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World’s 1.8B youth driving growth

Parents and their children queue for treatment outside Phnom Penh’s Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital late last year
Parents and their children queue for treatment outside Phnom Penh’s Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital late last year. Hong Menea

World’s 1.8B youth driving growth

The United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA’s) annual report, the State of World Population, focuses this year on the power of 1.8 billion – adolescents, youth and the transformation of the future.

Today, the world is home to 1.8 billion young people and the poorest countries have the fastest youth population growth. Among this, 600 million adolescent girls have specific needs, challenges and aspirations for the future.

In Cambodia, 4.7 million youth can propel socio-economic development if investments are made in young people’s education and health, including sexual reproductive health and rights. How we meet the needs and aspirations of young people, and enable them to enjoy their rights, will define Cambodia’s future.

Today, nine in 10 of the world’s young people live in less-developed countries and they encounter obstacles to their rights – to education, to health, to live free from violence and to realise their full potential, as leaders, as change-agents, as entrepreneurs, as people with the power to transform the future. Because of lagging social services, countries like Cambodia face greater challenges to leveraging the advantages that can result from engaging a youthful, productive workforce.

In Cambodia, 32 per cent of the population is between the ages of 10 and 24, the highest in ASEAN. While the transition to adulthood offers young Cambodians many opportunities, many of them are exposed to new vulnerabilities, such as human rights abuses and exploitation, particularly related to their sexual and reproductive rights. Some young girls are coerced into unwanted sex or sold for their virginity, and some of them engage in entertainment work, putting them at risk of unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infections and gender-based violence including gang rape.

The UNFPA report shows that demographic shifts taking place in about 60 countries, including Cambodia, are opening a window of opportunity for a demographic dividend. The size of the dividend depends largely on how Cambodia will invest in young people to realise their full potential. With greater investment in the capacity of young people, giving them access to education, employment, and health, including sexual and reproductive health, they will be able to seize the opportunity and will play an active role in driving social and economic development of the country.

With the right policies and investments in human capital, every country can empower young people to drive economic and social development and boost per-capita incomes. Cambodia’s economy has grown an average of 7 per cent per year, and it is estimated that this growth will continue. Therefore, it is time for Cambodia to make a huge investment in the young population.

Many young people in Cambodia today are migrating from their rural villages to the capital in search of employment and education. Today, more than 550,000 young people are employed in the garment sector, of which 85 per cent are young girls. They represent an important segment of the population that is at risk when it comes to realising their sexual health protection and rights. More than one-third of garment workers have no regular partner, have little access to any form of contraception and more than 35 per cent have been pregnant. Nearly 18 per cent of ever sexually active women employed in the garment sector reported having an induced abortion.

Although the total fertility rate of Cambodian women has dropped sharply since 2000, teenage fertility in Cambodia has not changed much. A further analysis of the 2010 Cambodian Demographic and Health Survey found that the teenage fertility rate is 48 per 1,000 for women before they reach the age of 19 years, and 170 per 1,000 for women aged 20-24. Fertility is higher among teenagers in rural areas and among those with lower levels of education.

The Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sports has endorsed life skills initiatives on sexuality education, which aims to equip young people with knowledge on reproductive health and rights, and empower them to realise their needs during their transition to adulthood. In addition, UNFPA is responding to the needs of young people for accurate information on sexual and reproductive health in Cambodia. The Love9 program, which is a joint venture of UNFPA and USAID, produced by BBC Media Action, provides information to young people and has proved to be a big success.

On this occasion, to mark the release of the State of World Population Report 2014, UNFPA in Cambodia wants to raise awareness about youth issues and promote youth investments to make full use of a demographic dividend, but also to protect reproductive rights, improve sexual and reproductive health and provide skills and knowledge to build young people’s capabilities.

Marc Derveeuw is the UNFPA representative in Cambodia​.

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