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Thank you, Roger-Mark. As you noted, my bureau supports UNFPA’s work to increase access to reproductive health services and prevent and respond to gender-based violence throughout the world.
For this reason, I am very pleased to join you all for today’s launch of the 2014 State of the World Population Report on “The Power of 1.8 Billion: Adolescents, Youth, and the Transformation of the Future.”
As this report points out, our hopes for peace and prosperity depend on what happens to this, the largest generation of young people in human history.
But as it cautions, many of them struggle against almost overwhelming odds. In some countries, a girl is more likely to die in childbirth than to complete her education.
The vast majority of young people, nine in 10, live in less developed countries –where poverty is most prevalent and healthcare and schooling hardest to come by. And scarce resources are just one problem.
This report notes that young people often face additional hurdles, such as laws and social norms that can keep them from receiving reproductive health information and services – services they urgently need – to preserve their options, pursue their future goals, and even save their own lives.
For example, while millions of women have an unmet need for contraception, it is married adolescent girls, ages 15 to 19, whose unmet need is the greatest of all. They are only about a third as likely to use contraceptives as married women over 30. Many of these girls have no say in the matter. Unmarried adolescents also struggle to get information that could help them avoid early pregnancy or HIV. Health care workers or families may be hostile or judgmental, and laws may require young people to get parental consent to obtain family planning information or services.
The consequences of this unmet need can be grave. Among 15 to 19 year-old girls in low and middle-income countries, complications from pregnancy and unsafe abortions are a leading cause of death. And while HIV fatalities for other age groups are falling, among adolescents, they are rising.
What is encouraging – and the report makes this clear – is that we can solve this. The report recommends a number of promising interventions – steps the Obama Administration fully supports. They are:
- Stopping early and forced marriage and preventing adolescent pregnancies
- Strengthening sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights among young people, including adolescents
- Preventing and addressing sexual and gender-based violence
- Discouraging harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation
- Promoting equal education for girls
- Improving young people’s prospects for finding good jobs.
There are no painful tradeoffs here. These interventions are mutually reinforcing – and create a virtuous cycle.
More education, less child marriage and gender-based violence, delayed childbearing, healthier kids, stronger economic growth, gender equality, and expanded opportunity all go together.
That is one reason why the U.S. government supports young people’s reproductive rights, youth-friendly, integrated sexual and reproductive health services, and age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education. For example, USAID has been working in countries across the globe to meet adolescent health needs through its “Youth in Development” policy.
And why the Obama Administration has devoted more than $20 million to Secretary Kerry’s signature “Safe from the Start” initiative. Its aim is to stop gender based violence in emergencies. And, as a part of our PEPFAR HIV programs, we have reached over 114,000 survivors with post-rape care over the past four years.
And we are not alone. The vast majority of governments have lined up to support these types of policies – and the goals set forth in international consensus documents starting with the Program of Action that emerged from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. Many have also passed laws to protect the health and rights of young people. But as this report demonstrates, that may not be enough.
For example, there is ample evidence that early and forced marriage is hazardous for girls, exposing them to dangerous pregnancies, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence, and often trapping them and their children in poverty. And almost all countries have established some legal minimum age at marriage. Yet one in nine girls in developing countries gets married before she turns 15. Some child brides are as young as eight or nine.
This report points to one important reason for this. Often, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the Arab States and South Asia, laws against early marriage are not enforced. For example, India has criminalized marriage for girls under 18, but in 2010 only 11 people were actually convicted of violating this law.
This report can help close the gap between the principles enshrined in our international pledges, and what young people experience in their daily lives. It can help laws, enforcement, and programs catch up with intentions. It shows how important it is to understand what holds young people back, not only in theory but in practice, and to give them a voice in shaping solutions.
We all know that young people are the future. Thanks to UNFPA, we now know just how much is at stake. Not only the risks of failure, but the enormous benefits within reach with the right mix of enlightened policies and effective programs. Young people deserve the chance to pursue their dreams and to thrive. As this report shows very clearly, by helping youth secure their future, we can also secure ours.