(April 2005) A new report says that young people in developing countries are entering adolescence healthier, are more likely to stay in school, and more likely to delay work, marriage, and childbearing than young people were 20 years ago.

The National Academies Press report—Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries—concludes that the 1.5 billion people in developing countries who are ages 10 to 24 live in a world far different from that of their parents. But the gains outlined above are uneven across regions, and the threats of HIV/AIDS, rising inequality, and poverty are presenting challenges for many, according to Cynthia B. Lloyd, editor of the report.

“Progress is being made, but the goalposts are constantly moving,” says Lloyd, director of social science research at the New York City-based Population Council.

Growing in Number as the Transition to Adulthood Grows Longer

According to the report, the number of young people (defined as people ages 10 to 24) in developing countries has grown by 500 million during the past 25 years. An overwhelming majority of the world’s young people—86 percent—now lives in developing countries. By contrast, the absolute number of young people living in the developed world has declined by about 10 percent since 1980.

The report, which synthesized information from hundreds of research studies, also says that the transition period to work and marriage for many young people in developing countries is growing longer as these young people are staying in school longer. The rate of boys ages 10 to 14 who have never attended school has dropped during the past 20 years, to 11 percent from 21 percent. Among girls ages 10 to 14, that percentage has dropped from 39 percent to 18 percent (see Table 1).


Table 1
Percentage Who Have Ever Attended School, in 49 Countries with Demographic and Health Surveys

  Weighted Averages—DHS Countries  Percentage Change
  Ages
10-14
Ages
10-14
Ages
20-24
Ages
20-24
Ages
30-34
Ages
30-34
Over 20 Years Over 20 Years
  Male Female Male Female Male Female Male Female
All DHS Countries 88.5 81.8 85.8 71.3 78.8 60.7 12.3 34.9
Selected Regions
Eastern/Southern Africa 81.1 77.8 83.4 74.4 81.5 68.3 -0.5 14
Western/Middle Africa 74 65.9 72.3 56.6 64.8 46.2 14.2 42.5
Middle East 92.6 83.4 91.5 77.1 84.4 65.1 9.7 28.1

Note: When data were available for two periods in time, both figures were weighted with the UN 2000 population estimates.
Source: Growing Up Global,2005.


Parents’ aspirations and employability concerns are driving this trend toward more education, which has resulted in more young people delaying marriage. Twenty years ago, 52 percent of girls in developing countries were married before 18. The rate, though still high, has dropped to 38 percent.

“There is a growing interval between childhood and adulthood as school enrollment rates rise during adolescence and work and marriage get delayed,” says Lloyd.

Education, Health, and Labor Are Linked Issues

One goal of Growing Up Global is to examine the connections among youth issues such as education, reproductive health, and labor force trends. As the report puts it: “Policies that support universal primary schooling of adequate quality, that support the expansion of good secondary schooling, and that promote good health during this phase of the life cycle are essential in their own right, but also important because of their role in promoting success in these other domains.”

For example, as adolescents in developing countries spend more time in school, they have less early sexual activity and are less at risk of disease caused by unprotected sex, which the report notes is “one of the riskiest behaviors that young people can undertake.” Among 41 developing nations between 1990 and 2003, only nine reported that more women were sexually active by age 18 in 2003 than in 1990 (see Table 2).


Table 2
Direction of Change in the Probability of Females Marrying or Having Sex by Age 18: A Comparison of 20-24 Year-Olds and 40-44 Year Olds, 1990-2003

  Number of Countries Increase No Change Decrease
Percent Marrying by Age 18
Africa
27
0
3
24
Asia
5
1
3
1
Latin America/Caribbean
9
0
3
6
Total
41
1
9
31
Percent Having Sex by Age 18
Africa
27
5
14
8
Asia
5
2
2
1
Latin America/Caribbean
9
2
3
4
Total
41
9
19
13

Note: Data obtained from Demographic and Health Surveys, 1990-2003.
Source: Growing Up Global, 2005.


But while school attendance rates are up, education and health improvements are not universal worldwide. According to Barney Cohen, population committee director at the National Research Council in Washington, D.C. (which, along with the Institute of Medicine, funded the study), HIV/AIDS remains a particular risk for youth in sub-Saharan Africa. And Growing Up Global adds that school attendance rates have fallen for boys in sub-Saharan Africa as the prevalence of child labor there has risen.

School attendance during adolescence also still is not standard in many countries, and quality of schooling is uneven. Growing Up Global cites a variety of discouraging studies on the topic: For example, results of math and French standardized tests given to fifth graders in five West African countries in 2001 were in many cases “no better than what could be achieved with guesswork.” The report urges countries to prioritize improvements in primary and secondary schools, noting that poor school quality discourages students and fails to prepare them to become skilled workers.

Persistent Disadvantages for Young Women and Girls

A recent UNESCO report that says 35 countries—including 22 in sub-Saharan Africa—are far from meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for gender parity in education, literacy, and universal access to primary education by 2015. Growing Up Global fleshes these statistics out by showing that many young women and girls still face chronic health and education inequities.

In particular, the report cites mortality and morbidity related to pregnancy and childbirth (including unsafe abortions) as among the most significant threats to young women’s health. Maternal causes account for 25 percent of deaths among 15-to-29-year-old women in North Africa and the Middle East and 16 percent of those in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for women in this age group in sub-Saharan Africa, although it is among the least important causes of death for women in this age group in many other developing regions.

And while contraceptive-use rates have been increasing over the last 10 years, they remain relatively low compared with those for older women. South America has the highest rate of sexually active 15-to-19-year-old women using contraception (28 percent). In nearly all regions of the world, contraceptive rates are higher among girls with at least eight years of schooling. Growing Up Global recommends that young people be given more general health information and sex education—including negotiating skills—to reduce risky and unprotected sex.

Girls also continue to trail boys in access to education in many parts of the world. And several countries also have glaring inequalities in attendance: In Pakistan, for instance, 66 percent of boys ages 10 to 14 attend school, compared with 45 percent of girls in the same age range. In Ivory Coast, two-thirds of boys ages 10 to 14 attend school, but fewer than one-half of girls the same age do.

Marriage before age 18, although on the decline, is still widespread, and many areas of the developing world have high rates of early childbearing. While 20 years ago, about 30 percent of young women ages 20 to 24 gave birth before age 18, that rate is now 23 percent. The report also notes that the gap between age at marriage and age at first birth has narrowed, dropping to 16 months from 22 months during the past two decades.

The Effects of Globalization and Urbanization

While Growing Up Global takes no position on globalization, it says this trend—along with urbanization—has transformed the lives of many youth in developing countries. But these changes also bring special challenges. While economic growth rates over the past 30 years in East and South Asia have approached those of some developed countries, growth rates in Latin America, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa have fallen.

Global trends in urbanization clearly have improved access to basic education, according to the report. As a result, more young people live reasonably close to a primary school than they did in the past. But while urban youth have increased exposure to new ideas and resources, including access to radio, television and the Internet, this trend does not hold everywhere. For rural youth, the report notes, “the outward patterns and rhythms of life may appear to be largely unaffected.”

Access to a global culture also leads youth to risky new behaviors: For instance, tobacco use is rising across the developing world, and alcohol and illicit drug use are increasing slowly. While smoking rates vary widely across countries, an average of 15 percent of male students ages 13 to 15 are smoking, and 7 percent of female students ages 13 to 15 smoke. And with alcohol consumption highest among urban youth, researchers say they expect to see increased use as a result of continuing urbanization worldwide.

Poor adolescents also are the group “most vulnerable” to the negative implications of globalization, says the report. Since these youth are less likely to stay in school, they face long-term disadvantages in the skills needed for high-paid jobs with upward mobility. Youth employment is likely to be a major challenge in some countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East. In Tunisia, for example, employment among males ages 20 to 24 has dropped from 83 percent two decades ago to 65 percent today, and from 57 percent to 37 percent for males 15 to 19. Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia, and Thailand all show similar trends in these age groups.

Indeed, according to Growing Up Global, poverty is “the greatest enemy to successful transitions” among youth in developing countries. About 325 million youth in developing countries live on $1 or less a day, a number larger than the entire population of the United States.


Charles Dervarics is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in education, health, and employment issues.


For More Information

Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries, ed. Cynthia B. Lloyd (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2005).