How Do We Make the 2030 Agenda Meaningful for Adolescents and Youth?

At the end of this month, government leaders from around the world will gather in New York to approve the 2030 Agenda—the most comprehensive framework for global sustainable development ever designed. The Agenda includes a set of 17 goals and 169 targets—the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—that all countries will commit to working toward. 

One thing about the 2030 Agenda is clear: the changes we make over the next 15 years will have ramifications for generations to come. And youth have a lot to gain, or lose, in this regard. If we don’t improve conditions for young people today, we will not make real progress in achieving sustainable development. But how do we take the promise of this new agenda and ensure it will positively impact the lives of adolescents, especially girls?

Currently, young people face a range of complex challenges: including limited opportunities to gain skills and confidence, barriers to education, and lack of sexual and reproductive health information and services. Given the global persistence of gender inequality, girls are disproportionately affected. Every day, 39,000 girls under the age of 18 are married. In developing countries, 20,000 girls below the age of 18 give birth each day. As a result, many girls are forced to drop out of school. They are also more likely than adults to die, experience complications, or suffer chronic injuries related to pregnancy or childbirth. Many youth, and girls in particular, lack access to the information, resources, and services they need to safeguard their health and improve their lives.

While there is certainly no silver bullet, one transformative intervention for young people is comprehensive sexuality education (CSE). CSE provides thorough and scientifically accurate information on human rights, gender equality, sexual and reproductive health, and other interrelated topics. The Journal of Adolescent Health recently found that the most effective CSE programs are those that take place in safe and healthy learning environments and use participatory and interactive methods. But perhaps the most critical element of effective CSE is the inclusion of lessons on gender and power. When young people are educated about human rights, gender equality, and the role of power in relationships, they are not only equipped with the tools to negotiate their own healthy relationships, but they are also able to educate and influence those who hold power in their communities.

Although CSE is not mentioned specifically in the SDGs, many of its components are addressed in Target 4.7. Certainly, investing in CSE would go a long way in helping governments meet this target. Programs supporting CSE have already had significant impact in countries like India, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Expanding and adapting such initiatives could be extremely useful as these and other governments explore ways to improve young people’s health and lives.

There are several examples of effective CSE programs from around the world that other governments can look to as possible models. Colombia’s Ministry of Education implemented a program called Sexuality Education and the Construction of Citizenship (PESCC), which is explicitly rights-based and gender-focused. Four years after its inception, 1,000 communities were implementing sexuality education programs, and 3,800 teachers were trained to deliver evidence and rights-based CSE. Here in the United States, the Horizons project, which emphasized ethnic and gender pride, HIV knowledge, communication, condom use skills, and healthy relationships, resulted in increased condom use and a 35 percent lower risk of acquiring Chlamydia among the youth who participated in the program. Similarly, the gender- and empowerment-oriented curriculum developed by the organization Stepping Stones in South Africa resulted in a 33 percent reduction in the incidence of herpes simplex virus 2.

Armed with these and other examples of effective CSE programs, governments can put in place a plan to expand young people’s access to this essential education—which will put them on the path to reaching Target 4.7. And those running programs can also use Target 4.7 to guide their work and ensure CSE is brought to the classroom.

The most meaningful work to come will be translating the rhetoric of the 2030 Agenda into real change at the local level. We hope that young people, and girls in particular, will be a central focus as governments, communities, civil society organizations, and donors collaborate to put this plan into action.

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One response to “How Do We Make the 2030 Agenda Meaningful for Adolescents and Youth?

  1. I see that the indicator of early or teen pregnancy that the MDGS included for reducing maternal mortality is no longer explicit in the SDGs. Although reference is made to universal Access to s&Rhealth services in Cairo’s and beijing and their follow-ups terms, i sense the power of s&r rights has diminished.

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