Investing in youth: The future is now

By Lisandra Fariñas Acosta & Lauren Céspedes Hernández @

July 15, 2016

When, on July 11, 1987, the world reached the landmark population of five billion inhabitants, the need to address population problems and their relationship to socio-economic development was becoming increasingly clear. Thus, the United Nations General Assembly recommended the annual observation of World Population Day, as an opportunity to focus on gaps and challenges, and this year the 27th edition has taken as its watchwords, “Investing in adolescents.”

Focusing efforts on this age group is crucial to development, while young women face vulnerabilities because of their gender, requiring special attention and specific interventions to address issues such as violence, abuse, early and underage marriage, teenage pregnancy and motherhood – all of which prevent young women from developing to their full potential and improving their physical, economic, and social wellbeing.

“Every adolescent girl has the right to a transition to adult life in secure conditions and the right to take advantage of the opportunities the future holds for her,” emphasized Rafael Cuestas, international coordinator of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) office in Cuba, during an interview with Granma International.

“The Unfpa is devoted to promoting and protecting these rights and supporting adolescent girls so they can determine their own future, since it is they who, throughout the world, face more and greater challenges than their male counterparts. In many countries, families believe that girls, once they have reached puberty, are ready for marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth, and many are obliged to leave school. A girl may suffer a debilitating experience giving birth, since her body is not ready for it, thus denying her human rights. The challenges and obstacles that an adolescent girl confronts are multiplied if she is part of an ethnic minority, lives in a poor village or home,” he stated.

“When an adolescent girl has power, the means, and information to make her own decisions in life, it is more likely that she will reach her full potential, and become a positive force for change in her household, community, and nation,” Cuestas emphasized.


“In the Latin American context, Cuba has always been an obvious exception, both in terms of the organization of the state in general, and in regards to public policy addressing youth in particular. This is so much the case that when relevant comparative analysis is done, around general or specific issues, the Cuban model is often left to one side or barely mentioned, as a special case, different, difficult to compare,” said Ernesto Rodríguez, director of the Latin American Center For Youth, during the last International Congress of Youth Researchers.

He emphasized at that time, “The entire world, and Latin America in particular, have taken note of two important comparative studies, in which Cuba stands out as the country with the highest development of youth in Latin America,” and holds 11th place internationally.

But what is the situation facing this age group in Cuba? How are they being supported with investment? A single article is not adequate to address the multiple points of view and matters affecting youth, to draw conclusions and identify the challenges that remain to be faced, but this piece is a beginning, based on the premise that this issue is crucial to the future of the nation in which we live, and the one we hope to construct, a future already taking shape in each of us.

“Cuban adolescents are schooled, and this is always a protective factor. They have access to sexual and reproductive health services, and comprehensive sexuality education in their schools, among many other benefits,” Rafael Cuestas pointed out, while emphasizing the potential Cuba has to continue taking action, “because the political will is evident, and a platform already exists within the different programs implemented.

“In Cuba, the challenges are different from those we can identify in the region,” he said, referring, for example, to teenage pregnancy, a focus of attention because, even though the rate is lower here than in other countries of the region, Unfpa is working in collaboration with the ministries of Health and Education, and other institutions, to further lower its incidence.

“It’s a question of identifying provincial differences, the less visible causes, as we always say, spin a fine thread (go deeper).”

“What a country cannot be without are policies and investment in health and education, including comprehensive sexuality education, actions that empower adolescents and create economic conditions which generate employment. This takes on particular importance when we’re talking about the young population, because they have the potential to drive forward and accelerate economic growth,” he explained.

Cuestas asserted, “Those in charge of making political decisions play an important role in ensuring that the rights of citizens, including adolescents, are respected; and in this sense, investment in youth can be diverse, infinite, but one point of departure is not to look at adolescents and youth as homogeneous groups.”

Education; health; culture; recreation; providing healthy and attractive family, community, and school environments, are all obligatory investments, Cuestas asserted, recognizing the need for differentiated policies as part of the plan.

He likewise emphasized that within the unquestionable need to invest in public health, sexual and reproductive health have a special place, saying, “There are many events related to sexual health, to sexuality, which occur during this period. That is why Unfpa has defended the importance of adolescents feeling secure, feeling capable; having information and someone to talk with; and being able to access education on sexuality and sexual and reproductive health services which meet their needs. Creating the capacity within the health system to work with this age group is central,” he explained.

Work with adolescents cannot be sectoral, he said. “An issue that is much discussed today is the effectiveness of policies on youth, since they end up isolating the group and not placing youth within the context of relations with other generations. Cuba is an example of inter-sectoral policy making, adolescents and youth are addressed via multiple sectors, disciplines, and focal points,” Cuestas said.

According to Cuestas, the new Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 constitutes an unprecedented opportunity for young people to assert their rights, make their aspirations a reality, and transform the world, “When countries invest in the health and education of their youth, especially adolescents, and generate opportunities that allow their potential to be put to good use, they are additionally in a better position to benefit from a demographic dividend that can drive economic growth forward, as a way of fighting poverty.”

“The generation of updated data and indicators that give adolescents visibility is a great challenge, above all in regards to those under 15 years of age, who many times are left out of the statistics,” said Marisol Alfonso de Armas, who works on Unfpa’s projects in Cuba and spoke with Granma.

In this respect, she mentioned that the international organization supports and accompanies programs developed by strategic partners like the ministries of Public Health and Education, the National Center for Sexual Education, and the national program serving mothers and infants. In this context, she said, the Unfpa makes a modest contribution with the donation of contraceptives for specific groups, adolescents among them.

“One of Unpfa’s most important commitments is to continue supporting the National Program for Sexual Education and Health, as a platform to coordinate all the initiatives in comprehensive sexual education that exist in the country. This inter-sectoral work, with participation from civil society, constitutes a reference for the region,” Cuestas added.

In a similar way, he said, Unpfa accompanies research centers focused on youth, in training and development of national studies on issues related to adolescents and youth, noting that national surveys are essential to decision-making.

We asked how investment in adolescence can be articulated with investment in the older adult segment of the population, which occupies an increasing important demographic position.

“Countries like Cuba, with advanced or completed demographic transitions, face this challenge, because several generations are living together, not only in the family environment, but also in the community, the neighborhood, in services for transportation, food, culture… The key lies in achieving the harmonious co-habitation of these generations,” Cuestas said.

He noted that Cuban society is inclusive by nature, and this is already a step forward, “Demographic aging must be situated in its rightful place. Avoiding the connotation of a ‘problem,’ when it is a challenge, and not only for less developed countries, but for all, which therefore requires changes in the design of our cities, in infrastructure, and more expenses in the area of health for a growing age group which must be guaranteed the right to a longer life with quality.

“Inter-generational dialogue must be encouraged; we need spaces, that aren’t the traditional ones, they must perhaps be more attractive, to produce that so necessary mix of knowledge, energy, histories, for all, male and female,” he said, summarizing the great challenge ahead.

Investing in youth to assure tomorrow’s investments requires awareness that we must encourage the desire to be useful to society within our economically active population, and continue providing greater opportunities to participate, to make proposals, to learn and create.

Awareness is also needed to celebrate what we have accomplished as a nation, and develop sufficient know-how to recognize and address diverse problems which, despite progress made, exist in our midst: teenage pregnancy, the impact of emigration on families and youth, and challenges the youngest face in the workforce within the country’s new socio-economic context. Only a few notes, but an initial look inside Cuba.