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Adolescents and youth at the heart of sustainable development

By Babatunde Osotimehin
UNFPA Executive Director

 Adolescents and young people between the ages of 10 and 24 now account for one quarter of the world’s population. Too many of these young people, particularly adolescents, have benefited far too little from progress towards the Millennium Development Goals, which have been guiding the international community since 2000 and will end in 2015.

With negotiations under way on a post-2015 development agenda and new set of global sustainable development goals, we have a chance to place greater attention on adolescents’ and young people’s needs, rights and participation. This would be a game-changer.

As it stands now, the goals and targets proposed by the Open Working Group on the Sustainable Development Goals include benchmarks for primary and secondary education. There is also recognition of the importance of young people’s political participation, and the need for job training to enhance their prospects for gainful employment.


While these are essential, we must go further. As a global community, we must safeguard the rights and expand the capabilities of adolescents, especially adolescent girls, to realize their full potential, specifically in regards to health, education, employment, participation and citizenship.

Today there are nearly 600 million adolescent girls growing up in developing countries. Investing in their empowerment and well-being would bring enormous benefits as these young women reinvest back into their families, communities, and nations.

At UNFPA, we see how programs can build the self-esteem and skills of disadvantaged girls, prevent child marriage, and expand their educational and life opportunities and full participation. We have found that it is crucial to address gender gaps early on, as low levels of empowerment and unproductive employment are especially detrimental for adolescent girls. Interventions must begin at early ages to have the greatest impact.

As we enter the final period of negotiation on the post 2015 agenda, I urge the G-20 leaders convening in Melbourne to lead the way so that the post-2015 development agenda more explicitly protects the rights of adolescents, and urges greater investment in their capabilities.

Greater emphasis should be placed on education for adolescents, specifically on sexuality, health and gender equality, and also on health, including sexual and reproductive health services. These investments will help adolescents to safely navigate the transition to adulthood.

This is important from the perspective of human rights, equality and equity. It is also important for our shared peace, prosperity and sustainability.

In countries with a large proportion of young people, investing in the health and empowerment of adolescents and young women will improve their choices and opportunities. It will also speed the demographic transition so that countries can reap a demographic dividend of higher growth and stability.

When women are empowered to exercise their rights and choose the number and spacing of their children, this leads to better educated and healthier children. Each additional year of schooling results in a 10% wage increase on average and subsequent doubling of salaries.

This is what happened starting in the 1960s in East Asia, where investments in young people’s human capital enabled the region to realize a demographic dividend from its large youth population.

Comparable investments in sub-Saharan Africa could add hundreds of billions to the region’s economies annually. Most importantly, capturing and maximizing a demographic dividend can lift millions of people out of poverty.

UNFPA is working with the World Bank and governments in the Sahel region of Africa to empower women and girls and accelerate the demographic transition. Special efforts focus on advancing the rights of adolescent girls and women, expanding girls’ education and access to reproductive health services including voluntary family planning, and eliminating child marriage.

With 1.8 billion young people aged 10 to 24 living in our world today, and nine out of 10 of them in less developed countries, it is time to make their needs, rights and participation a priority.

We can no longer afford to leave adolescents and young people behind.

With the right policies and investments, young people can be an immense source of productivity, innovation and creative dynamism to accelerate sustainable development and peace and stability. 


Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA Executive Director, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations


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