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New data guides bring adolescents into focus.

When they talk about "youth," policymakers and advocates typically focus on 15-24-yearolds (and sometimes beyond), often turning to Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) as a key source of data on this population. Long considered the gold standard of demographic data sets, the DHS present a vast range of demographic indicators from more than 70 countries. By measuring everything from vaccination rates in Nigeria to the frequency of domestic violence in Haiti, DHS data help demographers gauge a population's health, education, economic status, and more.

The difficulty, however, for users of the DHS and most other internationally comparable sources is the breadth of definition of youth in ways that submerge the adolescent experience. "'Youth' can apply to a period of two and a half decades--beginning as young as age 10 and extending as old as 35--rendering it too indefinite to be useful," explains Population Council policy analyst Judith Bruce. "The DHS data are normally analyzed from age 15 and on--which is particularly consequential for girls, whose puberty begins roughly two years earlier than it does for boys," notes Bruce. "The whole field has suffered from imprecise nomenclature and a related data vagueness, making it almost impossible to evaluate programs." She would prefer to drop the term "youth" entirely and focus instead on specific subsets and narrower age ranges--very young adolescents for example, aged 10-14, or older adolescents, aged 15-19. Rather than five-year cohorts, sometimes even ten, she would like to have data on much narrower age groups, especially for younger adolescents.

As a senior associate with the Population Council's Poverty, Gender, and Youth program, Bruce and her colleagues have been presenting data to assist in designing evidence-based, targeted programs for adolescents, with an emphasis on the most vulnerable individuals. The focus on vulnerability drives the analysis toward the younger ages. "If you analyze the very worst things that happen to girls, you'll find that they happen very early, typically before age 15," she says. "Early marriage, female genital cutting, early pregnancy--all of these are human rights violations that happen early, as young as age 10, and they damage reproductive health. We need to reach these girls early enough to make a difference in their lives: before they are forced to become sexually active," Bruce explains, adding that limitations in currently available data make it difficult to target these younger adolescents.

Guides focus attention on the most vulnerable

Now, thanks to a new series of publications from the Population Council and the United Nations Population Fund, advocates and policymakers can employ a refined set of data, based on the DHS, to help them better tailor their initiatives to identify and reach these vulnerable younger adolescents. "The Adolescent Experience In-depth" offers insight into the status of young adolescents in 49 countries. Designed as a user-friendly tool for governments, UN country teams, nongovernmental organizations, and advocates, the series contextualizes data from the most recent Demographic and Health Surveys and includes charts and graphs to frame the information in a way that makes it easy for advocacy groups to raise awareness about the needs of young people.

"We've disaggregated the data and presented a lot of topics that are not in the DHS final reports or cross-tabulations," says Adam Weiner, a Council staff associate who worked with two assistants to compile the data over the course of a year. "By breaking the data down to focus on subgroups of adolescents, we highlight the diversity and point out which groups of young people are the most vulnerable. Our research reveals the tremendous variation among different subgroups."

"For instance, many reproductive health advocates focus on late adolescence and early womanhood, assuming that preadolescent girls are a relatively stable population--in school and supported by parents. The platforms of many programs are thus set in schools and seek to engage parents," Weiner explains. "Yet an analysis of the data reveals that a surprisingly high proportion of adolescents, particularly those in the lowest two economic quintiles, don't attend school and a significant percentage are living with one or no parents, even at that young age."

As children between ages 10 and 14 approach adolescence, they take on greater responsibility in the home, Bruce elaborates. Girls, especially, face societal pressures to leave school, marry, have sex, and bear

children. Boys in this age group who are out of school are also at high risk. "These very young boys and girls are the least likely to seek out and receive social and health services and, paradoxically, so too are the youngest first-time mothers, who are often the victims of child marriage," Bruce notes. "These most vulnerable individuals require a proactive set of policy prescriptions to prevent or mitigate their exploitation."

The Council publications present the data in a way that tells an intelligible story about young people, supplementing DHS data with a host of other sources, such as UNICEF's Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, the United Nations' Millennium Project, the World Bank's Living Standards Measurement Study, research by Council staff, and other sources.


"The Adolescent Experience In-Depth: Using Data to Identify and Reach the Most Vulnerable Young People": Multi-Country Series. New York: Population Council, 2009.


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Title Annotation:RESEARCH TOOLS
Publication:Population Briefs
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2009
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