergenerational implications of the current economic turmoil, including the structural unemployment that may persist in its wake. They will have to contend with climate change and environmental degradation, explosive urbanization and migration, ageing societies and the rising cost of health care, the HIV and AIDS pandemic, and humanitarian crises of increasing number, frequency and severity. The urgent need to confront these challenges is the fourth reason for investing in adolescence.

The fifth and final argument for investing in adolescence relates to the way adolescents are portrayed. This quintile of the global populace is commonly referred to as the ‘next generation’ of adults, the ‘future generation’ or simply ‘the future’. But adolescents are also firmly part of the present – living, working, contributing to households, communities, societies and economies.

Almost one quarter of the world’s working poor were young people in 2008; moreover, these 150 million plus young poor workers tended to be predominantly engaged in agriculture, which left little time for them to gain the skills and education that could improve their earnings potential and future productivity. Throughout the world, a major difficulty in tackling youth unemployment is that many adolescents who have been to school are emerging with insufficient skills.

In the absence of productive fulltime employment, many adolescents and young adults wrestle with underemployment – taking bits and pieces of casual work where they can, or else engaging in the informal economy. 

This may involve working for low pay in exploitative conditions for employers who do not observe national labour, health and safety standards. Alternatively, it may involve engaging in petty commerce on the street, which entails a precarious day-to-day subsistence and can operate on the margins of more dangerous and illegal activities, from organized crime to prostitution.

Source : UNICEF
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