At 365 million, India’s young between the ages of 10 years and 24 years is more than the population of the US, which at 329.1 million, is the third most populous after China and India, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) State of the World Population report 2019 released this week.
The median age of India’s population will be 29 years in 2020 making it the youngest country in the world. But, when it comes to policy, young people continue to be seen and counted, but not heard.
Young people, especially girls from poor, rural and marginalised communities, do not have information and services they need to make choices about their education, career and sexual and reproductive rights, including what and how long to study, job opportunities, when to get married, and when and how many children to have.
Women and girls deal with social and economic barriers every step of the way, with many becoming mothers when they are barely out of their teens. At least 27% women becoming child brides and get married before they turn 18 years old; only 12% married women ages 15-19 use modern contraceptives, and 8% begin bearing children by age 19, according to data from India’s National Family Health Survey 2015-16.
Sex education is another unfinished agenda that must be addressed to give young people the information they need. Even the term “sex education” has been replaced with “life-skills” to lower political and social opposition. Shared WhatsApp videos and the internet remain the only, and often incorrect, source of sexual information for 10-14 year olds, who account for a fifth of the India’s 1.368 billion population. Young married women (15-24 years) want contraception but 22% don’t get them. Even among older married women (15-49), 12.9% don’t cannot get contraceptives when they need them. It’s no surprise then that the country’s population of 1.37 billion is projected to overtake China’s and reach 1.7 billion between 2060 and 2070, according to the UNFPA.
Despite the obvious need for youth participation in issues that affect their lives, and with it the country’s growth and development, labour force participation rates of young people, especially women, remain abysmal. Less than two in three men (63% rural, 60% urban) ages 15-29 years were part of the labour force in 2012, while the number was an abysmal 18% for rural women and 16% for urban women, according to Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, 2017.
Much has been achieved over the past 25 years, says the report, which traces advances in reproductive health on the anniversaries of two milestones, 50 years of UNFPA, and 25 years of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, where 179 governments agreed on a rights-based approach to sexual and reproductive health to address population growth.
“In India, the average number of births per woman has reduced from 5.2 in 1971 to 2.3, while contraceptive use has increased from 9% in 1969 to 54% in 2019. It’s not easy to change numbers at that scale, but India has showed commitment by putting in its own money in reproductive health services,” said Klaus Beck, Regional Adviser and officer in-charge, UNFPA India Country Office.
The challenge lies in the last-mile delivery of services. “Larger policies have changed and reproductive rights are now recognised legally, but little has changed on the ground. Women still account for at least than 93% of total sterilisations, even though male sterilisation is safer, quicker and easier,” said Adsa Fatima, coordinator for the non-profit SAMA Resource Group for Women and Health, which did a sexual and reproductive health assessment report for the National Human Rights Commission in April 2018.
“There is a consistent lack of implementation of a rights framework within government schemes and programmes, and he assessment showed discrimination and exclusion of a range of persons, gross neglect of reproductive deaths within government schemes and policies, and lack of access of safe abortion services,” said Fatima.
There is no need for coercion as there is evidence that providing contraception and family planning services lowers family size, say experts. “Data shows the desired family size is 1.8 children among both poor and rich families. Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have not reached desired fertility rates, which can be achieved by speeding up the roll-out of three new reversible spacing methods, especially to young people,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director, Population Foundation of India.