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World: UN Population Report Focuses On Challenges Facing Adolescents, Societies

Adolescence can be a difficult time in life, no matter where you live. But for many, it's especially tough. Millions of girls in poor countries get married and have children while still in their teens, interrupting their education and even endangering their health. Other boys and girls get married later but are increasingly exposed to the risks of unprotected sex. Tackling these problems would bring huge benefits, not just to the adolescents themselves but to the societies in which they live. That's the message of the UN's latest "State of World Population" report, released today in Prague.

Prague, 8 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sixteen-year-old Zohal doesn't want to get married yet. She'd rather finish school and study something useful, like economics.

If she does, Zohal will be rather unusual in her country, Afghanistan, where few girls attend secondary school and many marry and start families while still in their teens.

Zohal appears in a report released today by the United Nations Population Fund.

"State of World Population 2003" focuses on the world's record number of adolescents and the problems they face, particularly in sexual and reproductive health.

Omar Gharzeddine is one of the UN Population Fund officials who presented the report in Prague today: "The report focuses this year on the need to pay increased attention to the reproductive health rights and needs of adolescents and young people. 1.2 billion people, or one in every five people on Earth, are between the ages of 10 and 19, and this is the largest youth generation in history."

Among the many problems facing today's teenagers are unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, violence and HIV/AIDs -- some 12 million young people are living with the virus.

For millions of young women in poor countries, the problem is early marriage and childbirth, with its associated risks of maternal and infant mortality.

"Some 14 million women and girls between 15 and 19 -- both married and unmarried -- give birth every year. For these women, complications in childbirth and pregnancy are a leading cause of death. Early marriage also disrupts girls' education and limits their opportunities," Gharzeddin said.

Many girls marry young because their families are poor, or because of conservative traditions. Other parents may be anxious to prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

Figures from an earlier UN report show early marriage rates are high in Afghanistan and Bangladesh, where more than half of girls under the age of 19 are married.

But delaying marriage and pregnancy can bring benefits -- not just to the girls themselves but to their families, too. Gharzeddine explains, "Later child-bearing contributes to smaller families by choice, which helps promote healthier and more prosperous households. Studies show that money spent to delay childbirth [by] adolescents and prevent HIV infections is repaid many times over in direct savings and indirect economic gains."

The report doesn't give a one-size-fits-all solution to adolescents' sexual and reproductive problems. But it cites several programs that have raised the marriage age or cut HIV infection rates among young people in various countries.

Most involve information campaigns, education, or counseling -- or even financial or other incentives.

A secondary school program in Bangladesh requires girls to remain unmarried until their final exams. Several Indian states offer young women money or gifts to complete schooling and remain unmarried.

But tackling teens' problems in a more comprehensive fashion takes money. And so far, rich countries have given less than half of what they pledged nearly a decade ago to cover population and health services and other needs in the developing world.

Mona Kaidbey, special assistant to the UN Population Fund's executive director, says the report is a wake-up call for action.

"This report is a call for action to mobilize this support. We need to increase funding and expand information and services to young people. Let us all get involved. Let us all invest in youth to help them protect their rights, their health, their education, their future. They are the world's assets today, tomorrow, and forever," Kaidbey said.