Adolescence is a critical time to lay the foundation for healthy transitions into adulthood. When adolescents and youth have access to quality education, they are more likely to be productive members of their communities. When they are given opportunities to engage meaningfully in programs that impact them, they can make those programs more effective and become more empowered individuals. And when they have the right to decide whether, when and with whom to have sex, to marry and to have children, they are more likely to lead healthier, productive lives.
Globally, there are 1.8 billion young people aged 10-24, roughly a quarter of the world’s population. Over 90 percent live in developing countries. Young people throughout the world, particularly adolescent girls and young women, face significant challenges that prevent them from meeting their full potential. Rigid norms and expectations related to gender and age, which typically become firmer and more influential during adolescence, can profoundly and negatively affect both girls and boys, and can particularly constrain girls’ aspirations and opportunities. These norms can contribute to gender-based discrimination in the form of physical or emotional violence; child, early and forced marriage; sexual abuse and exploitation; limitations on reproductive control; and exclusion from education, employment and decision-making, among others. But at the same time, the changes that happen during adolescence and young adulthood can provide tremendous opportunities for positive change, from the level of the individual to the nation.
Prospects for development depend in large part on the contributions that young women and men are able and empowered to make, particularly given the large youth cohorts in many developing countries. Yet few programmatic and policy approaches effectively address the needs of adolescents and youth, and fewer still provide them with opportunities to engage in fostering sustained and positive change, including around gender norms. Rarely do programs reach the most marginalized, including very young adolescents, those living in extreme poverty, married and out-of-school adolescents, youth with disabilities and LGBT youth, among others. Engaging these youth in programming and responding to their diverse and unique needs are essential investments in their future.
By Saira Habib, ICRW Fellow, Professional Fellows for Govern
ICRW has been examining the lives of adolescents and youth for four decades. Our work includes developing, informing and evaluating research, programs and policies that work with and for young people, including those that improve access to quality sexual and reproductive health, prevent early and forced marriage, promote girls’ education and boys’ roles in improving gender norms, create opportunities to economically empower girls and young women, and prevent violence.
ICRW helps to identify and elucidate the unique needs and contributions of young women and men, bringing into sharper focus the issues and constraints they face, and designing gender-responsive policies and programs across a wide range of sectors.
For example, by assessing the evidence base on child marriage, we have been able to help policymakers, donors, program implementers and civil society organizations better understand what works to end the practice. By documenting rigorously the harmful effects that child marriage has, not only on girls’ health and wellbeing but also on social and economic outcomes, ICRW is bringing greater global attention to this harmful practice, and working with policymakers to increase and improve investments to it.
We also play an important role in global youth-focused initiatives, such as USAID’s YouthPower program, which is facilitating a shift away from problem-focused responses to adolescents and youth, and toward proactively building skills, fostering healthy relationships, transforming systems and making youth active partners in development. We are a core partner on the Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE) program, a longitudinal research initiative funded by the UK government that aims to strengthen the evidence base on adolescent girls. ICRW was also a key member of the Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing, which has expanded the global base of evidence and action on youth, through producing leading-edge evidence on the adolescent brain, the importance of youth engagement and the critical need for accountability for action.
As a result of ICRW’s extensive work and on the topic of adolescents and youth, we now know more about the needs, concerns and capabilities of adolescents globally, as well as the specific challenges and opportunities associated with researching and working with this population. Our research shows that all aspects of young people’s lives – school, relationships, work, health and family – must be addressed in order to bring about lasting social change.