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close this bookWIT's World Ecology Report - Vol. 11, No. 1 - Critical issues in Health and the Environment (WIT, 1999, 16 p.)
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Special focus: Youth and Global Population Largest Generation of Youth in History

The momentum of global population growth is indeed slowing. Thanks to the efforts of the past 30 years, growth rates have fallen and will fall further in the coming decades. But because of high fertility in the past, world population is still growing by over 80 million people a year. It will continue to grow at or near these levels for the next decade. What happens after that depends on action in the coming years.

Ninety-seven per cent of the world population increase takes place in the less developed regions. Every year the population of Asia is increasing by 50 million, the population of Africa by 17 million and that of Latin America and the Caribbean by nearly 8 million. Africa has the highest growth rate among all major areas. Sixty per cent of the world population increase is contributed by only 10 countries, with 21 per cent contributed by India and 15 per cent by China.

Past high fertility means that more young people than ever -over 1 billion between ages 15 and 24 - are entering their childbearing years. At the same time the number and proportions of people over 65 are increasing at an unprecedented rate. The rapid growth of young and old "-new generations" is challenging societies' ability to provide education and health care for the young, and social medical and financial support for the elderly. This is the news according to the United Nations Population Fund's, The State of the World Population 1998.

Over the next two decades some less developed regions will see a temporary "bulge" in the working-age population relative to older and younger dependents. This "demographic bonus" offers countries an opportunity to build human capital and spur long-term development - if they invest in education, jobs and health services, including reproductive health care.

East Asia was the first developing region to experience the demographic bonus, and it helped to build the region's prosperity into the mid-1990s. Asian countries invested their demographic bonus in health care and education. The Republic of Korea, for example, increased net secondary school enrollment from 39 to 84 per cent between 1970 and 1990 while more than tripling expenditure per secondary pupil. South America had a similar opportunity but missed it because countries failed to make similar investments. A similar window of opportunity is opening in Southeast Asia and South Asia.


World population, 3 billion in I960 and 5 billion in 1987, will pass 6 billion in 1999. Whether it ultimately grows to 8, 10 or 12 billion will depend on policy decisions in the next decade. Over 90 per cent of the growth will take place in today's developing countries. As the largest-ever young generation comes of age, society's obligation to address their educational and health needs, and to promote their human rights is both a moral and practical imperative.

European countries went through a gradual transition from high to low fertility and mortality over the past 150 years. The transition is very much faster in today's developing countries, where improvements in preventive health and medical care in recent decades have dramatically reduced mortality, especially infant mortality, and increased life expectancy.

Fertility has also declined, but much more slowly, resulting in unprecedented population growth and young populations. Since 1960 Gross Domestic Product per capita has tripled and contraceptive use has grown fivefold, from 10-12 per cent of married couples to 60 per cent in 1995.

In some developing countries, mostly in Africa, fertility and mortality are still high, though declining. There, a woman's chances of dying as a result of pregnancy are more than 1 in 20, life expectancy is below 60 years and 10 per cent of newborns do not survive their first year.

In the least developed countries, 43 per cent of the people are under age 15. In 71 high-fertility countries, more than 40 per cent are under 15. Since 1980 over half of the global increase in adolescents has been in sub-Saharan Africa.

In all developing countries, the proportion of the population aged 15-24 peaked around 1985 at 21 per cent. Between 1995 and 2050, it will decline from 19 to 14 per cent, but actual numbers will grow from 863 million to 1.16 billion.

Children under 15 in developing countries outnumbered people over 65 by nearly 10 to 1 in 1950 -more than double the ratio in the developed countries - and by over 11 to 1 in 1975, the ratio in 1995, though falling, still exceeded 7 to 1.

As a result of reduced fertility and mortality, there will be a gradual demographic shift in all countries over the next few decades towards an older population. The number of people over 65 will grow by about 9 million this year, 14.5 million in 2010 and 21 million in 2050. By 2050, 97 per cent of the growth of older populations will be in today's developing regions (more than one quarter will be in India), compared to 77 per cent now.

In a growing number of countries, couples are having fewer children than the two they need to "replace" themselves in the population. But even if "replacement fertility" were reached immediately, populations would continue to grow for several decades because of the large numbers of people now entering their reproductive years.

This momentum will account for up to two thirds of the projected growth of world population, more in countries where fertility declines have been fastest. Raising a mother's age at first birth from 18 to 23 would reduce population momentum by over 40 per cent.

In countries that have already reached replacement fertility, an influx of migrant workers could ease the labor force decline and alleviate pressures on social security systems.


Today, there are more than one billion young men and women between the ages of 10 and 19 around the world - the largest generation of youth in history. The 260 million 15-to-19 year-old women throughout the world are the next generation of mothers, workers and leaders. To fulfill these roles their sexual experience must be acknowledged and their educational and reproductive health needs must be met.

Parents, communities and governments must recognize how quickly the world is changing, and how imperative it is to direct attention to improving the situation of girls and young women. Indifference, wishful thinking and denial will not prepare their children, particularly their girls, to take their rightful place in a modernizing world.

This is the conclusion of an extensive report compiled by The Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York City based NGO, on the basis of research conducted in 53 developing and developed countries, covering five major regions which represent about 75% of the world's total population.

The study found that up to 60% of adolescent births throughout the world are unplanned, and about one in nine adolescents lack the contraceptive protection they need to prevent an unwanted pregnancy. Furthermore, over 300 million cases of curable Sexually Transmitted Disease (STDs) occur worldwide each year, with young women especially susceptible to these diseases.

Girls continue to be disproportionately disadvantaged in their access to education. While more young women today get a basic education than did their mothers, (seven or more years of schooling) girls in many developing countries get less schooling than boys and those in rural areas get less than girls in urban communities. Gender disparity is common throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, where half of the countries studied showed six or fewer young women attend secondary school for every 10 young men enrolled.








(percentage points)













Viet Nam








































Burkina Faso




























1 Having at least a primary school education.

SOURCE: UNICEF, The Progress of Nations 1995 (New York, 1995)

Distribution of population in the less developed regions by access to health services, 1985-1995.

SOURCE: Charting the Progress of Populations, December 1998

On the basis of the study of sexual activity and marriage, the majority of women have their first sexual experience as adolescents. Although levels of early union and marriage have typically declined, adolescent marriage remains common among women in some regions. In many countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, 40-60% of adolescent women marry by age 18, and in others, such as in Mali and Niger, more than three-quarters do so. In India and Bangladesh, 50-70% marry by age 18 and in Latin America and the Caribbean 25-40% do.

The study found that worldwide, 11% of adolescent women - or 29 million, both married and unmarried are sexually active and do not want to have a child soon, but lack the necessary protection to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, either because they are not using a contraceptive method or because they are using less effective methods. Alarmingly, in Asia, contraceptive use among married adolescents is very low in India and Pakistan (less than 5%) but more common in Indonesia and Thailand (36% and 43%, respectively), where it has increased strikingly since the 1970s. In Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, rates of contraceptive use are low among married young women-20-30% in Morocco, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and under 10% in many others.

The study still shows that each year, adolescents have more than 14 million births worldwide. In the United States, seven in 10 births to adolescents are unplanned. One-fourth to one-half of all adolescent births in Latin America and the Caribbean are unplanned, as are 15-30% of those in North Africa and the Middle East and 40-60% in such Asian and Sub-Saharan countries as the Philippines, Ghana, Kenya, and Zimbabwe.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, a woman who has her first child before age 15 will have an average of seven children by the time she has completed her family; That means that if today's young women were to have their first child two-and-one-half years later than is currently the average age at first birth, population growth by the year 2 100 will be 10% lower than if no change occurs; if they postpone that first birth by five years, it will be 20% lower-a decrease of 1.2 billion people.

Faced with an unwanted pregnancy, some young women seek clandestine abortions, which endangers their health-or their very life. The rate of adolescent abortion varies from country to country, ranging from very low levels in Germany (3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-19) and Japan (6 per 1,000), to moderately high levels in Brazil (32 per 1,000) and the United States (36 per 1,000).

In Malawi, Uganda and Zambia, adolescent women represent one-fourth to one-third of patients suffering from complications of unsafe abortions, that number is more than half in Kenya and Nigeria. In Latin America and the Caribbean, about one-tenth of all women hospitalized after an abortion are younger than 20, and adolescents comprise one-third of the women with the most serious infections.

Furthermore, sexual relationships that result from force, coercion and abuse, and some cultural practices such as female genital mutilation, endanger the reproductive health of young people. Young women who are sexually abused are at risk of infection and unwanted pregnancy, and they may also suffer other trauma and psychological distress. In the United States, four in 10 women who have sex before age 15, report their first sexual experience as involuntary. In Santiago, Chile, nearly 3% of young women who have sex before age 18 say that rape is their first experience of sexual intercourse.

In some regions of the world, the AIDS epidemic has reached shockingly high proportions among adolescents; nearly 13% of all urban youth aged 14-20 in Rwanda are infected with HIV. Half of HIV infections occur among people younger than 25, and recent estimates show that some 7,000 15-24-year-olds are infected with HIV each day. In Botswana, Nigeria and Rwanda, 20% or more of pregnant adolescent women test positive for HIV.


As we approach the world of 6 billion in less than six months time, growth will not stop. Human numbers will certainly continue to expand to reach 7 billion, but whether our population then goes on to 8, 10 or 12 billion depends on individual actions made in the next decade.

Those decisions will be determined by the one billion young men and women-the largest generation of youth in history - now entering their child-bearing years. A truly formidable demographic force and their pattern of childbearing will have major implications for the future size of the world's population.

SOURCES: UNFPA at The State of World Population 1998 UN at Ecosoc/Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs /Population Division; UN at Ecosoc/Division of Social Development/Youth; Allan Guttmacher Institute, "Adolescent Women Have Their Own Unmet Needs."