Ensuring a brighter future for adolescents in Asia-Pacific

By Isiye Ndombi, Deputy Regional Director, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific Office
Adolescence is a critical juncture in our lives. After 25 years with UNICEF, 12 of which have been in the Asia-Pacific Region, I have seen first-hand the benefits of giving adolescents the right support, as well as the damaging repercussions if they are neglected.
I have had the privilege of working with a diverse and talented group of professionals at UNICEF and have seen the tremendous results achieved for children. But, like anything in life, there are always areas where we can work better and smarter. I believe adolescence is an area of childhood which requires more attention and investment from governments and development partners, including UNICEF.
This is a demanding and critical period of life with profound physical, emotional and social transitions. The adolescent’s brain is undergoing major changes which significantly expands their learning and related capacities. It is also an age when hormonal surges, physical changes and changing social roles intersect with urges for experimentation and risk-taking, potentially including taking drugs and having unprotected sex.
During adolescence, young people’s relationships with adults, peers, teachers and others in their community and beyond become increasingly important. Adult role models and the nature of the support provided become remarkably important within and outside the family.
Adolescence offers a great opportunity to ensure the realization of individual potential. It is a time when aspirations are high and where access to quality education, health care, protection and loving support can establish foundations for a productive and caring life. With the right support and services, adolescents can be a major asset to our countries. Sadly, far too often, I have seen these opportunities missed.
Pressure points

 

 

Rex, 14, sniffs glue to help alleviate hunger pangs in the Philippines.
Around 250,000 children live and work on the streets in the country.
© UNICEF/NYHQ2011-2383/Pirozzi

 

When I worked in the Pacific Islands, I witnessed riots, increasing numbers of young people in conflict with the law, rising juvenile suicide rates, increasing HIV infections, and high adolescent pregnancy rates. Across the region, adolescents are also impacted by violence, injuries, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as lifestyles that can lead to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other non-communicable diseases.  In a few countries, marriage of adolescent girls under 18 is still tolerated, in violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
For me, these pressure points tell a story that society isn’t doing enough for adolescents. Yet I have personally found adolescents full of great energy, ideas and advice for leaders.
In my Pacific experience, young people confronted complex issues like the impact of the global economic downturn, climate change, urbanization and reproductive health. They confidently defined strategies and solutions as well as going on to construct relevant messages for their peers and decision-makers. Their solutions were creative, pragmatic and often exceeded the expectations and imaginations of adults.
In several countries over the last five years, I have seen adolescents and young people, with UNICEF’s support, do great communication and advocacy focusing on how to overcome issues affecting vulnerable people and adolescents.
Supporting adolescents 
 

 

Adolescent girls take part in a life skills session in Papua, Indonesia.
The training involves information on how to protect themselves from HIV
© UNICEF Indonesia/2014/Andy Brown

 

Over and over again I have seen the vital role that adolescents can play in shaping our current and future lives. But sadly I have also seen how societies have failed to support adolescents and even damaged their current and future lives.
From my experience, I can share ten key lessons which can help protect and improve the lives of adolescents:
  1. Young people are an important part of community solutions. They have a long-term view of issues and keen self-interest in identifying solutions.
  2. Improved data and statistics can track important adolescent behaviours and practices, and can be used to address critical issues. Innovative technology also offers opportunities to build community based systems to solve problems.
  3. Lifestyle-related diseases, such as obesity, are now dangerously endemic in most of Asia and the Pacific. These can be prevented by offering better access to information and education on healthy eating and regular exercise.
  4. Comprehensive sexuality education and provision of adolescent-sensitive, friendly health services can go a long way towards establishing safe sexual and reproductive health for adolescents and well into their adult life.
  5. Accidents (including road traffic incidents) are the leading cause of death among adolescents. They can be involved in helping to provide solutions.
  6. A 10 to 14-year-old has very different needs and aspirations from a 15 to 18-year-old. An urban-based adolescent probably has different challenges to their rural counterpart. We need to work with adolescents in different ways to achieve the best results for them.
  7. All development sectors, such as child protection, education and HIV, to name but a few, have a part to play in shaping a better future for all adolescents.
  8. Getting adolescents into secondary school, and ensuring that they complete school, requires stronger and sustained investment.
  9. Education and support for parents of adolescents, and mental health support services for adolescents, are important.
  10. Investments in early childhood development are important. The foundations for adolescent health and development are built very early in life when care, love and trust must be well-manifested.
Adolescence is the critical bridge into adulthood, but for too long governments and development partners have shied away from offering consideration and support to this critically important population. Let’s ensure we rectify this error and give our young people the best hope of reaching their full potential.

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Comments:

  1. Fully agree that for too long not only the Govt, the development partners but also, we, UNICEF and UNs sisters and brothers have shied away from supporting adolescent development. In order to rectify this error, strategic guidance is needed. Having this blog issued is one of those…Thank you so much, Isiye!

  2. Many thanks, Anh Lan Le, for your comment.

    The return on proper investment in adolescents is potentially enormous and transformative if we tap their ideas, creativity and visions to influence policies, services and community norms.

    I believe development partners need to join hands in applying their strengths to contribute to caring for adolescents and help them participate. In so doing, we need to always remember to ensure that the strongest focus is on the most vulnerable.

    Importantly, we need more people speaking and standing up for adolescents.

    Thanks again, Isiye