Arab adolescents and the right to know [Archives:2008/1184/Viewpoint]

August 25 2008

Over 11 percent of Arab population is adolescent youth. Although it varies from one Arab country to the other, most teenagers admit they have not had any kind of proper sex and reproductive health education during their growing years and especially during puberty.

Because of immigration, globalization and modernization family life in the region is changing and the youth are exposed to different kinds of media that was not available to their parents. This makes the media seconded by friends as the primary source of information on sex and reproductive health for Arab youth. A national survey of Egyptian adolescents titled Transitions to adulthood which was published in 1999 by the population council in Egypt showed that only 7 percent of boys said they learned about puberty from their fathers although 42 percent of fathers said they talked to their boys about it.

Even if the youth wanted to know about sexual and reproductive health the specialized channels such as health centers and reproductive health service units do not recognize adolescents as a target group. And this is not a one way barrier; even youth do not consider these centers as sources of information for them. A 2000 qualitative research on reproductive health knowledge and needs among Jordanian youth published by Princess Basma Women's Resource Centre showed that Jordanian young people aged 10-24 equated reproductive health with maternal health care and believe that health centers are exclusively for mothers and babies.

Unmarried young Arab women especially face a problem when obtaining contraceptives mainly because socially and religiously they are supposed to be virgins and should not need them. Although a Johns Hopkins University published a Jordanian youth survey reporting that 7 percent of college students admitted to non-marital sex in a study in 1994, as did 4 percent of the general population aged 15-30 in 1999. However, another research on reproductive health of the Arab young people published in 2006 by the American University in Beirut states that even young women who marry early also lack knowledge and access to contraceptive services, let alone basic reproductive health services.

The same research concludes that Arab young people's reproductive health needs are not being fully met due to societal reluctance to address these issues and cultural and religious sensitivities, while health services generally fail to recognize the special needs of this age group, particularly those who are unmarried.

So far, little is known about what young people themselves want in terms of sexual and reproductive health services. It is crucial that young Arabs are provided the opportunity and the adequate resources to learn about their health and how to handle physical and psychological changes. They have the right to know, and we as adults have the obligation to assist them in their self exploration so that they make the correct decisions.