By Alexandra Sifferlin
November 18, 2014

There are currently 1.8 billion young people between ages 10 and 14, and about 600 million are adolescent girls. Their needs, if addressed, could help countries achieve rapid economic growth, according to a new report from the UN Population Fund.

The global community has never before been home to so many youth, and therefore so much untapped potential, the study says.

It’s possible to turn all that womanpower into prosperity. When it comes to international development, a country can experience accelerated growth during a period if its working-age population grows larger than its non-working age population, typically because fertility and mortality rates have dropped. This allows the country to become a more profitable society, a benefit called the “demographic dividend.” Given the high number of youth and adolescents today, the UN report says several countries are poised for this transition if they can ensure that their young people actually make it into the workforce.

Several factors can contribute to this transition, like increasing living standards and creating transparent regulatory environments, but one of the greatest factors cited by the UN report is if a country significantly prioritizes and invests in women’s health, including sexual health.

MORE: Why It Takes Teens Equipped With Condoms to Encourage Family Planning in Africa

As the report points out, about one in every three girls will be married by the time she turns 18—every day, 39,000 girls become child brides—and an estimated 33 million young women between ages 15 and 24 say they would use contraceptives if they had access to them. Unfortunately, contraceptive use among adolescent females is only 22%, due to limited availability. In many developing countries, once a woman is married off and starts having children, it’s often too difficult for her to enter the workforce, especially if she was married at a very young age and did not finish school. Getting pregnant at a young age also increases the risk of a dangerous pregnancy, once again raising the mortality rates for mothers and children.

“Child marriage, because it usually results in early pregnancy, is linked to deaths from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, and married girls are more likely than married women to suffer violence and other abuse at the hands of their husbands,” says the report.

The UN says that some of the most successful ways to make sure women are safe and can enter the workforce are to enforce their reproductive rights via family planning initiatives, to stop child marriage, prevent adolescent pregnancies, stop sexual and gender-based violence and expand access to education. If women can enter the workforce, they can contribute to their local economies.

Family planning programs not only empower women to determine their life’s trajectory, but they mean big payoffs for a country’s workforce and economy—something many countries still need to embrace.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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