Adolescent girls and young women are often ignored in the provision of sexual and reproductive health services, and at times overlooked as the population most urgently needing such services and information.
Yet, with an enormous global adolescent population (estimated at around 1.8 billion and comprising one-quarter of the world’s population) living in varying degrees of social equality, the reproductive health of the world’s young girls is an issue that requires attention and needs to be prioritized on a global level to ensure lifelong health and well-being for girls, women and their communities.
The importance of sexual and reproductive health of adolescents has gained momentum in recent years, as it becomes more and more apparent that empowering women with both the knowledge and tools to take control of their own bodies is not only the right thing to do, but reaps both economic and social rewards. Delaying childbearing until after adolescence produces socioeconomic benefits. Contraception enables women to have smaller families, space their children and reach increased quality of life, greater productivity and an increase in the quality of women’s health: there are fewer deaths from unsafe abortions and lower maternal death rates.
Adolescents are at risk from a lack of adequate sexual and reproductive services. According to Save the Children, “complications from pregnancy, childbirth and unsafe abortion are a leading cause of death for young women aged 15 to 19.” Adolescents are also at a higher risk for contracting STDs, including HIV – 40% of new HIV infections are said to occur in 15-24 year olds. As they are going through drastic biological changes and approaching adulthood, adolescent girls are at greater risk of gender-based violence, and often face a high risk of being contracted into early marriage which in turn can lead to a halt in girls’ education, and put them in an increased risk of sexual and physical violence, STDs and early and unsafe pregnancy.
In a February interview, Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), asserted that attention to young populations is crucial for future success. Said Gilmore:
Governments need to realise that, unless we change the trajectory of adolescent girls on their journey to adulthood, there will be no development that is more sustainable, inclusive and resilient. When you change the trajectory of the adolescent girl, everything changes in a community. Looking at all the data from the past 20 years, we can see clearly that what happens to the adolescent girl in the next 15 years, that is what will make or break the future.
The provision of sexual health services to younger populations requires a multifaceted approach – not only is it important to have services such as access to contraceptives, counselling and healthcare available to individuals, but it is also important to work within communities to ensure young populations are able to properly utilize them. Investing in young girls’ ability to take an active part in their own sexual health is paramount, and it requires outreach and raising awareness, as well as ensuring availability of low-threshold, non-judgemental information services and assistance for empowering youth to make safe and healthy choices, especially in societies where this may go against the norm. Equally, attention need not only be given to preventing new infections of sexually spread diseases and preventable complications in pregnancy, but ensuring care for those who may already be affected, whether by a high-risk pregnancy or living with HIV.
It is no small task, neither for policy-makers or health workers. Yet encouragingly, the issue of adolescent sexual and reproductive health is one of the items at the Partnership for Maternal and Child Health Forum in Johannesburg this week, where panellists will discuss lessons learned from adolescent health programs and work to position youth health priorities in the upcoming post-2015 agenda. You can join the discussion using the hashtag #PMNCHLive and sign up for the Daily Deliveries by visiting crowd360.org/PMNCHLive.