6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

The Power of 1.8 Billion Young People: ‘State of the World Population 2014’ Launch

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“A world in which a quarter of humanity is denied full enjoyment of their rights is an unjust world,” said Kate Gilmore, deputy executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). “It’s a world without the building blocks for human progress, for human peace, for human security.”

But it’s the world that today’s leaders have built, according to UNFPA’s State of the World Population 2014 report.

Policymakers widely recognize that the largest generation of young people the world has ever seen is critical to development. And yet, as the report demonstrates, by overlooking their rights and underestimating their ability to actively participate in development, leaders have crafted measures that produce superficial gains and don’t reach vulnerable groups.

“The report sets a tone and makes the case for looking at young people as assets and as a promising part of the future and not as a problem,” explained Jennifer Adams, deputy assistant administrator of USAID’s Bureau for Global Health, at a launch event at the Wilson Center on November 18.

A Big Opportunity

“Never before have there been so many young people, and never again, therefore, is there likely to be such a singular moment for the leveraging of broad-based economic and social progress,” said Gilmore.

The generation between the ages of 10 and 24 today – 1.8 billion people – is as large as the entire global population 100 years ago, said Adams. Nine in ten of these young people live in developing countries and as they cross the threshold of adulthood, the number of reproductive and working-age people in those countries will double, said Gilmore.

“This is not only a curve bender; this is the curve,” she said. “And it is the curve whose trajectory will determine what development’s outcome is.”

By investing now in the tools that young people need to build stable and prosperous futures and successfully transition to adulthood, leaders can spur broad-based development. Education, safe homes, vocational training, and access to health services are all critically important for young people to achieve their full potential, but are often neglected.

The report finds that if sub-Saharan African countries were to make investments in human capital similar to those of several East Asian countries during the early 1960s, their economies would experience an annual increase of $500 billion, said Gilmore.

In addition to being the largest generation the world has ever seen, they are also the most informed, connected, mobile, and politically active, said Chernor Bah, chair of the Youth Advocacy Group of the UN’s Global Education First Initiative.

Rights Delayed, Lives Destroyed

“It’s a big opportunity. It’s a very dynamic, energetic wave of fellow humans,” said Anne Richard, U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration. “But as the report cautions, many of them face enormous odds.”

The vast majority live in areas where scarce resources, laws, and social norms keep them from accessing the resources they need today to achieve their goals and engage fully and meaningfully in economies and societies in the future, Richard said.

“The origins of deprivations lie in rights denied, rights delayed, rights destroyed,” said Gilmore. The rights that underpin a safe transition to adulthood – to pursue education and employment opportunities, to live safe and healthy lives, and to make sexual and reproductive decisions – are often not respected.

Despite substantial gains in primary school enrollment and completion, an estimated 200 million youth cannot read or write, 79 million are unemployed, and 57 million are out of school, according to the report. Without access to comprehensive sexual education and contraceptives, adolescents are the only age group in which the incidence of new HIV/AIDS infections is on the rise.

“Wanting for access to social assets, economic and education opportunities,” Gilmore explained, “millions of young people will not realize their full potential as leaders, as scientists, as politicians, as artists, as doctors, as peacemakers, as people with power to transform the future, to be the future we all want.”

The ability of young women to make decisions about their reproductive health is particularly critical to their futures, the panelists noted. Women who can choose the timing, number, and spacing of their births can stay in school longer, pursue a wider range of livelihoods, and live healthier lives while supporting fewer children.

And yet, 39,000 girls under age 18 are married every day, and every minute, 27 girls areforced into marriage, domestic servitude, or sexual congress, Gilmore said. Facing hostility from families and health workers and lacking information, young girls are about one third as likely to use contraceptives as older women, said Richard, often with grave consequences: complications from underage pregnancies and unsafe abortions are leading causes of death among adolescent girls.

Invisible and Ignored

The basic rights of young people are endangered not only by cultural norms and traditions, but by policymakers who have not seriously considered their needs – or ability to contribute to development.

“Most people think we can continue to do business as usual while saying that the world has changed,” said Bah. “We need a radical change in the way we think and approach these problems.”

Policymakers have always struggled to come to terms with young people and sex, said Gilmore. This reluctance is particularly strong when it comes to girls between the ages of 8 and 14, when some find themselves in situations of unwanted sexual initiation. When girls in this age group become mothers or domestic servants and drop out of school, they become “invisible,” living and working in settings that are not easily accessible to those collecting data or providing services, said Bah and Adams. Most demographic and health surveys do not collect data on them. As a result, policymakers create programs that miss young girls and other critical groups, reinforcing chronic inequality.

Recreational programs and other traditional platforms for reaching youth cater almost exclusively to boys, said Bah. And what appears to be an impressive surge in primary education enrollment since the start of the Millennium Development Goals is actually comprised mainly of young boys and upper class girls. “We cherry-picked the low-hanging fruits and we left out the people at the bottom,” he said.

The report demonstrates that laws designed to protect young women may not be adequate on their own, said Richard. After the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, almost every national government established a minimum age of marriage, yet today, 1 in 9 girls are still married by the age of 15, with some becoming brides as early as 8 or 9 years old, she said.

Young people themselves can offer critical insights on how to reach overlooked groups and meet the needs of their generation, but have so far been excluded from policy dialogues, said Joel Davis, the 19-year-old executive director of Youth to End Sexual Violence and a coordinator of the He For She campaign.

Davis, whose organization campaigns to eradicate sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings, said his age is often used by adults as a way of disqualifying him from participating. “We notice it and we’re angry about it,” he said. “Why are young people not being included in this conversation?”

Policymakers’ failure to protect young people’s rights coupled with this tendency to dismiss their opinions creates some troubling double standards, said Gilmore:

They’re old enough to be pregnant, but not old enough to be trusted with access to comprehensive sexuality education or to contraceptives. They’re old enough to catch a sexually transmitted infection, but not old enough to exercise the autonomy required to seek and receive treatment for it. They’re old enough to be raped; they’re not old enough to be believed.

3.6 Billion Feet

Adams said she hopes the data provided in the UNFPA report will feed into theSustainable Development Goals – the international development agenda currently being drafted – and enable and encourage development organizations to reorient their work more towards youth.

Davis emphasized multi-sectoral approaches that keep young people from falling through programmatic gaps. Richard and Adams stressed the need to actively reach out to youth through social media and technology. And Bah and Gilmore highlighted the importance of deliberately investing in and collecting data on vulnerable groups, particularly young girls.

The panelists all agreed on the importance of education – particularly for young women – in allowing young people to realize their full potential, demand their own rights, and engage directly in decision-making.

“Young people hold within themselves the power to succeed and transform many of the issues and contexts of exclusion that plague our international community…if we provide [them] the tools to access education instead of picking up weapons,” said Davis.

This generation is trying to make its voices heard, from the streets of Hong Kong to Cairo’sTahrir Square, said Bah and Gilmore, regardless of whether governments choose to fully equip them or provide a seat at the decision-making table.

“If you really think that 1.8 billion can’t make a difference,” said Davis, “try standing in the way of 3.6 billion feet.”

Event Resources:

Drafted by Sarah Meyerhoff, edited by Schuyler Null.

Speakers

  • Jennifer Adams

    Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Global Health, USAID
  • Chernor Bah

    Chair, Youth Advocacy Group, Global Education First Initiative
  • Joel Davis

    Executive Director and U.S. Youth Ambassador, Youth to End Sexual Violence; Coordinator, HeForShe
  • Roger-Mark De Souza

    Global Fellow and Advisor
    Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience
  • Kate Gilmore

    Deputy Executive Director (Programme), United Nations Population Fund
  • Anne C. Richard

    Assistant Secretary of State, Population, Refugees, and Migration, U.S. Department of State