Tag Archives: adolescents

On 29 May, Centia, 12, walks barefoot across dusty ground in Kirundo Province. She and her younger brother, 10-year-old Divin, recently fled alone to Rwanda. Their mother, Joséphine, said that, as insecurity worsened in the country, “My oldest daughter, who is married, kept warning me that things were getting bad and that I should get the children out. But I brushed it off. Then, one day, she said we will all be killed tonight; we must leave now, or the children and I will die. I became so frightened, so very frightened. I had to save at least my children. I said to myself they will not die in this house.” She then paid the equivalent of US$7 to an acquaintance to help the children escape across Lake Cohoha, which straddles the border between the two countries. Around 4 a.m. that morning, when it was still dark, Centia and Divin climbed into a wooden pirogue with nine other people, including three children, and paddled as fast as they could across the lake. “It took three hours to cross,” Centia recalled. “We were all very quiet. … I kept saying a prayer in my heart that we would be OK. Then we walked two hours to get to a house, and the next day, we were taken by car to a camp. We were given beans and corn once a day, but a nun brought us more food sometimes. And then, one day, my brother and I got very sick. It was malaria.” Joséphine, who had remained in touch with her children via mobile phone, grew increasingly worried. The rumours of violence in Kirundo had not materialized, but now another fear had replaced the first one: that she would lose her children to illness, somewhere far away. As soon as she felt it was safe, Joséphine crossed the lake herself to bring her children back home, but she says she is prepared to repeat her actions if it is necessary to protect her children. “I don’t regret it. I will do it again if my children’s lives are threatened,” she said.

In late May 2015 in Burundi, civil unrest and the ensuing response

How does adolescence offer a second chance to vulnerable teenagers?

As you read this, a teen somewhere is making a decision they may regret for the rest of their lives, one with high costs for themselves, their families and their communities. Joining a gang or a terrorist organization or committing a serious crime.

Every teen everywhere faces a turbulent transition to adulthood: the rapid development of identity, blossoming of emotions and onset of puberty. Neuroscientists explain the turbulence as caused by asymmetrical adolescent brain development. The socio-emotional processing system starts to respond to incentives and provocations from the early teens, but the cognitive control system, which is needed to filter those decisions is not fully developed until the early twenties.[1]

Over the past twenty years, there has been good news and bad news in research on adolescence. The bad news is that many more children than we ever thought before are entering adolescence with broken childhoods characterized by heartbreaking adverse experiences: abuse, neglect and dysfunctional parenting driven by addiction, violence or unaddressed mental health issues. This is multiplied further in areas affected by conflict, crime, and poverty. Science shows that the more adversity experienced in childhood the more difficult it is for the adolescent to navigate his or her way around the opportunities and risks they face and to make sensible decisions that don’t harm them or their communities.

The good news from neuroscience is the discovery of neuro-plasticity — that teenagers can strengthen the performance of their “executive function”, the part of the brain that coordinates behavior, choice and reaction, through learning non-cognitive or character skills. Thus, as much as adolescence is fraught with risk and possible lifelong consequences, it can also provide a second chance to get teens back on track to lead a stable, fulfilling and happy life.

To divert for a moment from vulnerable children to all children, character skills are increasingly recognized in many countries as being as critical as IQ in determining academic and lifelong success for all. They are seen as essential for long-term economic competitiveness and socio-economic development and are being mainstreamed in K through 12 education. Character skills include instrumental skills such as optimism, curiosity, motivation, perseverance and self-control that drive overall performance in school and life. But they also include integrity and locally-determined values that ensure performance is harnessed to the common good and can contribute to shared expectations and values within communities.

In Harvard sociologist Robert D. Putnam’s recent best seller ‘Our Kids – the American Dream in Crisis’ on inter-generational poverty and the decline in social mobility, he reviewed all of the recent American studies on childhood and concluded that in addition to the impact of poor nutrition and material poverty on children’s life chances, parenting and schooling had a massive impact: “Well educated parents aim to raise autonomous, independent and self-directed children with high self-esteem and the ability to make good choices, whereas less educated parents focus on discipline, obedience and conformity to pre-established rules.” [2]

Whether talking about teenage ‘child soldiers’ in war-ravaged, poverty stricken countries, or abuse victims, or gang members in high-income countries, we need to look beyond obvious interventions that tackle material poverty or provide vocational learning or housing. If traumatic childhoods have left them with a chaotic and untrusting view of the world — they will find it very hard to hold down a job, or maintain a house, or build healthy relationships. We need to complement material interventions with the development of the type of character skills that will help them become more autonomous, self-directed and build more self-esteem to make good choices.

In Montenegro we have joined forces with Birmingham University to support the Ministry of Education in developing character education in schools and within a global partnership with ING to support the development of such skills with especially vulnerable youth in a non-school setting. This includes young people leaving state care, Roma and other minority children, and young people in conflict with the law.

Character education is only one part of a range of interventions that are needed to help young people get back on track. Vocational training, support for accessing basic health and other services and even psychological therapy are also essential. But character — skills including integrity — are an essential part of the jigsaw. While there is now a strong global investment case that public funds in early childhood promote positive life outcomes and long-term competitiveness, adolescence is our second — and perhaps last —chance to harness the public good to ensure our most vulnerable teenagers build better lives — and eventually better societies. Let’s not waste that chance.

Benjamin Perks is the UNICEF Representative in Montenegro.

[1] The Influence of Neuroscience on US Supreme Court Decisions about Adolescents Criminal Culpability. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Laurence Steinberg. 2013
[2] P199. Our Kids-the American Dream in Crisis Robert D Putman Simon and Schuster

Fatema,15, sits on the bed at her home in Khulna, Bangladesh. Fatema was saved from being married a few weeks earlier.

Are we failing adolescents?

Fatema,15, sits on the bed at her home in Khulna, Bangladesh. Fatema was saved from being married a few weeks earlier.

Fatema,15, sits on the bed at her home in Khulna, Bangladesh. Fatema was saved from being married a few weeks earlier.

Almost half of all women in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa are married before eighteen. Globally, adolescents are two times more likely to be out of school than primary school aged children. Nearly eight million 15-24-year-olds in Europe are not in education, employment or training.

Is it time to ask the question: “Are we failing adolescents?”

The 2012 Lancet Series on adolescent health highlighted the links between “structural determinants” – national wealth, inequality and education systems – and adolescent outcomes. At the same time, growing awareness of the links between social determinants – beliefs, attitudes and cultural norms – and adolescent wellbeing has not always been accompanied by sufficient understanding of how or when to intervene.

If we are not intentionally failing adolescents we may well be failing to look at the issues and vulnerabilities facing them in the right way. Can we end child marriage simply by increasing the legal age for marriage? Can we expect to address youth unemployment by encouraging job training? Adolescence is intensive, often bringing on work, sexual debut, marriage and parenthood.

Does this interaction sound familiar?

Researcher:                “What is the right age for marriage?”

Mother:                       “At age eighteen. That’s the law.”

Researcher:                “When did your own daughter get married?”

Mother:                       “I think she was thirteen or fourteen.”

Researcher:                “Why didn’t you allow her to stay in school?”

Mother:                       “Then she would never find a husband.”

Newly arrived unaccompanied minors from South Sudan wait as they undergo registration in Kule camp, Ethiopia.

Newly arrived unaccompanied minors from South Sudan wait as they undergo registration in Kule camp, Ethiopia. © UNICEF/NYHQ2014-1545/Ose

The very notion of adolescence is fuzzy. Is it a function of age, social convention, puberty? Some cultures may not even recognize it as a distinct life stage. As a result, public programmes and support services are often weak and disjointed.

The development community is coming around to the notion that quick fixes for assuring adolescents’ safe transition to adulthood are elusive. But, there is a dearth of evidence-based approaches that consider all dimensions. This is partly because we still have not learned how the different and dynamic elements in a young person’s life interact. What is needed is a fundamental re-think of efforts to support adolescent health and well-being based on sound analysis of how structural realities – school systems, social norms, livelihoods – play out.

Narrowing the focus on adolescent girls, the new edition of the Innocenti’s Research Watch debate brings together top experts from Oxford University, the Population Council and the Lancet Commission, to drill down into the bedrock assumptions and structures which underpin often inadequate efforts to protect them.

The resulting 20-minute web-video moderated by BBC’s David Eades is a must see for anyone seeking deeper insight, based on the latest research and inquiry, into the cultural and structural determinants of adolescent well-being.

As with all editions of Research Watch, global researchers have contributed written commentaries on critical emerging issues. The latest edition’s commentaries address: the adolescent brain, working with boys to close the gender gap, adolescence and poverty, adolescent girl’s migration, new findings on adolescence from cohort research and much more.

Last year the UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti initiated a global research partnership funded by DFID, the Italian Government and others to research the structural and social determinants of adolescent well-being in low and middle-income countries. Initially, the partnership will focus on Ethiopia, Malawi, Italy, Peru, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Key partners include Addis Ababa University, International Centre for Research on Women, Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health, Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, University of Edinburgh – Child Protection Research Centre, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, University of Oxford, Young Lives – International Longitudinal Study on Child Poverty, and others.

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‘All In’ to end adolescent AIDS

Omar Abdi, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, with Elijah-Zachary Lemein Simel at the ALL IN event in Nairobi.

Omar Abdi, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, with Elijah-Zachary Lemein Simel at the ALL IN event in Nairobi. (c)UNICEF/2015/Natalie Bailey

11-year-old Elijah-Zachary Lemein Simel wants to be a “Reverend, an architect and a scientist” when he grows up. After spending some time with Elijah, I have every confidence that he will do all of this and more.

What makes Elijah’s dreams remarkable is neither their ambition nor their audacity, it’s that Elijah openly lives with HIV. He was infected as a baby through mother-to-child transmission. His mother tried hard to keep both of them healthy, but it was only once she began anti-retroviral treatment that she could dedicate herself fully to his well-being. Part of that was explaining to him his diagnosis in a way that he could both understand and accept.

For a long time, Elijah struggled with sickness and often missed school. When medicine was suggested, he said, “I was feeling afraid to take the medicine because I heard that when I start…I will have to go on it forever. And others tell me stories that when I start my medication, I will die. I was very afraid.”

With encouragement from his mother and his aunt, though, Elijah started anti-retroviral treatment and, soon after, felt healthy and strong.

This was just one of many hurdles he has had to overcome.

In school, Elijah was made to sit at the back of the classroom alone; students avoided touching him – and if they did, brushed themselves off.

“It was tough,” Elijah remembers. “My best friend called me ‘Virus’; we are not friends anymore.”

A turning point for Elijah came when he started a new school and met teacher Stanley Kyalo. Noticing that Elijah seemed stressed, teacher Stanley spoke with him and learned about his diagnosis and the stigma that haunted him. The two became fast friends. Teacher Stanley tackled the stigma head-on by teaching the class the facts about HIV. When the students understood about the illness, they were no longer afraid and they included Elijah in their games and activities.

But, Elijah noted, educating people is an ongoing process. “Newcomers to the school…have to understand too.”

Today, this confident, bright-eyed and articulate boy is not only doing well at school, he’s an inspiring advocate for adolescents living with HIV.

“I hope to finally bring out a voice for all children…in my own country, Kenya, in East Africa, and all over Africa. We are innocent, with or without HIV, and should thus be treated equally as children of God.”

We must heed Elijah’s message and learn from his experience.

Too many children and adolescents with HIV are still denied the critical support they need. Globally, just one in four children and adolescents under the age of 15 has access to life-saving anti-retroviral treatment. This explains the alarming news that since 2005, deaths due to AIDS have decreased – except among adolescents.

Every day, more than 300 adolescents die of AIDS and nearly 700 adolescents are newly infected with HIV. These infections affect the most vulnerable groups, especially girls, who comprise two-thirds of all adolescents living with HIV globally.

ALL IN is a new global effort to address this worrying trend, by stopping new infections and ending AIDS deaths among adolescents. It calls on decision-makers across sectors to work more closely with adolescents living with and at risk of HIV, as well as increase access to adolescent-friendly services to prevent and treat young people with HIV. And it calls for better data so that we know who and where the adolescents most at risk are.

We must act now. We must turn these objectives into practical action.

Elijah is a great example of how with the right treatment and the right support, anyone diagnosed with HIV can live a healthy and full life. But this right must be realized for all, not some. We must work to give every adolescent living with HIV the treatment and support she or he needs.

In his speech at the launch of ALL IN, Elijah turned to the President of Kenya and said:

“Mr. President, see to it that we children continue to get our rightful health care. We have the right to live healthy. See to it that our parents keep us in school healthily, always ready to learn. See to it that teachers don’t mistreat or discriminate us. Please help me reach far and wide to other children living with HIV like myself, to help them realize they are children under the Children’s Act and, therefore, have equal rights that should not be violated.”

He’s right, of course. And it’s our responsibility to help all children, everywhere, realise those rights, and build foundations under all their dreams.

Omar Abdi, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, recently visited Kenya to launch the ALL IN effort to end adolescent AIDS. Afterwards, Omar sat down with Elijah-Zachary Lemein Simel from Nairobi who spoke at the launch.


Photo of the Week: ending the adolescent AIDS epidemic



While deaths from AIDS are falling among most age groups, progress is lagging behind for adolescents aged 10–19, for whom AIDS has become the second-leading cause of death globally. The All In campaign aims to end the AIDS epidemic among adolescents, including by reaching them with HIV services that meet their unique needs and by engaging them in efforts to halt the virus’s spread.

A doctor counsels Mubina* (19) who is living with HIV, in Tashkent in this photograph taken by Shehzad Noorani in Uzbekistan in 2014.

To see more images from UNICEF visit UNICEF Photography.

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*Name has been changed to protect identity


World AIDS Day 2014: HIV and me

I am a peer counselor, and I have been HIV-positive for 6 years. In a way, I don’t see it as a bad thing, because I have learned to live differently, to be more humane and to improve my self-esteem.

When I was first diagnosed, it was something raw in my life. I did not know what to do. Back then, two things crossed my mind: Who do I tell? and, What will become of me? Carlos, a friend who is also HIV-positive, helped lift my self-esteem. I grew to understand that my fight was not against HIV; my fight was and remains to change social norms that will allow me to be seen as a person, free from shame, enterprising, and who is entitled to fully enjoy the same rights as any Ecuadorian citizen.

My struggle has been hard. For a time, when I first started treatment, the supply of antiretroviral treatment ran out at my hospital. We were asked to go to the hospital every day for just one dose, since we were not given a one-month supply as we should have been given. I had just started treatment and was tired of going to the hospital every day for just one dose. I lost my job because I spent so much time standing in long lines at the hospital, despite waking up early. It was intense, since the hospital attends all persons who come in from the provinces, who even slept there in hopes of at least getting treatment for two weeks.


At the time, I did not know what activism was. I met a few people, among them my colleagues who continue to be activists. I noticed they pressured the director of the hospital to respond to this shortage through the media. It was then that I decided to approach the media, and I began to demand that the government provide treatment. Although the media knew they could not take our pictures because of confidentiality issues, local press took my picture without my knowledge or consent. This news and my picture were printed in the press. I became concerned because my health was at risk.

My family did not know my status. An aunt found out through the article published in the local newspaper that I have HIV. She began to tell everyone that I had AIDS; my neighborhood would have found out if I had not stopped her. Currently, only a few people know my status: my mom, who found out from my aunt, a cousin who I told because she is like my sister, an uncle and my grandfather. These last two completely discriminated against me, distancing themselves from my family and my home, telling my aunt, cousin and mom to distance themselves from me because I would infect them.

Second Decade

When my mom found out that I had HIV, it was devastating for her. She felt defeated thinking that I was going to die, that I could infect everyone in the house, and that they had to get urgently tested to see if they had AIDS, too. At that moment I did not know what to do or how to defend myself, but I found comfort in my true friends who work with me in the organization. I spoke with them about it, a team of three people whom I now consider more than friends, my family.

Thankfully, they helped me resolve the problem before more people found out. They came to my house to speak with my mom about HIV. They shared everything they had gone through living with HIV, and told her I was not alone since I had their support. My mom felt very comforted and supported after meeting them, and she accepted that I have HIV. She hugged me, cried with me, and told me to move forward with my life and not think of the bad but the positive, that I could count on her in everything and that she would always be by my side.

Foto encuentro

Participants at the first national meeting organized by the HIV-positive Adolescent and Youth Network, September 2014. © UNICEF LACRO/2014/Metellus

When I first learned of my diagnosis, I started volunteering because I needed to do something more. I eventually ended up in an organization where I met people who had already been living with HIV for many years, who shared their experiences with me and supported me. I felt the need to learn more about HIV, and in that way share with others people who are diagnosed with HIV. I strengthened my abilities over a long period of time by offering peer counseling during orientations, supporting persons living with HIV, disseminating information about HIV and their rights. Eventually, I became a part of the organization’s leadership, which allows me to promote the quality of life of other youth like me to empower them, impacting each and every one of their lives.

However, there is still discrimination because job opportunities are few. I have spent years leaving my resume in different businesses, filling all the requirements and having all knowledge needed for jobs posted. But, most of my experience has been related to HIV, performing jobs such as health education, health promoter, and facilitation skills, among others, that are on my resume. Although I try to mask this information, I end up having to explain the diplomas that I’ve obtained to the interviewer. I am often asked everything, and that is when I find myself under fire when I am asked the million-dollar question: are you a carrier? Sometimes I deny it, sometimes I do not, since I want to get the job. However, they just stare at me like I am strange and tell me they will call me. I know that answer very well.

All I can say is that a person who lives with HIV is a person that has a special health condition. This is part of my reality. Many do not know what the virus is; only a person living with HIV can best explain what it is. When I speak with peers, there is a chemistry between us where the other person takes away something from me, and I also take away something from that person. This is an experience that no one can understand unless they come from this world. I will continue to always collaborate with others as a peer counselor, learning more from each person. I consider myself like any other person; HIV does not limit or contain me. On the contrary, it motivates me because a health condition should not be a reason to discriminate anyone. What would I be without……
Humor Intelligence Life

Hector* is a member of Ecuador’s HIV-positive Adolescents and Youth Network and helps other HIV-positive youth as a peer counselor with Grupo F.A.V.U., an HIV/AIDS organization in Ecuador that helps other persons living with HIV/AIDS manage their condition and improve their quality of life. He shared his story with UNICEF during the HIV-positive Adolescent and Youth Network’s first national meeting, held in September 2014, ahead of World Aids Day 2014. Hector’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

Edited by Eveliz Metellus, a UN Volunteer working with UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office’s HIV and AIDS Programme. The story originally appeared here.