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Adolescence: policy opportunities and challenges

Maxine Molyneux, University College London
15 Jan 2020
Disclaimer: The views expressed within this Think Piece are those of the author(s)and do not necessarily represent the views of UNICEF. This Think Piece has not been edited to official publication standards and UNICEF accepts no responsibility for errors.

Maxine Molyneux, University College London

The increased attention devoted to adolescents in global policy is timely and welcome. When not neglected altogether, adolescent’s needs are typically subsumed within policy briefs on children or adults, or narrowly focused on tackling particular social problems that young people are seen to be uniquely responsible for.

It is a truism that young people hold the future prospects of a country in their hands. Yet they have often been denied a real chance to contribute to it, let down by poor secondary education, lack of training and labour market opportunities. Economic downturns and austerity policies exacerbate these effects, pushing up youth unemployment, migration and casualisation, and cutting short education. The 2008 economic crisis affected young people more than adults with lasting effects: in Latin America the youth unemployment rate (those aged 15–24 years) had reached nearly 20% by 2016 leaving one in every five young people unemployed (ILO, 2017).  Deepening inequality and economic hardship impacts on communities, driving the narcotics economy, crime and insecurity, and increasing the risks to which young people are vulnerable. 

If policy responses have been disappointing--slow, partial and sometimes harshly repressive--there is every reason to hope for more positive approaches in countries where adolescents form a sizeable part of their populations. Today’s cohort of young people is the largest in history and 90% of those aged 10–24 years live in low- and middle-income countries. Governments often speak of ‘investing in youth’ as the key to future development, and  vocational training and apprenticeships for unemployed youth are rising up the policy agenda.  Mexico’s  programme ‘Young People - Building a Future’ is a case in point.  Less positively, there is growing concern about youth disaffection with ‘politics as usual’, political extremism, and rising youth crime. All these are factors which indicate the need for more adequate, inclusive approaches and joined-up policymaking and practice. How governments address these issues, how they engage with their young people, and what policies are or are not adopted, reveals much about the deep divisions in and between contemporary societies. There can be little doubt that whatever policies are pursued, they will have long lasting effects that will shape the fortunes of the countries concerned.

A time of change

We know that adolescence is a critical phase due to the biological, mental, and cultural adaptations that need to be made in the transition to adulthood.  Adolescence is a time of sexual and relationship experimentation and of identity formation, when social norms, both good and bad, can play a crucial role in setting behavioural patterns. Social change can generate tensions between generations, and between rural and urban populations over what is considered appropriate conduct. Caught amidst changing and conflicting norms and behaviours, vulnerable young people who cross the accepted lines can be harshly affected by discrimination and punished by repressive laws if they transgress the gender norms of their community or country. Same sex relationships in hostile contexts can bring heavy penalties and shame to LGBT+ children, along with high rates of mental illness, suicide, and self-harm. Sometimes government policies lag behind social attitudes: in the Caribbean, same sex relationships, previously viewed as unacceptable, have seen majority attitudes shift in favour of more liberal laws.

As norms change and diversify, mixed messages can be confusing especially in matters of sexual conduct, and as old norms erode, attention must be paid to how to embed positive new norms to help young people safely navigate their transitions to adulthood. Education plays a critical role here, but so too can other areas of social policy, such as health services and social protection programmes which are targeted at the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. 

If a mixed picture emerges with regard to social norms, we are nonetheless seeing evidence that societal and parental attitudes seem to be slowly changing for the better. Human rights frameworks, when embedded in national law and institutions, have played a key role in setting positive norms as well as establishing rights which have been critical for girls and women, as they have for LBGT+ people and other discriminated populations. While much remains to be done to secure these rights for all, and in some cases to defend them against those who oppose them, they have helped to promote important attitudinal and behavioural changes that provide young people with some protections.

With respect to gender, globally there has been some progress in tackling the harms of non-recognition that arise from gender inequalities, including the everyday denigration of girls and women, their limited opportunities and exclusion from many areas of work. Parents today are often more aware of the benefits of educating girls for future employment. Yet, where gender norms continue to stress early marriage and downplay the importance for girls of taking up rewarding work, there is all too often a failure to offer girls the same training opportunities open to boys. This is a missed opportunity. In a world where knowledge of basic computing skills is essential, and new jobs and educational opportunities are opened up in technology and science, girls can lose out if they are channelled into ‘female occupations’, whether old-style handicrafts or micro-enterprises based on their supposedly natural domestic skills. The gender gap in IT skills remains far too wide, and it is still the case that in many regions, business and management training, engineering, and skilled crafts are all occupations which tend to be overwhelmingly male. Imaginative approaches to closing the gender gap in these and other occupations can help to challenge rigid and disabling gender norms while at the same time securing more stable economic futures for young women.

That said, we have seen in recent decades real efforts on the part of NGOs and other development actors directed at changing girls and women’s attitudes, with some notable successes. However, far fewer interventions have involved boys and young men. There is a need for greater understanding that boys also need attention and support, with targeted services not only to address their needs but critically, to encourage new ways of thinking. Challenging boys’ more negative attitudes about girls and women and encouraging them to see the benefits of more equal partnerships across the gender divides is the natural counterpart to interventions targeted at female empowerment.

This involves understanding some of the problems faced by adolescent boys. While one of the positive changes that has occurred worldwide is the closing, or at least the narrowing, of the gender gaps in primary and secondary school enrolment, the less positive development is that boys are falling behind, especially in low income households.  As a result, many boys drop out early to earn money in low paid sectors of the economy with few prospects. Furthermore, marginal and poor young men are often stigmatised and have difficulties accessing services. Yet, tackling gender inequality and the negative social norms that help to sustain it, must include boys and young men. Gender is necessarily relational, to focus on one group and exclude the other is, in policy terms, like one hand clapping.

On freedom and Protection

Adolescence is a transitional stage on the way to adulthood and a balance has to be struck between enabling new freedoms and ensuring protections from harms. This basic point is illustrated by the increasing access to the internet, with children making up 1 in 3 internet users today. For all its positive aspects in terms of social networking, learning, and ease of communication, it also has a dark side which can constitute a threat to young people, whether through too early sexualisation and acquaintance with pornography, or exposure to sexual predators and traffickers.  Internet usage can widen the generational gap and at the same time weakens parental control over what children can be exposed to. A growing consensus is calling for greater regulation to protect young users from harms, and we may see change in this area soon. In the meantime, however, although children and young people need to be given adequate protections where possible, the internet remains an important and necessary part of their lives.

The balance between freedom and protection is perhaps most evident in respect of sexual and reproductive health, where an absence of appropriate measures can lead to life-changing circumstances whether through unwanted pregnancies or STDs.  HIV/AIDS is the second most common cause of death among adolescents globally.

Preventive services and gender equality values have come under attack in Latin America and elsewhere as neo-conservative religious movements have been gaining traction in recent years, with the aim of reversing existing policies on sex education and reproductive rights.  Moral panics over social problems involving young people have led to the adoption of harsher policies and penalties which only create further problems. Governments, for instance, worry about rising numbers of teenage mothers, yet some adopt policies that only exacerbate the problem, banning sex education in school, restricting reproductive rights and access to the services that young people desperately need if they are to avoid early pregnancy and health risks. Ending sex education and closing SRH services does not alter behaviour or stop young people from having sex, it only stops them from taking safe precautions. The result is that desperate young people seek help through unsafe underground means.  These outdated attitudes and policies need tackling through education and public media, while governments and churches need to be made aware of the harms incurred by these measures and encouraged to observe the human rights protocols that countries have signed up to. One important point to note on sex or relationship education (as it is increasingly being seen), is that this only works well when developed with young people’s input into what is taught, and includes discussion of positive values and norms in its brief.

Listen to adolescents

Indeed, some of these policy gaps and policy failures are due to the fact that young people lack voice and representation in decision-making settings of all kinds. While they will face the consequences of decisions and non-decisions of policymakers, they are all too rarely consulted about the issues that affect them, the environment being a particularly stark example. In this and many other areas, the continuing toll of inaction in addressing young people’s needs and aspirations only deepens the sense of disappointment, alienation, and frustration that many feel. It is hardly surprising that young people have been taking to the streets in numbers in many different parts of the world to demand more policy action on environmental issues, and on government corruption, while women and young men have repeatedly protested against sexual violence and demanded their reproductive rights. While this activism is welcome, it clearly indicates the need for more inclusive approaches, including more consultation with, and representation of, young people in the policy debates of our times, engaging more directly with their aspirations and needs. Young people’s energy and creativity should be celebrated and encouraged, and seen as the key to transformative change.

If policymakers have begun to focus on young people, we need to ask them: are they addressing the problems faced by adolescents and what are the lessons learned so far?  Research is sparse but it is at last under way and accumulating, though more is needed, as is disaggregated age and sex data. New research builds on the greater awareness of changing life cycle needs and shows that well designed interventions to help adolescents at this critical time of their lives can have major positive impacts, mitigating the risks they face and at the same time enhancing their life chances. It also shows the need for a more holistic and positive approach to adolescence, one that does not demonise the young, that listens to their needs, encourages their participation in public life, and develops integrated policy interventions into a workable joined-up set of approaches. We are far from being there yet.

How can social protection be more responsive to adolescent needs?

Social protection is an essential building block for households from which adolescent members can benefit in the following ways:

1. Cash transfers (CTs) reduce household poverty which in turn leads to:

  • Increased household consumption and nutrition
  • Reduced child labour
  • Increased school enrolment and attendance
  • Increased confidence and self-esteem among recipients

 2. Going Further

  • Where social protection programmes have clear social equality goals and are accompanied by relevant services, the chance of more significant changes, especially for the most vulnerable (girls, women, disabled, sexual, ethnic and religious minorities,) is greater.
  • Empowering women has a positive effect on children, including creating positive role models and changing attitudes towards girls and women by men.

3. Cash transfers could do more:

  • Include adolescents in CT programme activities and services where appropriate:
  • Allow them access to health services. These are vital for adolescents but few clinics that service mothers and babies are open to adolescents and there are almost no services for mental health, which can be a major problem among  young people.
  • Offer training/skills and (if needed) literacy sessions
  • Include adolescents in parenting, child health, gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and relationship sessions
  • Ensure that programme design does not reinforce unequal gender roles in the household. Changing parents’ behaviours and attitudes sends important messages to children
  • Avoid treating mothers and daughters as exclusively responsible for caring, by eg. imposing heavy conditionalities, and excluding men from parenting/child health sessions.
  • Collect sex and age disaggregated data on recipients

4. Transformative interventions for adolescents:

  • Cash transfers can promote positive values and incentives to bring about changes in norms and behaviour by:
  • Providing extra cash incentives for families with girls to boost school attendance
  • Allowing any conditionalities to be carried out by male members in the household.
  • Complementary services, like skills training, should provide imaginative, gender equal, and transformational skills to programme beneficiaries, including use of ICT and financial competence.
  • Affordable, free childcare can allow daughters, as well as mothers, to access income or skill generating activities.
  • Creating effective feedback, participation, and consultation mechanisms for adolescents, and including them in social accountability exercises.
  • Working with boys, men and parents to change attitudes and tackle ‘dysfunctional masculinity’. In Kenya, ‘no means no’ consent classes reduced rape by 50%.
  • Support families to change attitudes eg the Adolescent Girls Empowerment programme in Zambia works through inclusive community-based programmes.
  • Working with ICT to reduce risks and enhance opportunities for young people.
  • Boys only and girls only clubs or spaces allow discussion of difficult issues they are facing, including GBV, FGM, STDs, HIV, and substance abuse risks.

5. Policymaking:

  • Strengthen policy and programme focus on adolescents
  • Policies must be gender-focused and pro-equality
  • Identify clear context-based priorities
  • Provide adolescents with voice and representation in policy processes and at project level
  • Improve data collection on adolescents disaggregated by sex
  • Policies need to be joined up, cross ministry, particularly in education and health

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