07/03/2013 12:04 pm ET Updated Sep 02, 2013

Let's Talk About Sex

The numbers are in. As we near World Population Day on July 11, the world's population is set to exceed 7.1 billion people. It seems like an astounding number, but even more staggering is the fact that out of those 7.1 billion, more than 3.5 billion are under the age of 30 -- all of whom are in, or are approaching, their reproductive years.

Unlike what its name suggests, World Population Day is not just a day about numbers -- it's about people. It's a day designated to reaffirm everyone's right to plan the families they want, not what their circumstances dictate. With the largest generation of young people in history, that right needs to extend to young people everywhere. Young people's ability to access information and services that will help them understand their reproductive health and rights and will empower them to make informed decisions about their future is integral to successful family planning outcomes.

As a grandparent of three teenagers, this issue hits particularly close to home. Following a big family dinner two weeks ago, my 16-year-old grandson told me he wanted to talk. He had some important questions about sex. He was writing a final paper for school and wanted to know more about HIV and AIDS. He knew what to ask and where to go to get more information. Even with this kind of access at his fingertips, it took courage.

Yet access to health information and services still eludes far too many adolescents in developing countries. In places like Nepal and India, young people face scarce reproductive health services, and the cultural stigma of sex perpetuates obstacles to learning more. At EngenderHealth, the global women's health organization that I lead, I have the privilege of meeting courageous young women and girls every day. Last summer, I met Sharda, a determined 17-year-old from Jharkhand, a region of India where the sexual and reproductive health needs of adolescents are particularly acute. Sharda is growing up in a community where the majority of women get married before they reach the age of 18, where one girl in four between the ages of 15 and 19 is already a mother, and where sexual and reproductive health issues are not discussed openly before marriage.

Sharda shared with me that as an adolescent, her health began to deteriorate as a result of her suffering from severe vaginal pain that went untreated. Fearing what others in her community might think, Sharda was scared to seek help. But waiting longer could have jeopardized Sharda's life. She learned about an EngenderHealth-supported Adolescent Reproductive and Sexual Health (ARSH) health center in her community. She mustered the courage and got the treatment she needed. Having access to the health center was critical to Sharda's well-being.

Not everyone has equal access to reproductive health services, and not everyone has the opportunity to ask the right questions, but everyone has the right to lead healthy reproductive lives. To make that a reality, we need to bridge these disparities and improve the availability and quality of health services for young people everywhere. When it comes down to it, in a world of 7.1 billion, we have to talk about sex with young people. Let's start with the understanding that to do otherwise places their health and lives at greater risk. Now that takes courage.

Follow Pamela W. Barnes on Twitter: