Disparities in the way girls and boys are raised and treated are at the root of many sexual and reproductive health problems and development challenges. For boys, adolescence can be a time for expanded participation in community and public life. Girls, however, may experience new restrictions, and find their freedom of movement limited. Socially constructed gender roles may give girls little say about their own aspirations and hopes, and restrict them to being wives and mothers.
In addition, young women face more reproductive health vulnerabilities than men. Biologically, women's risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections during unprotected sexual relations is two to four times that of men. Of particular concern are the dramatic increases in HIV infection among young women, who now make up 60 per cent of the 15- to 24- year olds living with HIV. Globally, young women are 1.6 times more likely to be living with HIV than young men.
Negative gender-based norms and practices can be gradually transformed through educational, social, legal and other processes that promote equality of girls and boys. Without such action, unequal gender relations and power imbalances are likely to persist throughout adult life. UNFPA is committed to reducing gender inequities in the lives of young people, paying particular attention to the vulnerabilities, pressures and risks faced by young women.
The problem of child marriage
Social expectations often put pressure on girls to marry and begin bearing children before they are ready. Despite a shift towards later marriage in many parts of the world, 82 million girls in developing countries who are now between the ages of 10 and 17 will be married before their 18th birthday. Child marriage jeopardizes the health and limits the opportunities afforded to women, usually disrupts their education and often violates their human rights. Married adolescent girls often find it difficult to access reproductive health services. In some countries, marriage to older men makes girls more vulnerable to HIV.
Some 14 million women and girls between ages 15 and 19 - both married and unmarried - give birth each year. For this age group, complications of pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death, with unsafe abortion being a major factor. Early childbearing is linked to obstetric fistula, a devastating and socially isolating condition that leaves women incontinent. Teenage mothers are more likely to have children with low birth weight, inadequate nutrition and anaemia. And they are more likely to develop cervical cancer later in life.
When young girls marry older men, they may be at additional risk of contracting HIV.
The risk of gender-based violence
Adolescent girls are also exposed to various forms of gender-based violence from harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting to the growing problem of sexual trafficking. The first sexual experience for many adolescent girls is forced, often by people they know, including family members. This can lead to long-term physical and psychological damage. Dire poverty may result in young girls being 'sold' to traffickers or being forced into sexual relations as a survival strategy.
Addressing gender inequities through education
Educating girls is a powerful lever for their empowerment, as well as for reducing poverty. Girls who are educated are likely to marry later and to have smaller, healthier families. Education helps girls to know their rights and claim them, for themselves and their families. Education can translate into economic opportunities for women and their families.
The importance of education in reducing gender inequities is highlighted in by its inclusion in the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs call for the elimination of gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and to all levels of education no later than 2015.
UNFPA is part of the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative (UNGEI). Its goal is to accelerate progress in closing the gender gap in primary and secondary education and to ensure that by 2015, all children complete primary schooling, with girls and boys having equal access to all levels of education.
In all regions women are gaining access to literacy and education, and at a faster rate than men. About 90 countries are on track to meet global goals for ending gender inequality in primary education by 2015.
UNFPA in action
UNFPA, in partnership with UNICEF and WHO, has been involved in a major initiative to reach out to the specific needs of young women and men in thirteen countries. Though the specific activities in each country vary, all of the initiatives work towards some common goals to ensure that adolescent girls have the same rights and opportunities as boys.
At the core of this inter-agency programme, funded by the United Nations Foundation, are these fundamental building blocks:
Creating an environment conducive to keeping girls in school through the secondary level; or at least ensure they are literate.
Ensuring that the particular reproductive health needs of adolescents are addressed and youth-friendly services provided.
Working with communities, including local political and religious leaders, to increase public awareness of the reproductive and sexual health issues affecting adolescents.
Providing life skills and counselling so that adolescent girls are aware of their rights and know about available services.
Developing vocational training and income-generating programmes for adolescent girls to increase their status, independence and opportunities.
Mobilizing the support of decision makers at all levels to support programmes aimed at improving adolescent sexual and reproductive health.
Contributing to equitable and sustainable development by reinforcing the capacity of national governments to engage girls in the social, economic and political life of the country.
Examples of UNFPA's work with the programme include:
In Senegal, UNFPA is helping some 10,000 girls and young women from poor disadvantaged families break the cycle of poverty. Through close links with communities and NGOs, girls are receiving comprehensive education, with an emphasis on gender and human rights. Some are being trained as peer educators. In addition to training in income-generating skills, girls now have access to youth-friendly reproductive and sexual health information and services.
In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, local communities have been educated about the reproductive health needs of adolescents, especially girls. This has involved close collaboration with local media outlets, and introduction of sexual and reproductive health issues in the school curricula. The project is also working to ensure that adolescents have access to appropriate reproductive health services and counselling in schools.
UNFPA is also working with UNIFEM, UNICEF, the Population Council and International Planned Parenthood Federation on a special project to improve social and economic opportunities for adolescent girls in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and India. The project will produce evidence-based strategies to find feasible alternatives to child marriage. Strategies will include a community assessment in selected regions of the countries, the mobilization of community and opinion leaders towards ending child marriage, and recommendations for actions that can be adapted by countries with a high prevalence of child marriage.
The Fund also advocates greater participation for young people in programmes that affect them. Global Youth Partners is an initiative that encourages young people to actually work as advocates for HIV-prevention with policy-makers in their countries.