Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin emphasized the critical role of young people during a lecture yesterday on the ongoing challenges posed by global population growth.
The lecture—given just a few weeks before the world population is anticipated to cross 7 billion—was hosted by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, where Osotimehin served as a visiting fellow from 1996 to 1997.
Osotimehin said that while environmental sustainability is an important issue, it is also critical to address social issues facing young people, including economic inequality and poor access to reproductive health resources.
“We must ask ourselves how to engage with young people in different contexts so as to make them equal partners in the development of their countries,” said Osotimehin.
By providing the 1.8 billion young people in the world with political access, social access, and economic access, Osotimehin said, we can produce a better educated generation with the capacity to address ongoing social problems.
Also critical to global development, Osotimehin argued, is the empowerment and education of women around the world, which he claims will be key to development in societies that have historically marginalized women.
“The most vulnerable years of a girl’s life are 10 to 14,” said Osotimehin, adding that, in many societies girls are seen as ready for marriage during this stage of their development.
“We need to intervene aggressively to make sure that they become responsible adults in the long term,” he said.
One obstacle that Osotimehin focused on was gender-based violence, which he said is an under-reported issue in most cultures.
He went on to describe his advocacy in Nigeria, where he worked to promote women’s rights and empowerment, and also helped set up “husband schools” to educate men about reproductive health and rights.
“Introducing young boys to a different socialization process is a way that we can improve the future,” he said.
Osotimehin also called on the audience to collect data and conduct studies on these social issues.
“Academic institutions can be of great use to us,” said Osotimehin. “We need evidence from academic communities that our efforts are making a difference.”