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Our world is home to 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 and 24, and the youth population is growing fastest in the poorest nations. Within this generation are 600 million adolescent girls with specific needs, challenges and aspirations for the future.

In some countries, the growth of the youth population is outpacing the growth of the economy and outstripping the capacities of institutions charged with providing them basic services. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are a common cause of death among girls and young women in developing countries.

In a positive development that demonstrates that the right investments can save lives, such deaths “among adolescents have declined significantly since 2000,” according to the World Health Organization. “This decline is particularly noticeable in the regions where maternal mortality rates are highest. The Southeast Asia, Eastern Mediterranean and African regions have seen declines of 57 per cent, 50 per cent and 37 per cent, respectively.”

The World Health Organization credits this improvement to the fact that “ministries of health have intensified efforts to reduce the unacceptable toll of deaths among children and women by applying well-known, well-proven interventions.” This reflects progress by many developing countries in achieving the fifth of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals: to cut the maternal death ratio by three quarters in all age groups by 2015.

The complications of pregnancy and childbirth are nonetheless still the second leading killer of females 15 to 19, and the risks of dying rise with the proportion of young people in populations. The leading cause of death for adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 worldwide is suicide—a fact that raises questions about hopes and opportunities for young women, especially in the developing countries in which most of them live (World Health Organization, 2014).

Although not well studied or quantified, the mental health of young people is increasingly recognized as a global problem, one that may correlate with the barriers to development that the young in many countries face and that has a major impact on both life expectancy and quality of life. Mental disorders are high among health disorders suffered by people of all ages. Most begin between the ages 12 and 24, even if their manifestations and diagnosis occur later in life. Poor reproductive and sexual health is among the most important contributors to poor mental health (Patel, 2007).

HIV is today the second leading cause of deaths for adolescents, and in contrast to the case with maternal mortality, “estimates suggest that numbers of HIV deaths are rising in the adolescent age group,” the World Health Organization reports.

Given girls’ and young women’s greater risk of exposure to HIV, this increase in HIV-related deaths is a clear case of failure to respond to young people’s needs—particularly the sexual and reproductive health needs of girls and young women.