By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

There are about 125 million 10-year-old children living in the world today. These children, according to the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) “The State of the World Population” 2016 report, are at a pivotal crossroad: a future paved with opportunities, or the opposite.

World Goal: No girl left behind in 2030
Girls playing grown-up, put on make-up. — BW File Photo

“The 10-year-old children, who are in their early adolescent years, are in the critical stage of their lives,” said UNFPA Representative in the Philippines Klaus Beck at a forum on Oct. 20.

Ten is a decisive number, said the UNFPA report, because investing and empowering them today not only helps them make better choices for their future, but, in return, yields better economic impacts when they start to contribute in the labor force in the future. The call for youth investment is in line with the United Nations goals that by 2030 — when today’s 10-year-olds will be 24 or 25 — the world is in a much better place. The United Nations 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals sees the eradication of poverty as its top priority, “where no one is left behind.”

The 10-year-olds in the world do not have equal opportunities, and the girls are the most vulnerable. Of the 125 million 10-year-old children today, 65 million are boys and over 60 million are girls, who, according to the report, are more susceptible to inequality and violations of their human rights like forced labor and marriage, and teenage pregnancy.

Three in four girl laborers in the world are unpaid, while 10% of girls aged five to 14 are more overworked — doing more than 28 hours of chores per week — than boys their age, said UNFPA.

“Whenever a girl’s potential goes unrealized, we all lose,” said Mr. Beck.

He said a year of continuous education gives an additional 11.7% uplift in wages later in life for a girl — but then again, the report said that 16 million girls between six and 11 would never even start school. Further, an estimated 47,000 girls around the world are getting married before they turn 18.

About half of the world’s 10-year-olds today live in Asia and the Pacific region. The Philippines has over one million 10-year-old girls. The report said if the country invests in them today, and through the next 14 years, our gross domestic product (GDP) could grow by almost 13% compared to today’s GDP.

Further, if we play our cards right, the prediction that the Philippine economy will be the 17th biggest in the world by 2050 might come to pass.

The country should be tapping and maximizing the potential of its young population; after all, the UNFPA said economic growth is expected among nations that have more working-age people than younger and older dependents. The average age in the Philippines, according to the Commission on Population, is 29.

When the country’s working-age population is larger than the number of its dependents, it can enjoy the accelerated economic growth that comes from its demographic dividend. But the Philippines may miss out on this. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) study “Demographic Sweet Spot and Dividend in the Philippines: The Window of Opportunity is Closing Fast,” said the country has a high probability of missing this opportunity because of its high fertility and unemployment rates, especially among the poorest in society.

The Philippines is the only country in the Asia-Pacific region whose rate of teen pregnancy has been increasing over the last 20 years, said the UNFPA. Data reveal that one in three young Filipinos has engaged in premarital sex, with a whopping 78% of first-time sexual engagements unprotected. The Commission on Population noted that 290,872 teenage Filipinas gave birth in 2014.

Crystal Aura Selga is one of them. She was only 15 when she got pregnant three years ago. “While most girls my age are thinking about clothes, boys, and parties, I got pregnant [at an early age] and now I’m focused on raising my daughter. Feel ko ang tanda ko na (I feel old), because once you’ve become a teen mom you’re not only making decisions for yourself but for the baby as well,” she told BusinessWorld.

World Goal: No girl left behind in 2030
Young people enjoying the bubble display at Manila’s Luneta Park. — BW File Photo

She said she comes from a broken family and her early pregnancy shocked her mother, which led to their separation. “Until now, I haven’t seen my mom, who I believe has not yet forgiven me,” she said. It has been two years since they last saw each other. She is currently living with her boyfriend’s family in Taguig.

According to Mr. Beck, one in three girls in developing countries is already married and or has children, while seven in 10 teen girls will never finish their education. In the Philippines, four in 10 girls are — or will be — mothers by 19. This is sad because the nation is relying on the youth to lift it up.

“They (the working-age young) hold enormous opportunity to transform the future of the Philippines, but this can only happen if they have the right information and skills, and are healthy and empowered to make informed decisions in life,” said Mr. Beck in a press event back in July when the world marked World Population Day.

Ms. Selga said she wished she had known better. But she said she regrets nothing, and considers her baby a blessing. “Well, I think siguro kung mas sexually informed ako hindi mangyayari. Pero who’s to blame — syempre sarili ko ’to and kahit anong mangyari, ako ’yung responsible sa mga decisions na ginagawa ko.” (If I had been more sexually informed, I think this would have never happened. But who’s to blame but myself. I am responsible for my actions.)

The UNFPA strongly suggests that the country push for the full implementation of its reproductive health law and invest in good education and health services for the 10-year-olds and the teenage girls.

To address the problem of teen pregnancy, experts recommend talking about sex and its consequences more openly.

Although the country is predominantly Catholic and thus, conservative, National Youth Commission chair Carisa “Aiza” Seguerra, also present at the event, urged the parents to talk to their children. She said the parent’s role is crucial, and — addressing the youth — she said that no matter how cliché the statement is, education is never a bad investment.  Ms. Selga agrees. While she became a mother at an early age, she said it’s never too late to continue her education. Her baby motivates her to finish her studies. She’s currently a second year college student at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines working for her Bachelor of Science degree in Entrepreneurship Management. “Juggling school work and being a mom is hard,” she said, “but I know it’s worth it.”

She also wishes to reconcile with her mother and to prove to her that she can be successful.

“My only goal is to finish my studies and get a decent job that will support my daughter’s financial needs because until today, we rely on the mother of my baby’s daddy.”

Mr. Beck pointed out: “How we invest and support the 10-year-old girls today will determine what our world will look like in 2030… With support from family, community, and nation, and the full realization of her rights, a 10-year-old girl can thrive and help bring the future we want.

He said, “our collective future depends on investing on the youth,” who by 2030, would be 24-year-old adults, and, hopefully, will be what the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals has imagined them to be.