Prioritizing Adolescent Health

Gender inequality and discrimination against girls mean they are often robbed of the right to make their own life decisions – from what happens to their bodies, to when and to whom they marry.

Teenage pregnancy can rob girls of their potential by ceasing their education and giving them adult responsibilities. An estimated 18 million adolescent girls give birth every year.

Ensuring girls’ and young women realise their right to sexual and reproductive health and have control over their lives and bodies are critical to achieving gender equality.

We work with partners around the world to enable access to quality sexual health services, and eliminate harmful practices such as menstrual hygiene management, teenage pregnancy, Sexual and reproductive health services  and early and child marriage.

In 2014, the World Health Organization declared the age of adolescence—the “second decade”—a decade in which health initiatives must be prioritized. “Progress has been made in generating interest and commitment for adolescent health,” says their Health for the World’s Adolescents report. “However, the increased concern has frequently not been transformed into action.”

According to the WHO, adolescents (ages 10 to 19) make up around one fifth of most countries’ population. They are important contributors to social change and economic development. Their health (or lack thereof) sets the stage for future indicators of progress. And while adolescence can be one of the healthiest time periods in a person’s life, the most common causes of adolescent deaths—traffic accidents, lower respiratory infections, suicide, diarrheal diseases, and drowning—are preventable or treatable.

Adolescents are at a particularly vulnerable stage of their lives; they are highly sensitive to outside risk factors like abuse, substance use, and violence. Their propensity for risk-taking along with their lack of experience and knowledge leaves them particularly vulnerable to dangers like addiction, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), suicidal behavior, traffic accidents, violence, and gang involvement. This time period is also when most mental health disorders manifest. These health risks are then carried into adulthood.

On the flip side, adolescence is also a time when protective factors can have strong positive effects on outcomes in adulthood. Youth are shaping their worldviews and developing personalities, exploring their sexualities and establishing their values. This means that interventions that support healthy, supportive explorations of issues around sexuality, sex, informed consent, healthy relationships, nutrition, self-confidence, and skill building can be both impactful and cost effective.

Both biological and social sciences have gained a vastly improved understanding of adolescent health and development in recent years. We now know that the adolescent brain develops until early adulthood—some have even found evidence that our brains are not fully mature until around age 25. A deeper understanding of the complex interplay between cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes can inform interventions that tackle adolescent risk-taking behavior. As Dr. Laurence Steinberg, adolescent expert and professor of psychology at Temple University, explained in his pivotal 2005 study, ““the developments of early adolescence may well create a situation in which one is starting an engine without yet having a skilled driver behind the wheel.”

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