THE BLOG
12/16/2014 09:33 am ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

Securing the Future With Youth Reproductive Health

While the end of the year for some is a time to reflect on the past, I prefer to look ahead (but not without a glass of good old-fashioned eggnog). And here's the undeniable truth: It's young people, not older folks like myself, who hold the key to our collective future.

Today's global youth population - the largest in human history - is a force to be reckoned with. In addition to having strength in numbers, young people have time, energy, and a healthy dose of untainted optimism to accomplish unimaginable things.

And, guess what? All 1.8 billion of them have reproductive health needs just like the rest of us; yet, governments, religious institutions, and harmful cultural traditions continue to deny many of those between the ages of 10 and 24 this most basic human right.

The problem is, without the ability to control when and how to have a family, young people won't be able to drive the economic and social progress needed to secure a prosperous future for our planet and its inhabitants. Today's youth are tomorrow's leaders, and that means governments and the international community would be foolish not to make investing in their reproductive health an immediate priority.

As usual, it's girls who suffer the most. In the developing world, girls are far less likely to finish school. Too many of them are forced into early marriages with much older men. And they are denied access to contraceptives.

Chernor Bah, a renowned youth advocate and former refugee from Sierra Leone, was speaking in Washington recently when he recalled a young girl - an Ebola survivor - he met on a recent trip back to his home country.

"She represents the opportunity that this generation faces, but she also represents the frustration. There is a significant lack of investment," Bah said, "and that is why she dropped out of school, why she is the primary caregiver in her home, and why she had a baby that she lost to Ebola."

Investments in this arena will certainly help improve the lives of individual young people, but they can also help developing countries, where most youth reside, achieve accelerated economic growth. Evidence from around the world shows that investments in youth reproductive health are critical to reducing poverty, creating political stability, and increasing educational levels.

But, even though few investments bring such enormous returns, extremist Republicans in Congress remain committed to slashing U.S. aid to overseas family planning organizations, like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which provide essential reproductive health services for young people around the world. These are the same politicians who want to re-implement the life-threatening Global Gag Rule and a myriad of other harmful measures.

Whether the new Senate majority will stand up for vulnerable people in the developing world remains to be seen, but the public records and rhetoric of some of the new Senators is discouraging - to say the least.

If the extremists do succeed the repercussions will be devastating. And it is the youth, especially young women and girls, in the world's poorest countries who will bear the brunt of it at a time when their reproductive freedom is critical, not only for their well-being, but the well-being of the entire planet.

"In particular, the most intimate of human rights - sexual and reproductive health - for young people...those needs are real and pressing," said UNFPA's deputy executive director, Kate Gilmore, at the launch of the "State of the World Population 2014" report.

"The genesis of our failure to meet those needs lies neither in random misfortune nor merely in youthful risk taking, it lies with older people," she said. "And it's our obligation, but also our opportunity, to pave the way from childhood to adulthood."

I agree. Completely. We all should.