UNICEF's State of the World's Children Report 2011 was released in February 2011. The report shows that strong investments during the last two decades have resulted in enormous gains for young children up to the age of 10. The 33 per cent drop in the global under-five mortality rate shows that many more young lives have been saved, in most of the world's regions girls are almost as likely as boys to go to primary school, and millions of children now benefit from improved access to safe water and critical medicines such as routine vaccinations.
On the other hand, there have been fewer gains in areas critically affecting adolescents. More than 70 million adolescents of lower secondary age are currently out of school, and on a global level girls still lag behind boys in secondary school participation. Without education, adolescents cannot develop the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the risks of exploitation, abuse and violence that are at height during the second decade of life. In Brazil for example, the lives of 26,000 children under one were saved between 1998 and 2008, leading to a sharp decrease in infant mortality. In the same decade 81,000 Brazilian adolescents aged 15-19 were murdered.
Adolescence is a critically important age. It is during this second decade of life that inequities and poverty manifest starkly. Adolescents face numerous global challenges both today and in the future, among them the current bout of economic turmoil, climate change and environmental degradation, explosive urbanization and migration, aging societies, the rising costs of healthcare, and escalating humanitarian crises.
Young people who are poor or marginalised are less likely to make the transition to secondary education during adolescence, and they are more likely to experience exploitation, abuse and violence such as domestic labour and child marriage – especially if they are girls. In the developing world, (excluding China), the poorest adolescent girls are roughly three times as likely to be married before the age of 18 than their peers in the richest quintile of households.
The vast majority of today’s adolescents (88 per cent) live in developing countries. Many face a unique set of challenges. Although adolescents around the world are generally healthier today than in the past, many health risks remain significant, including injuries, eating disorders, substance abuse and mental health issues; it is estimated that around 1 in every 5 adolescents suffers from a mental health or behavioural problem.