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While we don’t have a reliable estimate of unmet need among all youth (married and unmarried), it is clear that the need for contraception is pervasive. Comprehensive sexuality education can ensure that young people have the knowledge and tools to make informed decisions about using contraception, preventing unwanted pregnancies, and protecting themselves from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. To some extent, policies restrict young people’s fundamental right to sexual and reproductive health information, services, and supplies. Even when policy barriers have been removed, stigma and provider bias often prevent young people from seeking or receiving information and services. 

Maybe we’ve got it all wrong when we talk to 14-year-olds, 18-year-olds, and even 22-year-olds, about “family planning.” Maybe we need to refocus our communications on what matters to them. They’re not ready to plan families yet, but they do want to make sure that they become pregnant only when they are ready to have children—and not before. . Our goals should be improving awareness of contraception and enable people, especially young people, to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health.

The world today has the largest population of youth in history—we have more than three billion people under the age of 25 and more than 1 billion between the ages of 15 and 24. More than 80% percent of 15- to 25-year-olds live in developing countries. And every year more than 14 million births occur among adolescent women in these countries. Some of these births are planned, but a large proportion of them are not.

Youth-friendly Reproductive health services:

The decisions that young people make every day, including decisions about sex and reproductive health, have an impact on their own lives. But collectively, their decisions will also influence global health, population, and development throughout the 21st century and beyond.  Young people often cannot make informed decisions about sexual and reproductive health. Many lack access to education and information. Societal values around childbearing, family size and the rights of young people can limit their access to knowledge about contraception. Another common barrier is access to youth-friendly health services, including health workers who can provide information and services without bias, especially for unmarried young people. Contraceptive services should be responsive to the special needs of adolescent women, be provided in a manner that does not stigmatize sexually active adolescents, and be offered in a respectful and confidential way.

Let’s listen to them:

Not all adolescents are unmarried, of course. In developing countries, many are married. And some of them wish to become pregnant. Reducing unintended pregnancies among young women could help increase their access to educational and employment opportunities. This would, in turn, contribute to sustainable socio-economic development, reduce poverty, and move us toward a more equitable world.

If there is a youth friendly reproductive health service for unmarried young people, they will not be shy about making their voices heard. They will expect the global health community to really listen to them and take their needs seriously—not to preach. These young people might not even want to talk about “family planning” and may instead choose to talk about sexual and reproductive health. Let’s have the conversation on their terms. Let’s listen to them. And let’s not let them down.