Opinion: The Power of 1.8 billion

Posted on November, 26 2014 by Action Canada

Dianne Stewart, Sandeep Prasad
Wednesday, 11/26/2014 12:00 am EST
Originally published in Embassy

Never before has there been such a large population of young people in the world.

In Ottawa to launch the State of World Population Report last week, the United Nations Population Fund looked at what is needed to unleash the vast potential and untapped resources of the world’s population of young people, a booming 1.8 billion.

Entitled The Power of 1.8 Billion: Adolescents, Youth and the Transformation of the Future, this year’s UNFPA flagship report is timely. Never before has there been such a large population of young people. Soon, they will become key players in our economies and development. Investments made in their empowerment and their rights, including their sexual and reproductive rights, have the potential to contribute to lasting growth, environmental sustainability and social development.

The report makes clear that investing in young people’s health, education, skills and opportunities is necessary to unleash their potential. Adopting strategies, allocating budgets and monitoring progress in these areas not only contributes to the realization of young people’s rights, but also to economic growth and development.

Yet today, many of the world’s countries with larger youth populations exhibit lower total public and private per-capita spending on health care, including sexual and reproductive health care. What’s more, across all countries, the world’s 1.8 billion young people face barriers to human rights—to education, to health, to live free from violence.

It’s undeniable, the realities of young people described in The Power of 1.8 Billion and across Canada and the world demand action.

Around the world, 2,400 young people contract HIV every single day, yet only 24 per cent of young women in developing countries know how to prevent HIV transmission. And each year, more than one million girls under 15 give birth, with about 90 per cent of those cases occurring within early and forced marriages.

In Canada, young people have the highest reported rates of sexually transmitted infections. One-quarter of the positive HIV test reports are attributed to those aged 15 to 29, with females making up 56.5 per cent of total positive HIV tests reported among 15- to 19-year-olds. These are statistics symptomatic of the significant gaps with the implementation of quality sexuality education and access to services across this country.

Investing in the services young people need to live healthy and empowered lives is critical for adolescents, youth and the transformation of our future.

Four years after the Muskoka Initiative—a Canadian government commitment to specifically address maternal and child health—Canada’s recommitment of more money towards maternal and child health during the Toronto summit in May is very welcome. With it, the government of Canada has an opportunity to target the important issues outlined in The Power of 1.8 Billion.

As a supporter of UNFPA, Canada can benefit from the research emerging from the report, particularly when addressing challenges related to maternal mortality and morbidity, early and forced marriage, sexual violence, adolescent sexual and reproductive health, youth employment and other issues facing young people in countries around the world, including Canada.

Governments have an obligation to realize young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. These obligations are embodied in national laws and international human rights treaties; yet young people continue to have their rights denied. Recognizing the reality of young people in Canada and abroad, Canada has an opportunity both through its development assistance, and also here at home, to recognize the power of 1.8 billion and consider earnestly the roadmap laid out in this report.

Dianne Stewart is the director of information and external relations with the United Nations Population Fund. She was in Ottawa to launch the report. Sandeep Prasad is the executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.