Adolescent health and mortality rates would be better for young women, however, if it were not for the high rates of pregnancy and childbearing that still occur during this phase of the life cycle. Deaths from maternal causes remain a major factor in the health profile of young women in many developing countries. In Western and Middle Africa, the percentage of young people giving birth before age 18—the internationally recognized age of adulthood as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child—remains in excess of 30 percent, while in Southern Asia, Eastern and Southern Africa, and Central American and the Caribbean, rates of early childbearing remain over 20 percent. On average, rates of early childbearing have declined by over 20 percent in the past 20 years; the percentage of young women marrying before the age of 18 has declined even more rapidly but still remains unacceptably high at 38 percent.
Young people spend a growing share of their adolescent years attending school. With a decline in the age of puberty and a rise in the age of marriage and childbearing, reproductive and work transitions to adulthood are now occurring simultaneously. In order for young people to stay in school, have a healthy transition to adulthood, have productive experiences in the labor market before marriage and childbearing, and develop a readiness for parenthood, they face the challenge of managing their sexuality while continuing to develop their capabilities in school and work. With a growing percentage of young people making their sexual debut before marriage as the age of marriage rises, there is a growing need for accessible family planning and reproductive health services so that young people can protect their health, avoid pregnancy, and delay childbearing until they are ready.
Global trends in fertility, mortality, health, urbanization, and education have all contributed positively to the rapid rise in school enrollment rates that has occurred during the teenage years, particularly among girls, in most developing countries in recent years. This increase in enrollment rates has occurred in conjunction with very rapid growth in the sheer numbers of young people coming of school age. While data on trends in learning outcomes do not exist, however, the results of recent internationally comparable standardized tests raise serious concerns about how much students are actually learning in school and, therefore by extension, about school quality. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the pedagogical practice of rote learning remains widespread, a practice that does not reward critical thinking—an increasingly important skill in the context of rapid global economic change.
The economic returns to schooling at the secondary and tertiary levels are consistently high (and differentially high for young women). In addition, the gap between the returns at higher versus lower levels of schooling is widening, thus putting an increasing premium on secondary schooling