The United Nations has issued a plea to wealthy countries to spend more on sex education for the world's growing adolescent population.
Twenty percent of the world's population, or 1.2 billion people, is between the ages of 10 and 19. Eighty-seven percent of those adolescents are living in developing countries, many of them in extreme poverty.
In its annual report, the U.N. Population Fund paints a grim picture of life for this group, estimated to be about 238 million young people. Fund spokeswoman Ann Erb Leoncavallo says millions of adolescents have no access to, or information about, reproductive health.
"Their needs are not being met, their concerns are not being listened to," said Ms. Leoncavallo. "All over the world, young people face increasing risks to their health and well-being which must be urgently addressed."
Ms. Leoncavallo says pervasive gender discrimination and violence against women result in a world where rape, trafficking, domestic abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, and female genital cutting are common.
She calls the spread of HIV/AIDS a human tragedy of unprecedented proportions.
"This report stresses that providing information and services to young people is absolutely vital to reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS," she said. "And for youth who are sexually active, this means providing them with condoms."
The population report concludes that one of the most effective ways of changing the status quo is by keeping girls in school and providing them with sex education.
But Ellen Themmen of Family Care International noted political sensitivities in some donor countries remain an obstacle to providing sex education programs.
"As we know very well from the United States, despite the fact that providing sex education and services to adolescents helps them make healthy choices, these interventions remain controversial," said Ms. Themmen. "AIDS is changing this situation. Governments in developing countries and in Africa in particular now realize they must protect their young people against HIV."
In 1994, industrialized countries pledged to pay one third of the $18.5 billion needed by 2005 to meet reproductive health needs in the developing world. But U.N. Population Fund officials say with less than two years to go, only about half of that goal has been reached.
The annual population report fund argues that such an investment will yield benefits for generations to come.