The world seems to keep getting worse -- every day, the news tells us shocking stories of violence, brutality and war. And the truth is, we often blame young people for these seemingly insurmountable challenges. We blame terrorism on the unemployed young men who become radicalized extremists. We blame poverty on the uneducated young women who become pregnant and give birth to babies they can't afford.
If you believe the news, the world's biggest problem is young people. There are currently over 1.8 billion young people in the world, with 88 percent of all adolescents living in poor countries (UNICEF 2012). Too many of these young men and women are uneducated, unemployed, and unable to access basic health services and information.
The world's biggest problem certainly is young people, but not in the way you might think. The world's biggest problem is this -- we as a global community have failed to provide young people with the basic tools and resources they need to thrive, much less create a better world.
Young people are too often denied the basic sexual and reproductive health services and information they need to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and HIV/AIDS. And the consequences are devastating.
Worldwide, 39 percent of new HIV infections occur among 15 to 24 year olds (UNAIDS 2013). More than 16 million adolescent girls give birth every year, and childbirth is the top killer of girls ages 15 to 19 (WHO 2012). Far too few young people have access to quality family planning, safe abortion services, and the comprehensive sexuality education they need to live healthy and productive lives.
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Public Health Institute are working to change these devastating realities. We have partnered to launch the Youth Champions Initiative -- an exciting new initiative to advance innovation and quality in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. In honor of the Packard Foundation's 50th Anniversary, the Youth Champions Initiative (YCI) will invest in visionary young champions who will lead the sexual and reproductive health and rights movement for the next generation.
The Youth Champions Initiative believes in the power of young people to create a better world. YCI's innovative incubator-style model will invest in youth champions -- enabling them to strengthen their leadership, develop their skills, and create innovative new strategies to improve sexual and reproductive health and rights in their countries.
We are thrilled to launch the Youth Champions Initiative during the Partnership for Maternal Newborn Child Health Partners Forum and the Healthy Women and Children +SocialGood event in Johannesburg, South Africa. During this global convening, more than 800 government leaders, civil society advocates and donors will discuss strategies to improve maternal and child health outcomes, highlighting the importance of investing in young people.
My hope is that the outcomes from Johannesburg reflect an important truth:
Young people are not the world's biggest problem. If we let them, young people will be the world's most powerful solution.