Listening to 20,000 Adolescents in Their Own Words

The imagination, ideals and energy of adolescents are vital to the continuing development of the societies in which they live. Young people are the future, and we celebrate them each year on August 12, International Youth Day. This year’s theme—Be Seen, Be Heard: Youth Participation for Development—gives the international community an opportunity to recognize the potential of youth, to celebrate their achievements and to look for ways to better engage young people in development.

Five years ago, the Guttmacher Institute and nine partner organizations in Sub-Saharan Africa embarked on Protecting the Next Generation, an ambitious project to gather data on young Africans and their sexual and reproductive health by asking the teens themselves about their needs and experiences. We asked more than 20,000 adolescents in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi and Uganda to describe their lives, their worries, their sources of information about pregnancy and HIV prevention, and how they access health care services. In gathering this information, our goal was to better inform—and thereby improve the effectiveness of—policies and programs that aim to promote the health and well-being of our youth.

Our key findings include these:

  • Adolescents’ knowledge is broad but not deep. The vast majority of young people have heard about HIV, but many lack in-depth knowledge of how the disease is spread, which they need to protect themselves.
  • Young people trust the formal sector. Overwhelmingly, young Africans said their preferred sources of information were doctors, nurses and teachers, and they wanted to receive health services from clinics and health centers. However, they also said a key reason why they did not seek care was that they were embarrassed and ashamed to do so; and we know that much more needs to be done to provide adequate and accessible services for young people.
  • The very young are not naive. While most younger adolescents have not yet had sex, by the age of 15, nearly all are aware of it, some have sexually experienced friends and many have experimented with kissing and fondling. Many young adolescents said they want to learn about sex in schools, from sources they can trust.

In marking International Youth Day, we should focus on its theme and listen to what young people are telling us. They look forward to brighter futures and want to stay safe from disease and early pregnancy. Let us honor their request by providing them the sexual and reproductive health information and services they need to live out their dreams and help build stronger societies.