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Breaking taboos, reaping dividends

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Swapna Majumdar, Citizen News Service - CNS

Consider these statistics: Globally, 370,000 million children are married every day. By 2020, an additional 142 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday. Six million adolescent pregnancies occur in South Asia--90% of them inside marriage. Further, 34% of all unsafe abortions in the Asia-Pacific region happen to women below the age of 25.

Yet, talking about sexual and reproductive health (SRH) still remains a taboo. The perception that it would encourage promiscuity among adolescents continues to be one of the main reasons for stiff opposition to introducing comprehensive sexuality education in schools in this region. Lack of knowledge has been compounded by denial of access to SRH services and information to millions of adolescents and young people, says the 2014 UNFPA state-of-the-world population report released on November 18, 2014.

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The report, which was shared with the media at the Asian and Pacific Conference on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment: Beijing +20, held recently in Bangkok from November 17-20, 2014, underlined the need for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls to be at the forefront of all goals. Secondary education, comprehensive sexuality education, and access to SRH services, including contraceptives, were ways to empower girls.

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"When I was in school in Japan in the seventies, sexuality education was not comprehensive. I had to seek information from libraries, book stores and visit a gynaecologist as well," said Nobuko Horibe, UNFPA, Asia and Pacific regional director, in an interview with Citizen News Service (CNS) in Bangkok.

According to the report, although many countries have comprehensive sexuality education policy and programmes, its implementation has been poor. Consequently, knowledge about HIV and AIDS has been less than comprehensive. A recent analysis found that less than half of schools provide skills-based HIV education. In fact, only 28% of young women between the ages of 15-24 in sub-Saharan Africa had comprehensive knowledge of HIV. These are the women who are twice as likely to be living with HIV as men in the same age group.

This is why it important to invest in adolescents now, said Horibe. "A youth of 10 in 2015 will be an adult in 2035--the target year for achieving the next generation of sustainable development goals. A majority of them are growing up in poor countries where they face challenges of weak education and health systems, and limited access to SRH services. The report reiterates the need for governments to support young people develop their capabilities to realise their potential. If they have to make informed decisions, education, including comprehensive sexuality education, is an important enabler," she said.

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With a population of 243 million adolescents, India has the largest number of young people in the world. "Adolescents comprise 21% of India's population. The highest number of early marriages in the Asia Pacific takes place in India. India has a big role to play in the region and the national adolescent policy introduced by India recently is a good step," said Horibe.

While early marriage remains a big challenge in the region, early pregnancy is also a problem. Even in Thailand, where fertility rates are low, teenage pregnancy is increasing. "Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the second cause of death for 15- to 19-year-old girls globally. Adolescent pregnancy remains a major contributor to maternal and child mortality, and to the cycle of ill-health and poverty," she said.

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Citizen News Service (CNS) specializes in in-depth and rights-based, health and science journalism. For more information, please contact: www.citizen-news.org or @cns_health or www.facebook.com/cns.page

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