|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference on Launch of UNICEF’s 2011 ‘State of The World’s Children’ Report
Investing in the health, education and empowerment of adolescents was a powerful way to create a stronger future, experts from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and its partners said at Headquarters today.
“Adolescence is a pivot point,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Hilde Frafjord Johnson at a press conference to launch the agency’s flagship annual report, The State of the World’s Children, subtitled “Adolescence: an Age of Opportunity”. She added that the period between ages 10 and 19 presented both an opportunity to consolidate the progress made in early childhood and the risk of seeing those gains “wiped out”. It was also during adolescence that poverty and inequity were most often passed from one generation to the next, she said, emphasizing that breaking that cycle was imperative to improving the lives of future generations.
Accompanying Ms. Johnson were Tamara Kreinin, Executive Director of Women and Population at the United Nations Foundation, and Sarah Kambou, President of the International Centre for Research on Women. They addressed the challenges faced by adolescents — nearly one fifth of the world’s population — as well as the significant opportunities presented by investing in young people.
Pointing out that nearly 90 per cent of the world’s adolescent population lived in the developing world, Ms. Johnson said that, except in China, one in two girls aged 15 to 19 did not attend secondary school, and one out of five was already married. Adolescents, especially girls, were hit hard by HIV and most lacked correct and comprehensive knowledge of how to prevent infection. Adolescents also struggled against institutional challenges, including sex and labour trafficking, recruitment by armed groups and the denial of proper nutrition and basic services, she added.
Ms. Johnson noted that while the challenges were vast and cyclical, the reverse was also true. “Investing in adolescent girls can have cascading benefits — the so-called ‘girl effect’,” she said, describing the phenomenon whereby educated women were more likely to pass on health and economic benefits to their own children. Emphasizing that even a single year of education could greatly improve a woman’s ability to provide for her family, she said educated women were also less likely to marry early and more likely to send their children to school.
Ms. Kreinin echoed the call for more significant investments in adolescents, and in girls in particular. “At the same time that we hear all these harsh statistics, girls remain invisible.” It was currently estimated that only 2 cents of every development dollar went to supporting adolescent girls, she added. To rectify that imbalance, the United Nations Foundation worked on key initiatives alongside the United Nations Adolescent Girls Task Force, which was spearheaded by UNICEF and other relevant agencies, she said.
The Foundation had crafted a series of programmes in Ethiopia, Liberia, Malawi and Guatemala, with the hope of shifting priorities to make adolescent girls more visible, she said. For example, a “holistic, rights-based” programme had been able to reduce high child-marriage rates in Ethiopia. By working with community members — including parents, faith leaders and girls themselves — adolescents were now delaying marriage and pregnancy, staying in school and significantly improving their knowledge of sexual and reproductive rights.
Ms. Kambou praised the 2011 edition of the “beautiful report”, saying that policy analysts and decision-makers relied on the kinds of data it presented. Much of that information focused on child marriage and pregnancy, she said, adding that she wished to highlight one major challenge facing adolescent girls today. “Early marriage occurs as part of a broader social pattern,” she said. In those social contexts where it occurred most frequently, choices were limited by poverty and gender inequality. There were currently some 60 million child brides around the world, and an estimated 100 million girls would become child brides in the next decade, she said.
Early marriage posed major risks to girls, including domestic violence, social marginalization and the negative health impacts of pregnancy, including high risks of maternal mortality, she continued. The child-marriage cycle also repeated itself through generations. “But while pervasive, child marriage is not inevitable, and social norms are not immutable,” she said, underlining the necessity of community responses in breaking the cycle of early marriage. Programmes providing empowerment and training in basic life skills were making some strides in that area, she added.
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