2.3.10 Adolescents and Youth and their Emergence as a Priority Group

Facts/messages: Adolescence is a period of many critical transitions: physical, psychological, economic, and social. While adolescents are those in the age range of 10 to 19 years, youth refers to the age range of 15 to 24 years. Young people make up a very heterogeneous group. The needs of a 12 year-old girl are very different from those of a 24 year-old male. Transition to adulthood is diversified by age, sex, marital status, schooling levels, residence, living arrangements, migration, and socio-economic status. Although young people are all in transition, their experiences are by no means the same. Young people represent an enormous potential resource for most developing countries. Their educational achievement, the skills they develop and the decisions they make about sexual behaviour and childbearing have profound effects, not only on their own lives, but on the lives of generations to come.

The “youth bulge”, which is often blamed for the difficulties in reaping benefits from the demographic bonus, is more appropriately interpreted as a “childhood trough”. Its real policy significance consists not in that young people are increasing as a proportion of the potential labour force, but in that they are increasing relative to the group under age 15. Thus societal resources previously targeted to young children increasingly need to be redirected to adolescents and young adults. When computed as a percentage of the 15-64 bracket, the 15-24 age group in most countries is declining. Its problems call for a more detailed inspection nonetheless. Taking advantage of the next 15 years in order to invest in young people may be one of the crucial decisions deriving from current demographic trends in many countries, particularly those where the demographic transition is in an intermediate or advanced stage.

It is appropriate to point out the characteristics of this population in terms of working conditions, education and access to services, as well as their participation as citizens, taking into consideration gender and socio-economic inequalities etc., while paying particular attention to the special needs of this group with respect to education and SRH services. Among the many barriers to SRH services for young people are: legal and policy constraints related to age and marital status; fear of being seen, due to a lack of privacy and confidentiality; fear that they will be treated badly; cultural taboos about young people’s sexuality; inconvenient hours and locations of facilities; and high costs. In addition, many young people have a poor understanding of their own needs, know little about available services, or are deterred by shame or embarrassment. Many countries have laws prohibiting people below age 18 to access to SRH services without parental consent.

Adolescent pregnancy is correlated with low education levels for girls. When adolescent pregnancies lead to abortions, they are often unsafe. Compared to adults, adolescents are more likely to delay abortion, resort to unskilled persons to perform it, use dangerous methods and present themselves late when complications arise. The highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) worldwide are among young people aged 15 to 24 years. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is affecting today’s adolescents in ways in which it didn’t affect their parents. Most young people do not have access to acceptable STI services. Without treatment, these infections can have serious implications, especially for women and their children. Young girls are at higher risk from STIs than boys because they reach puberty earlier, have older partners more often, and are physiologically more vulnerable to infection.

When young people are equipped with accurate and relevant information and education, skills in decision-making and communication, and have access to counseling and services they are better able to 1) Take advantage of educational and other opportunities that will affect their lifelong well-being; 2) avoid unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion; 3) Protect themselves against STIs including HIV; and 4) Improve their reproductive and sexual health, self-esteem and social participation.

Young people account for the majority of rural-urban migrants. Cities offer better jobs, housing, education, health care, and governance opportunities than rural areas. School attendance rates are higher in urban than in rural areas and cities offer greater opportunities for the empowerment of women and girls than rural areas. Many young women leave their villages to get away from traditional practices, such as child marriage, or in search of better economic opportunities and autonomy. The availability of safe havens for adolescent girls and young women can turn urban life into a beneficial experience through which they may find autonomy, access to resources, and control over their lives. On the other hand, lack of opportunities or marginalization perpetuates poverty and is associated with high levels of crime and the rise of political extremism. Close proximity and frequent interactions of young people in urban areas and greater access to mass media has facilitated the creation, adaptation, and dissemination of an urban youth culture, serving as a reference point for young people developing their identities, while these often challenge their roles at home, school, and work. Information and communication technologies are a predominantly urban phenomenon generating more and easier connections among young people. These technologies have changed the way young people relate to each other and have expanded globalized patterns of consumption.

UNFPA’s Framework for Action on Adolescents and Youth articulates the organization’s multisectoral strategy to promote the comprehensive development of young people worldwide. It also calls for upholding the rights of young people, and especially for marginalized groups and adolescent girls. Its four pillars include:

  • Addressing population, youth, and poverty issues at the policy level;
  • Expanding access to gender-sensitive, life skills–based sexual and reproductive health including HIV education in schools and community settings;
  • Promoting a core package of health and sexual and reproductive health/HIV services;
  • Encouraging young people’s leadership and participation within the context of sector-wide approaches, poverty reduction strategies and health sector reforms.

Methodology: Collecting and using a standard set of data on young people from censuses and nationally representative surveys is useful for evaluation change over time within a country as well as assessing a country’s performance. Analyze the size and growth of the young population. Data should be disaggregated by sex and age (in useful subgroups such as 10-14, 15-19, and 20-24 years), and when possible by educational level or school attendance, marital status, place of residence, and living arrangements. For instance, identify the age at which girls leave school, mean age of marriage, disaggregated by other variables (including household wealth and geographic location) to provide information for targeted intervention.

Make use of censuses and employment surveys for information on economic participation and unemployment, etc. Quantitative survey data may need to be complemented by qualitative methods to generate a complete picture of young people. Also, incorporate indicators for access to education and SRH services. Identify key indicators relevant to young people from DHS and Living Standard Measurement Studies (LSMS). DHS data can be separated into wealth quintiles, providing an important source of information on young people living in poverty and on key issues such as educational levels. When computing the mean or median age at first intercourse, make sure to do this correctly (recognizing the censored nature of the data) as simply computing it on the basis of those who have already had the experience will yield biased results. SHR data can further be manipulated to map geographically the most vulnerable of youth based on the understanding that young people are not a homogeneous group and illustrate visually where they live. DHS data can also give insight into national and regional variations and differences across social and economic strata. Furthermore, identify key indicators from MICS.

The Adolescent Data Guides series Adolescent Experience In-Depth by UNFPA and the Population Council draws principally on data from the DHS and aims to provide decision makers at all levels with data on the situation of adolescent girls and boys and young women. The age range covered is 10-24 and the data are presented in graphs, tables, and maps (where applicable).

The guidance document and toolkit by the UNFPA and Population Council Investing When it Counts addresses the lack of research on young people by compiling new data-gathering approaches, tools, and methodologies. The methodologies described in the guide are useful primarily for discovering which very young adolescents are most vulnerable, what their needs are, and whether they are being reached by existing programmes.

UNFPA’s Youth Participation Guide understands the inclusion of young people as meaningful partners in programmes targeting them with information and services that can improve their effectiveness. The resource seeks to increase the level of meaningful youth participation in programming at an institutional and programmatic level. Components include, 1) A conceptual overview on youth participation; 2) An institutional assessment and planning tool; 3) A youth-adult partnership training curriculum; and 4) Background handouts and more.

Specialized questionnaires, developed to monitor progress of youth participation, could address changes in attitudes towards youth staff and youth and adult experiences within the organizations that young people interact with. Basic qualitative and quantitative information can be collected to monitor the impact of youth participation at different levels and serve as the basis for evaluation. For a listing of qualitative and quantitative indicators consult UNFPA’s Youth Participation Guide.

Primary Sources:

  • National censuses;
  • DHS and Living Standard Measurement Study (LSMS);
  • National estimates and projections;
  • Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS).

Secondary Sources:


  • UNFPA (2011). Resource Guide for Youth and Poverty Reduction;
  • UNFPA and Population Council (2006): Investing when it counts: Generating the evidence base for policies and programmes for very young adolescents. Guide and tool kit;
  • UNFPA (2008). Putting Young People into National Poverty Reduction Strategies. A Guide to Statistics on Young People in Poverty;
  • UNFPA (2008). Youth Participation Guide: Assessment, Planning, and Implementation;
  • Cynthia B. Lloyd (ed.) (2205). Growing Up Global: the Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries. Panel on Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries. Washington DC, Committee on Population and Board on Children, Youth and Families, National Academies Press;
  • World Bank (2006). World Development Report 2007 contains an overview of youth interventions, with an evaluation of their effectiveness, broken down by area: Learning for work and life, Going to work, Growing up healthy, Forming families, Exercising citizenship, and Moving and communicating across borders;
  • Through the Youth Development Indicators Experts Group, the UN has developed a minimum series of indicators on youth, which can be found at http://www.un.org/esa /socdev/unyin/youthindicators.htm; A manual for the analysis of census data on youth is currently under development.

55  UNFPA (2011). Resource Guide for Youth and Poverty Reduction. Step Two: Poverty Diagnostics and Youth.
56  UNFPA (2008). Youth Participation Guide.