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Addressing adolescents’ sexual reproductive health and rights

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Two million young people are currently living with HIV and 70,000 will die from pregnancy related causes each year. The majority of these deaths occur in developing countries and could be avoided.

Governments, NGOs and local communities must empower young people to act on their sexual reproductive health and rights, so Women and Children First applauds the launch of the UN General Comment on the Rights of Adolescents, which stresses the necessity that all young people enjoy their rights and outlines the actions that governments must take to ensure this.

Adolescent pregnancies can often be unplanned or unwanted, as sexual education may not be readily accessible, some girls might face the social pressure to marry and bear children early and others may be unable to refuse unwanted sex. More than 30 per cent of girls in developing countries marry before they are 18; half will do so before they are 15. Limited sexual education means that girls, married or otherwise, may not know how to avoid getting pregnant. They may feel inhibited or ashamed to seek contraception services; contraceptives may be too expensive or not widely or legally available. Early childbearing must be addressed as, the younger the mother, the greater the risks for both mother and newborn. In developing countries, babies born to adolescent mothers are more likely to be underweight and even face a 50 per cent higher risk of being stillborn or dying in the first few weeks, compared with babies born to mothers aged 20-29.

Limited access to sexual health education and contraception have also led to higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases among young people. Although the overall number of HIV-related deaths is down 30 per cent since it peaked 8 years ago, estimates suggest that HIV deaths among adolescents are rising, particularly in Africa. This increase may reflect the fact that, although more children with HIV survive into adolescence, they do not all get the care and support they need to remain in good health and prevent HIV transmission. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, less than 15 per cent of young men and women aged 15 to 24 are aware of their HIV status.

The protection of sexual reproductive health and rights plays a crucial role in the development of adolescents into healthy adults with brighter and freer futures. Young people need to know how to protect themselves. They must have the support from their governments and local communities, as well as the means to do so. Adolescents must have access to sexual health education, as well as access to appropriate health care. This includes access to HIV testing and counselling, being able to obtain condoms to prevent unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, as well as accessing clean needles and syringes.

Read the UN General Comment for more information and help Women and Children First protect adolescent health by making a donation.