When supporting orphans and other vulnerable children our attention and resources often focus on the youngest children. And rightly so — they are developmentally vulnerable and depend on adults for their survival and well-being. But what about adolescents? These young people are also at a vulnerable stage in their lives. This period of rapid physical, cognitive and socio-emotional changes can lead to needs and behaviors that place them at risk, such as:
- Impulsiveness and risk-taking
- Intense sexual urges that can be difficult to control
- A need to “fit in,” to be accepted by peers
- Exploration of new roles and experimentation through unsafe behaviors
Adolescents in poor countries face additional challenges that can prevent them from reaching their full potential. Poverty, a lack of access to health facilities, poor employment prospects, few opportunities to develop skills or acquire an education, and harmful social (and gender) norms leave these young people with few options in life. Even among this at-risk population, some are more vulnerable than others. For instance, adolescents orphaned by HIV/AIDS engage in sex at an earlier age than other youth; and females in this group are more likely to marry early, to engage in transactional sex, to become pregnant, and to acquire HIV. These adolescents also have a higher risk of mental health problems like depression, and for dropping out of school.
Providing support to vulnerable adolescents is not only a humanitarian imperative, it is critical to the socio-economic well-being of communities. The investments made and the gains achieved during childhood can be lost if proper support is not provided during adolescence. Also, young people who are adequately prepared to become healthy and productive adults can break the cycle of poverty, hopelessness and dependence which often strains communities and nations.
What can the faith-based community do to support vulnerable adolescents? Consider some of these actions:
- Strengthen families and meet basic needs. Adolescents thrive in families. We need to strengthen families so adolescents have appropriate family care. There are many ways to strengthen a family, but improving food security and economic capacity — for example, through income-generating activities — are especially important. Teaching proper parenting skills can also strengthen a family’s ability to provide adequate care. These interventions can help preserve a family and meet their basic needs — food, shelter and health care — so that children and adolescents in the family can thrive.
- Provide educational support. Education is critical for breaking the cycle of poverty. Adolescents need to stay in school, perform well and graduate. You can help by:
- Increasing awareness among families and communities about the importance of education for boys and girls.
- Providing scholarships to cover the costs of school fees, uniforms and school supplies, while strengthening the economic capacity of families so they can meet these costs in the long term.
- Providing access to tutors or other forms of academic assistance for struggling students.
- Providing orientation and guidance on career paths and scholarship opportunities to adolescents who want to continue their education after secondary school.
- Provide vocational and life-skills education. Vocational education is important for all poor adolescents, but especially for those who have dropped out of school or who will not pursue higher education. Vocational education that responds to the needs of the local market can improve an adolescent’s prospects of securing a job or establishing a small business. Similarly, life skills are critical for a safe and healthy transition to adulthood. Adolescents need to learn the basic skills of communicating and negotiating, goal setting, decision-making, self-care and self-protection. This is especially true for adolescents in institutional care, who will need to be self-sufficient after they leave the institution.
Our resources are often inadequate to meet the needs of vulnerable children and adolescents and we are often forced to make difficult decisions. However, we must not forget about adolescents.
The costs to the individual and to society are much too high.
———————————————————————————————- Baird et al. (2009). The short-term impacts of a schooling conditional cash transfer program on the sexual behavior of young women. Policy Research Working Paper 5089. Impact Evaluation Series no. 40, World Bank, Washington. D.C., October 2009, pp. 16–19; Baird, Sarah, Craig McIntosh and Berk Ozler, ‘Cash or Condition? Evidence from a Randomized Program,’ Cash Transfer Policy Research Working Paper5259, Impact Evaluation Series no. 45, World Bank, Washington, D.C., March 2010, pp. 34–36  Milka Juma, Ian Askew, and Alan Ferguson. Situation Analysis of the Sexual and Reproductive Health and HIV Risks and Prevention Needs of Older Orphaned and Vulnerable Children in Nyanza Province, Kenya (London: DFID, 2007)  S. Gregson et. Al. “HIV Infection and Reproductive Health in Teenage Women Orphaned and Made Vulnerable by AIDS in Zimbabwe” AIDSCare 17(7): 785-94, 2005.  Cluver, Gardner and Operatio (2007). Effects of Stigma on the Mental health of Adolescents Orphaned by AIDS. Journal of Adolescent Health 42 (2008), 410-417.  Smiley et al. (xxx). Orphans and vulnerable Children. Trends in school access and experience in eastern and southern Africa. Education Policy and Data Center. FHI 360.