Focussing on India’s largest ever population of young people, UNFPA is strategising on how to safeguard their reproductive rights and achieve gender equality

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and India have launched a reproductive health and life skills education programme to fulfil the reproductive rights of young people, women and marginalised communities. The strategy will also impact the status of young girls and women.

The five-year plan of co-operation, in-effect from 2013 till 2017, is set to make an important contribution to achieving health objectives articulated in the government’s 12th Five-Year plan, and accelerate progress on international development targets, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Union Health and Family Welfare Secretary P.K. Pradhan, said, “This programme focuses on key priorities for our population — young people, gender, and ageing. This partnership will help us become more sensitised to their needs and develop expertise to plan policies accordingly.”

While focusing on young people, UNFPA will also help the government prepare to meet the needs of a rapidly ageing population. By 2030, the number of people over 60 years will double. And by 2050, around 20 per cent of the population would be elderly.

Right now, India is one of the youngest nations in the world. As many as 358 million or almost one third of the country’s population is aged 10-24 years. Yet, almost half of the girls are married before the age of 18 years. One in five young women, aged 20-24 years, has a child before she is 18. Two of five maternal deaths occur in women aged 20-24 years.

Universal access to sexual and reproductive health and delivering gender equality are central to the International Conference on Population and Development plan of action and MDGs. While the UN member countries agreed to meet these targets by 2015, in many developing countries, including India, much remains to be done.

Frederika Meijer, UNFPA representative in India and Bhutan, rationalised the focus of this programme: “Investing in the health of vulnerable young women and marginalised communities, including tribals and minorities, is a key priority for UNFPA, as we believe that investing in young girls helps break cycles of poverty within families. We will work with the government to reach out to greater numbers of adolescents and their families with information on the benefits of delaying marriage, letting girls stay in school longer, delaying child bearing and increasing their access to voluntary family planning. If a young girl can plan her family, she can plan the rest of her life.”

The key to UNFPA’s mandate is providing young people a gender sensitive, life skills-based sexual and reproductive health education. A life-skills education gives adolescents information and skills to negotiate real life situations, including reproductive health illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, and moulds their attitudes to gender and substance abuse, impacting several development objectives. With the help of various ministries, the life-skills education would be expanded to reach not only young people in schools, but also those who out of school in various States of the country.

“During the course of this programme, UNFPA will work towards ensuring that young people are partners in development, and have a say in national policies. We will lead extensive consultations between the government, civil society and young people, to factor in their needs in national policy- making,” said Ms. Meijer.

Achieving gender equality is a key area of co-operation. UNFPA will lend technical expertise to the government to address a highly skewed sex ratio and reduce the high incidence of child marriage that are key indicators of gender inequality.