(August/September 2000) Today more than one-fourth of the world’s 6 billion people are between the ages of 10 and 24, making this the largest group ever to enter adulthood. The actions of these young people — 86 percent of whom live in less developed countries — will shape the size, health, and prosperity of the world’s future population.

Overall, the current generation of young people is the healthiest, most educated, and most urbanized in history. Urbanization generally affords greater access to health services and education but also brings greater exposure to the risks of sexual activity and violence:

  • Complications of pregnancy, childbirth, and unsafe abortion are the major causes of death for women ages 15 to 19.
  • Statistics on rape suggest that between one-third and two-thirds of rape victims worldwide are 15 years old or younger.

These risks disproportionately affect women but are of wide social concern. Early pregnancy and childbearing are risky for young women and their children. For instance, maternal mortality among 15-to-19-year-old women is twice as high as for women in their 20s. For infants in some countries, the risk of death during the first year of life is 50 percent higher for those born to mothers under age 20 than for those born to mothers ages 20 to 29.

Still, some societies perpetuate the risks associated with being young and sexually active. Compared with women over age 20, female adolescents are less likely to use contraception because they lack information or are misinformed and fear side effects. Additional cultural, economic, and legal barriers impede young women’s access to and use of family planning. For example, family planning services typically are designed to serve married, adult women, leaving young, unmarried women — and men — out of the picture. This is particularly significant because today’s young people are marrying later and reaching puberty earlier.

The lack of services not only increases unintended pregnancies but also contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS. According to UN estimates, about half of all new infections are among 15 to 24 year olds, the range in which most people start their sexual lives. Adolescents are at high risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections because, among other reasons, they often have multiple short-term sexual relationships and do not consistently use condoms. Young people often do not understand how to prevent AIDS.