Sexual Health and Development of Adolescents and Youth in the Americas - Program and Policy Implications

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Adolescence is a powerfully formative period that shapes how girls and boys live out their lives now and as future adults--not only in the reproductive arena, but in the social and economic realm as well (Mensch et al, 1998). The health of adolescents (10-19 years of age) and youth (15-24 years of age)1 is a key element for the social, economic and political progress of the Americas. Far too often, however, adolescent needs and rights are absent from public policies or from the agenda of the health sector, except when adolescents misbehave. One contributing factor is that compared to very young children and the elderly, adolescents suffer from few life-threatening conditions. However, many unhealthy habits that later produce mortality and morbidity in adults are acquired during the period of adolescence (PAHO, 1998b). Therefore, a health promotion and prevention approach is crucial to a healthy adolescence and adulthood. This paper argues for a paradigm shift for policy makers and program planners to take on a new, positive outlook on youth, with a holistic approach to their development that includes their sexuality. Policy makers, program planners and adult society often associate adolescence and youth as a problem age group. Terms such as “adolescent delinquency,” “youth violence,” and “problem youth” lend a negative image to this age group. Programs focus narrowly on the prevention of “teen pregnancy,” the promotion of abstinence and condom use, where the term “adolescent mother” is categorically regarded as a program failure, although this may not always be the case. This document focuses on youth in the Region of the Americas, but in no way is this group considered homogeneous. On the contrary, it is important to recognize that adolescents vary in their social environments, economic circumstances, culture and sub-culture, gender and marital status.


Jessie Schutt-Aine

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