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Today’s Youth, Facing Mostly Grim Futures


Vocational training center north of Amman, Jordan
Youngsters at a vocational training center near Amman, Jordan. Youths today must contend with unemployment, lack of educational opportunities and other societal deficits. JARED J. KOHLER/ILO

No group in the global population has more at stake after the Millennium Development Goals‘ deadline of 2015 than children and young people. That would seem obvious, but predictions vary widely on what kind of a world these young people will inherit and how they are prepared for whatever happens.

The Population Reference Bureau, with support from the United States Agency for International Development, has taken a close look at the 10-to-24-year-old worldwide population and prepared a poster-size chart of statistics, called the World’s Youth 2013 Data Sheet. The newly collected information available in recent years points to a generation of young people with better health and more education. That’s the good news.

The not-so-good news is that many in this age group in poor countries face social, health and economic barriers that in years to come will have profound effects on their own lives and their societies. Once again, facts show that girls and young women are most at risk.

For example, the Population Reference Bureau has singled out for special attention the level of knowledge of HIV-AIDS among the young. This comes at a time of growing hopes that the epidemic phase of the disease may be ending. In its 2012 progress report, UNAIDS took an upbeat view: “The global community has embarked on an historic quest to lay the foundation for the eventual end of the AIDS epidemic,” the report says. “This effort is more than visionary. It is feasible.”

Viewed against that hopeful backdrop, the findings of the Population Reference Bureau contain a caution about the knowledge of young people most at risk — and often living in the most populous countries — because they do not know basic facts about the disease. Using a UN statistics division data base, the bureau looked at how much youth between 15 and 24 years old knew about how to prevent sexual transmission, recognize myths about AIDS and understand that healthy looking people can transmit the disease.

In a selected group of representative countries — Cambodia, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Mali and Nepal — the report showed that only in Kenya, more than half the young men and women met the test. In Mali and Guatemala, fewer than a quarter of young people had a thorough knowledge of AIDS. In every country except Cambodia, women knew less than men. “While young women face a higher risk for becoming infected with HIV, males are more likely than females to have a comprehensive knowledge of HIV,” the data revealed. That finding supports the reality that men in developing countries more often than not dominate the sex lives of women, as numerous UN studies have found.

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Other bellwethers to consider when imagining the world that young people will inhabit for the rest of this century are unemployment and not enough education or opportunities to train for productive lives. Using statistics collected over the last decade by the International Labor Organization, the Population Reference Bureau reported that in Pakistan, 66 percent of young men and 11 percent of young women had no employment, education or training. (In development circles this is known by the acronym NEET, and women are often not considered part of a workforce.) In Niger, 68 percent of young men fell in this category, along with 21 percent of young women. In Nicaragua, 39 percent of young men and 10 percent of women did not have jobs and were not receiving the education and training they needed for 21st-century livelihoods.

Young women are further inhibited in building useful lives by the persistent prevalence of child marriage. In three regions of the developing world, South Central Asia, East Africa and West Africa, more than a third of all girls are married by age 18; in South Central Asia (India and its neighbors), 13 percent of all girls are married by 15, slightly higher than the 11 percent in East Africa and a few notches below West Africa’s 17 percent.

“This harmful traditional practice not only violates the human rights of girls and young women, but also threatens their health and well-being,” the Population Reference Bureau said. “And in the poorest regions of the world — particularly Eastern Africa, West Africa and South Central Asia — more than one in 10 girls was married by the age of 15.”

Given this situation, it is not surprising that girls in some of the most deprived societies, still in their teens, will become pregnant earlier in life, making them more prone to early death in childbirth and to unsafe abortion. Most of those who do live will have virtually all avenues of personal development closed to them.

These girls and young women may have more children than their families can manage and more than their countries can educate and employ unless current declines in adolescent fertility continue, as analyzed by Carl Haub, a senior demographer at the Population Reference Bureau, in a separate report, “Trends in Adolescent Fertility a Mixed Picture.”

Inevitably, the basic truths in Haub’s report circle back to what the Millennium Development Goals are all about regarding youth and women: “Keeping girls in school also delays marriage and childbearing,” Haub wrote.”As women receive more education, their desired number of children declines. Effective family planning programs can help women choose the timing and number of children they have. But many countries struggle to extend family planning and reproductive health services to large rural populations and to the urban poor.” Numerically, those are the people who will shape the decades ahead.

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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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