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Q&A: How we can ensure a healthy, wealthy future for young people


Graça Machel

Board Chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health

The world needs to be more responsive to the needs of young people, and particularly adolescent girls and young women, says Graça Machel, Board Chair of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health.

Why is investment in the welfare of adolescents so critical?

“In 2015 alone, 1.3 million adolescents died from preventable causes and millions of others suffered injuries and developed harmful behaviours with short-term and long-term health-related impacts. Adolescents largely lack the information needed to make informed decisions about their sexuality, family planning, and their reproductive health. They also lack the necessary guidance from adult family members, teachers and medical professionals to both seek and access appropriate health services and support.

“These statistics tell us why it is so critical that various stakeholders concertedly take action to address the needs of young people, and particularly adolescent girls and young women.”

What kind of initiatives are needed in this area?

“Investment of $22.6 per capita in adolescent health each year will generate economic benefits of about 12 times the costs by 2030, even before considering the broader health and social benefits of such interventions. Initiatives to improve secondary school enrolment and quality of education are central to health, wellbeing, and human capital, and have long-lasting benefits on health and welfare over the life-course.

“Access to education must be any society’s imperative. Education, particularly of women and girls, enables them to make informed decisions, be full citizens, and allows their communities to reach their highest potential.

“Initiatives incorporating life skills education and aimed at ensuring girls enroll and finish their studies are critically important. Studies have shown that girls who complete their secondary education are less likely to fall prey to child marriage or experience early pregnancies.”

How important is that individual sectors work together?

“Adolescent health and well-being is not driven by only one sector. It is underpinned by collaboration between health, education, water and sanitation, empowerment and social justice to name a few. Partnerships between civil society, governments and private sector are needed to holistically address the unique needs of adolescents and ensure they are given a solid foundation to be healthy, engaged citizens.”

Are you optimistic that things can, and will, change?

“In recent years, we have seen a paradigm shift in the vision towards adolescent health and wellbeing. We have a great opportunity that cannot be overlooked – and that is investments in adolescents, with adolescents. At the same time, we have reviewed our progress over the past 15 years with the Millennium Development Goals and the reality is clear: we have lagged behind with this population and their needs.

“We need to break the cycles that keep adolescents disempowered and ill-equipped to fulfil their potential. We need to put the power of change in their hands. An increase in financing and the establishment of multi-sectoral partnerships are critical to properly addressing major health challenges facing children and adolescents everywhere.”

Why do you think working towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will achieve better outcomes?

“The SDGs provide a platform for development to be more holistic, comprehensive and driven by evidence.  It is a globally agreed upon agenda that requires all actors — government, private sector and civil society — to work together towards common visions and goals. We must work meaningfully with adolescents and young people, the ‘SDG generation,’ to achieve each of the SDGs. We must equip young people globally to reach their full potential.”

And how do we do that from a logistical point of view?

“Working for young people means not only working for them, but with them, and beside them. Today’s youth can at times be as much a mentor as a mentee. As adults, we need to involve them in the planning and implementation of programmes, seek out their innovative ideas and tap into their vibrancy. Young people also need to work together with each other to have a strong unified voice to push their agendas forward.”

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