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Achieve real gender equality for adolescent health


Ayah Nayfeh

Program Management Officer
Photo of Montasser Kamal

Montasser Kamal

Director, Global Health, IDRC

The world is currently home to the largest number of youth (aged 10 to 24) to have ever reached reproductive age in history. Unfortunately the social, economic and environmental realities for these 1.2 billion adolescents mean that they are among the most marginalized and excluded people the world has ever seen.

Increasing conflict and political fragility in many parts of the world have exacerbated and entrenched health disparities for young people, particularly adolescent girls who routinely face diminished access and barriers to health care.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are a cornerstone of adolescents' transition to adulthood, yet limited access to sexual and reproductive health services is preventing women and girls from leading safe, healthy and dignified lives.

Indeed over the last 20 years, there has been little progress in expanding comprehensive access to these services to adolescents. A coordinated and focused approach for addressing the sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescents is an important priority for the future of Canada's international assistance activities.

Serious gaps in the provision of adolescent health could reverse development progress made in the area of maternal, newborn and child health in recent decades. More than 16 million adolescent girls become mothers every year, comprising 11 per cent of all births worldwide. Adolescent pregnancies are more likely to occur in poor and uneducated communities, where sex education is lacking; contraceptives are inaccessible or unavailable; young girls are at an elevated risk of sexual violence and assault; and some girls are forced into early and child marriages.

Adolescent girls account for 62 per cent of HIV infection rates and complications from pregnancy and childbirth continue to be a leading cause of death in young girls (aged 15 to 19) in low and middle-income countries.

These vulnerabilities are even greater in humanitarian and fragile settings, where women and adolescent girls face intensified forms of sexual violence, trafficking, and abuse and gender discrimination. The unpredictability and disruptive nature of displaced populations and lack of regular access to contraception and health care puts this population of young women at an even higher risk of unintended pregnancy.

It is estimated that 17 per cent of all maternal deaths take place in humanitarian settings and unsafe abortion alone accounts for 25 to 50 per cent of maternal deaths for refugee women worldwide.

These facts have led us, at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), to build on our work on adolescent health within the context of our continued support for research on maternal and child health.

The need for more knowledge on how to empower adolescent girls, in particular, is part of IDRC's message at the upcoming Fourth Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Vancouver, B.C. (Nov. 14 to 18, 2016). The Symposium will bring together key Canadian and international leaders to discuss themes around building resilient and responsive health systems, including the need to address adolescent health.

The Government of Canada's commitment to applying a feminist lens to international assistance activities puts Canada in a unique position to demonstrate global leadership for women's empowerment and gender equality and to advance the health-related sustainable development goals.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development cannot be achieved without increased investment in adolescent girls. What is needed to ensure that young girls flourish to adulthood is a comprehensive and multi-sectoral approach that addresses the root causes of adolescent pregnancy and gender-based violence, and supports sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescents worldwide.

It is not an option for the largest cohort of adolescents in history to be the largest unserved population in history. Achieving real gender equality is key for advancing sexual and reproductive health for adolescents, both as a human rights imperative and to improve education levels, employment, and peace and security. This will be the beginning of a larger conversation that will set the global direction for Agenda 2030.

This op-ed was first published in The Huffington Post on November 3, 2016. 

Ayah Nayfeh is the Program Management Officer and Montasser Kamal is the Program Leader for the Maternal and Child Health program at IDRC.

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