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Focusing on Adolescents

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Focusing on adolescents

How is adolescence defined?

The World health Organization (WHO) defines adolescence as the period between 10 and 19 years of age. The lines between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood may differ by culture and region, however. For women, the definitions rest solely upon physiological maturation and age; for others, adolescence is defined by a combination of maturation, social stage, or economic independence. In some cultures, for example, by getting married, leaving school, or having a baby, a young person moves into adulthood, even though he or she may still be between 10 and 19 years of age.

No matter which definition of adolescence is used, the number of individuals in their teens is larger than ever before. Today, adolescents comprise almost one-fifth of the world's population; there are over one billion young people ages 10 to 19. In the developing world, more than one-third of the population is under the age of 15. In sub-Saharan Africa and some other regions, about half of the population is under 15. The young people in this large group are poised on the edge of, and in some cases already are, making reproductive decisions that may affect the rest of their lives and those of their children. (See Key Facts about Adolescents and Reproductive Health).

Why is it important to tailor services to adolescents?

The sexual behaviors of adolescents are changing rapidly in many parts of the world. In many countries, sexual activity among adolescents is increasing as the average age of first sexual intercourse is decreasing. The rise in sexual activity among youth places them at greater risk for unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDs.

As the sheer number of adolescents and their sexual activities increase, it is important to focus on the distinct needs for information and care that this age group has when seeking reproductive health services. Adolescents are at a critical life juncture in part because:

  • They may not understand the physical and emotional changes that are happening to them
  • They are especially susceptible to peer pressures and needs for approval
  • They are more apt to engage in risk-taking behavior
  • They may feel invincible or fail to understand the possible consequences of their actions

The consequences of adolescents' behavior can affect their entire lives. For example, early childbearing may curtail educational opportunities and diminish quality of life for young parents and their children. Sexually transmitted infections may lead to future infertility or even death. Early pregnancy may also claim the lives of some young women since complications from pregnancy and childbirth are more frequent at earlier ages.

What are some of the barriers to meeting the needs of adolescents?

Adolescents face many barriers to receiving comprehensive reproductive health services. Most reproductive health services are designed for adults and do not always have the capacity to meet the special needs of adolescents. This is due in part because:

  • Adolescents' needs are not clearly understood
  • Service providers and policymakers often avoid the sensitive issue of adolescent sexuality
  • Service providers or policymakers may hold uncompromising attitudes toward adolescent sexual behavior
  • Service sites may bar young, unmarried people altogether, especially in societies with strong taboos against premarital sexual relations
  • Existing adolescent programs may overlook some segments of the youth population, such as school dropouts, street children, and teenage sex workers


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