With a complete disruption of lives and economies due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequent impact on young people, investment in young people and adolescents has become even more critical than before. As we celebrate National Youth Day, the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, his words (the) “supreme value of (the) youth period is incalculable and indescribable” hold immense significance.
For India to truly realize its demographic potential, young people and adolescents must be a priority in policy and programmes. With every third person in India being a young person (10-24 years), India has the largest young population in the world, giving us a unique window of opportunity. Young people and as part of that adolescents (10-19 years) are important as future voters, decision-makers and productive citizens of the country. Their health and well-being therefore is critical for their future. Investing in India’s young population is the best way to leverage our demographic dividend. This would necessitate an ensured increased investment in health, nutrition and well-being of the young population, in addition to improving access to education and skill building for them to be healthy and actively contribute to the country’s growth and development.
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The recently released data from Phase 1 of the National Family Health Survey – NFHS-5 (2019-20) highlights the challenges faced by our young population. For instance, anaemia among adolescent girls (15-19 years) has increased in 14 out of 17 states surveyed. In all the states, anaemia is much higher among women (15-19 years) compared to men in the same age cohort. An increase in child marriage in three states and teenage pregnancy in five states in NFHS phase 1 survey.
The challenges faced by this demographic group, including age at marriage, the transition to secondary education, skill development, employment and teenage motherhood have demonstrated persistent challenges, and these challenges have been further accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The country-wide shutdown of educational institutions has impacted 320 million children enrolled from pre-primary to tertiary levels of education; of these, about 158 million are female students. School closures have further restricted mobility and access to services. It has impacted economically disadvantaged adolescents even more curtailing access to mid-day meals, weekly iron and folic acid supplementation, and in the case of girls, the distribution of sanitary napkins. Loss of jobs and lack of employment opportunities has led to economic insecurity amongst young people. Escalating economic pressures on the poorest households threaten to increase the incidence of underage girls being married off and dropping out of schooling.
Access to nutrition, menstrual hygiene and reproductive healthcare services suffered a setback as the focus of the public health system shifted to managing and containing the pandemic. According to a report, COVID-19 limited access to contraceptives for 26 million couples in India. An analysis by the Foundation for Reproductive Health Services India estimates that the lockdown is likely to have resulted in an additional 2.4 million unintended pregnancies. Another study showed that approximately 2 million women had restricted access to abortion services in 2020. Mental health also emerged as a significant concern amongst adolescents as they are anxious about their future. These changes will have a long-term impact on shaping India’s future if necessary, steps are not taken today.
Young women are particularly vulnerable to this disruption due to increase in the burden of unpaid care work at home. COVID-19 will disrupt efforts to prevent child marriage, potentially resulting in an additional 13 million child marriages taking place between 2020 and 2030 that could otherwise have been averted (UNFPA).
Investment in youth and adolescents will pave the path for their development and sustain the efforts to achieve India’s commitment towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Prioritising their needs and aspirations is the key for the overall socio, economic and demographic developme