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“The Stories Behind the Statistics” is a series we put together for the Gates Foundation blog, “Impatient Optimists.” The following post is the first in this three part series. The original post, located on “Impatient Optimists,” is available here.

By the end of today, 2,500 young people will become infected with HIV and 1,400 girls and women will die in childbirth.

These are alarming statistics. Half of the world’s population is under 25 and nine out of ten young people live in developing countries, where they face profound challenges, such as high rates of early marriage, unintended pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, and maternal mortality and morbidity. 

Young people account for almost one-quarter of all people living with HIV, and nearly 60 percent all HIV-positive young people are female.  The number of young people living with HIV is rising as children who are pertinently infected gain access to life-prolonging ARV treatment and new infections among youth continue. Young people living with HIV are just as sexually active or curious as other teens, yet they are seldom offered information or support about their emerging sexuality or their reproductive choices. Furthermore, they may be less inclined than their peers to access reproductive health services due to fear of stigma and judgment from their providers. There is a vital need to address the sexual and reproductive health needs of this population.

Young women face a dual challenge: in addition the threat of HIV, pregnancy is one of the most significant threats to the health of adolescent females. 

Approximately 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year and, in developing countries, approximately one-third of adolescent girls give birth before their 20th birthday.  An unintended pregnancy can be a difficult experience for any women, and can be especially upsetting for an unmarried adolescent. 

Adolescent pregnancy is life-threatening for many girls. Childbirth-related complications are the number one cause of death among girls ages 15-19. Fortunately, unintended pregnancy and adolescent maternal mortality are preventable; yet in some regions of the world the unmet contraceptive need among adolescents is as high as 68 percent.  This lack of access to family planning services leads to approximately 7.4 million unintended adolescent pregnancies each year.

Ensuring that young people’s reproductive health needs are met has never been more critical.  In 2011, the IYWG developed a set of programming and strategy recommendations to improve youth sexual and reproductive health. The document was created with the input of both professionals in the field of youth sexual and reproductive health and young people themselves. The purpose of these recommendations is to inform programing and guide investment at international, country, and local levels. 

The 2,500 young people who will become infected with HIV and the 1,400 girls and women who will die in childbirth today represent more than striking statistics: each of these numbers represents a young person whose fate could be different if provided with access to reproductive health services. 

The IYWG recommendations are meant to accomplish more than simply lowering statistics; we want them to help improve young people’s quality of life. In this short series, we will share the stories of two young people who have experienced first-hand the sexual and reproductive health challenges young people around the world face every day.

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