There are at least 1.2 billion adolescents and young people alive today, more than ever before. It may be clichéd to say they are our future… but it’s true! They really are critical to breaking the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. Teenage years are a time of rapid physical and mental development, during which it’s vital we get the right food and nutrients. This is all the more important for the 16 million adolescent girls who still endure childbirth each year.
Unfortunately, when it comes to nutrition, adolescents are too often an excluded, malnourished group. For example, UNICEF predicts that 50% of girls aged 15-19 in India are underweight. And further, adolescent pregnancies, particularly where girls are themselves stunted, are more likely to result in low birth weight, premature birth and small for gestational age babies.
This is tragic news, but perhaps not surprising in light of Save the Children’s recent review of national nutrition strategies. Fewer than half of the countries we reviewed included any detail on adolescent nutrition in their strategies. The reality is that governments, donors and civil society continue to overlook the problem.
In order to prevent malnutrition being passed to the next generation, adolescent girls, their families and communities must be supported not only to improve adolescents’ access to nutrition but also to delay marriage and pregnancy. The economic benefits of reducing adolescent pregnancy could amount to 30% of a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) (Chaaban and Cunningham, 2011).
This week I’m going to the International Summit on the Nutrition of Adolescent Girls and Young Women to present on our review of adolescent nutrition policies and programmes in Scaling-Up Nutrition Countries. This will be a small, but significant step as we strive to focus coordinated international attention on finding remedies for adolescent nutrition in time to achieve the World Health Assembly’s 2025 Nutrition Targets.