Girls at the She Club, a safe space for girls to learn about SRHR
Chosa Mweemba

Adolescent and youth health and wellbeing

Over the past five years we have helped over 3,600,000 people access better healthcare.

Our health programmes  work with individuals and families, health workers, communities, youth networks and governments to improve health services and rights for some of the most marginalised and disadvantaged members of society, such as women, babies, youth, people with disabilities, and prisoners. We apply the volunteering for development methodology using social accountability, resilience, social inclusion and gender mainstreaming to achieve outcomes from health systems and communities.

Our work supporting health

A smiling young mother lies in a hospital bed and holds her newborn baby on her chest
VSO/Ginny Lattul

Maternal and newborn health

Improving access to quality healthcare for mothers and babies. 

Regina Mwaba sharing her story and encouragement to some young girls inside the Youth Friendly Space at Mbabala Clinic.
Chosa Mweemba

Inclusive sexual and reproductive health and rights

Supporting the most vulnerable people to realise their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

A social worker at Chikurubi Female Prison.
Cynthia R Matonhodze

Prison health

Improving the health and wellbeing of marginalised and neglected prison populations.

Teacher teaching school kids
Chosa Mweemba

The health challenges being faced by the world’s youth

In the wake of the global pandemic of COVID-19, health systems all around the work have been brought to breaking point, and weaknesses have been revealed threatening to undo decades of progress in maternal, child and adolescent health. 

In many countries where VSO is working, marginalised groups are being left behind: people with disabilities, HIV, prison populations, adolescents and young people still struggle to achieve their right to accessible health services, to protection from sexual and gender-based violence, and to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies. 

There is continued stigma and persecution of people with diverse sexual and gender identities, ethnic minorities and mental health or neurological diversities, and these intersectional inequalities need to be addressed to achieve universal health care. 

We work with whole communities and the family structures of adolescents and youths, to come together to address harmful community practices and social norms. This strengthens adolescents'’ ability to assert their own agency in addressing issues that act as barriers, and empower them to demand and exercise their health rights.

It’s time to put adolescents and youth front and centre in our efforts for global health equality.

Key issues 

Child marriage

Girls in Uganda can be married off in exchange for bride price from the age of12.
Peter Caton/VSO
Families in the Karamoja district of Uganda often start to think about marrying off their daughters in exchange for bride price from 12-14 years old.

Around the world, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18 every year. Child marriage is a practice deeply rooted in gender inequality, and exacerbated by poverty, political insecurity and harmful social norms.

Child marriage leads to girls failing to achieve their education goals and falling pregnant before they are physically and emotionally mature enough to become mothers, and carries serious health risks. Girls married before 18 years are also more likely to experience gender-based violence (GBV).

In some contexts, child marriage is also closely linked to female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C), which is a human rights violation and is damaging to girls’ physical and mental health. 90% of teenage pregnancies happen in the context of child marriage. Reducing child marriage will help to improve the health of millions of girls and women, and their children. 

Disability, exclusion and discrimination

A health professional a deaf person signing with one another
©VSO/Ben Langdon
The 'Futures Bright' (Imbere Heza) project in Rwanda is ensuring Deaf young people aren't excluded from accessing sexual and reproductive health services.

Young people with disabilities (YPWD) often face stereotypes regarding their sexuality such as being infantilised and assumed not to be sexually active, and harmful social norms and beliefs about their capability for marriage and parenthood. Their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) continue to not be recognised or prioritised by health systems. Hence, YPWD often face additional barriers to care, services, education and information about SRHR, gender-based violence and other violence and abuse. Where access to health in general is restricted, sexual and reproductive health is almost negligible.  

  • SRHR services are often inaccessible to persons with disabilities for various reasons such as :  
  • Lack of physical access due to transport or within the clinics due to lack of ramps, adapted examination tables etc 
  • Lack of information and communication materials (e.g. lack of materials in Braille, large print, simple language, audio, pictures; lack of sign language interpreters); 
  • Health-care providers’ negative attitudes and beliefs 
  • Health-care providers’ lack of knowledge and skills 
  • Lack of funding, including access to health insurance and social protection  

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV)

Kyifolo Just, 17 years old, part of the Boy’s Club at Luke’s Commercial School in Kenema.
Peter Caton/VSO
Husband schools in Sierra Leone have challenged cultural-norms and changed attitudes towards women, through weekly dialogues with local men.

Violence against women and girls remains widespread and starts alarmingly young. Adolescents and youth are highly impacted by SGBV in their communities: their young age, inexperience and lack of life skills or self-confidence  increases their risk of physical, sexual and intimate partner violence or coercion. Suffering SGBV during adolescence can lead to long-lasting mental and physical health outcomes, and can set young women on a trajectory for subsequent abuse.  

  • Across their lifetime, 1 in 3 women and girls,  around 736 million, are subjected to SGBV – a number that has remained largely unchanged over the past decade. 
  • 1 in 4 young women (aged 15-24 years) who have been in a relationship will have already experienced violence by an intimate partner by the time they reach their mid-twenties. 
  • SGBV is not an exclusively female problem, as many at one in five men and boys also experience abuse, in particular in humanitarian settings, and institutions such as prisons.  
  • Young people with physical and intellectual disabilities are more likely to be the victims of SGBV than others. 

Adolescent wellbeing and mental health

Prisoners during a one-to-one peer education counselling session at Mutimurefu Prison.
VSO/Cynthia R Matonhodze
Prisoners during a one-to-one peer education counselling session in Zimbabwe's Mutimurefu Prison.

Adolescence is a critical period for social and emotional development, the adoption of health behaviours, and the emergence of gender identity and sexuality. During this time adolescence can be exposed to risk factors for poor mental health, such as stigma, exclusion, poverty and conflict, violence (especially sexual violence and bullying), and exposure to risk behaviours like alcohol and substance abuse.  

  • Globally, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experience mental health issues
  • Depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents. 
  • Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15-19 year-olds. 
  • The consequences of failing to address adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to achieve their potential as adults. 
  •  Protecting adolescents from adversity, promoting socio-emotional learning and psychological resilience, and ensuring access to mental health care are critical for their health and well-being and realising their sexual and reproductive health rights. 

Teenage pregnancy

A teenage mother in rural Zambia | VSO
©VSO/Jason Mulikita
Adolescent pregnancy is one of the biggest problems facing girls in the most rural parts of Zambia.

Adolescents face multiple barriers to accessing contraception, such as restrictive, health worker attitudes, lack of knowledge, transport, and financial constraints. Additionally, adolescents may lack the agency or autonomy to ensure correct and consistent use of contraception.  At least 10 million unintended pregnancies occur each year among adolescent girls aged 15-19 years in developing regions. Sexual coercion and violence is a major contributor also, with up to 30% of girls in some countries reporting that their first sexual encounter was coerced. 

  • Approximately 12 million girls aged 15–19 years and at least 777,000 girls under 15 years give birth each year in LMICs. 
  • At least 10 million unintended pregnancies occur each year among adolescent girls aged 15–19 years 
  • Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death for 15–19-year-old girls globally.  
  • Of the estimated 5.6 million abortions that occur each year among adolescent girls aged 15–19 years, 3.9 million (69%) are unsafe, contributing to maternal mortality, morbidity and lasting health problems 
  • Adolescent mothers face higher risks of complications in childbirth and babies of adolescent mothers face higher risks of low birth weight, preterm delivery and serious newborn conditions. 
Social worker Robin Borausiki with her colleague Catherine Bedford at Modilon Hospital in Madang, Papua New Guinea. VSO volunteer Catherine Bedford is a Family and Sexual Violence Mental Health Nurse.

Volunteering for development 

Through our unique volunteering for development (VfD) approach, we engage with thousands of volunteers at international, national and local levels, empowering a new generation of leaders with active citizenship and the chance to develop new skills and a heart of activism for health. We are also working alongside local organisations and national youth networks to build their capacity to support and sustain programmes after the end of the project.  

Through our volunteers, we’re working to ensure all adolescents and youth are heard and achieve their right to quality health and wellbeing by: 

  • Protecting sexual and reproductive health and rights for women, adolescents, and youth  
  • Addressing gender discrimination and social norms, preventing young people from accessing their health rights   
  • Addressing stigma, discrimination and harmful practices, such as sexual and gender-based violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM)  
  • Monitoring local health services quality and accessibility 
  • Demanding greater investment in public services, including social protection.  
  • Facilitating group and individual comprehensive sexuality education 
Find out more about our volunteering for development approach

Our projects

Find out more about our current and former projects helping to create healthy communities.

Examples of our projects
Fatu Conteh, 18, gave birth to baby girl Mariama six months ago

Our strategy: Paving the way in youth health and wellbeing

In our global health strategy, we’re focusing on the well-being, reproductive rights, and quality of health of adolescents and youth, targeting the most excluded and marginalised youth aged 10 to 24 years. Such groups include young women, adolescents, LGBTQI+ people, refugees, teenage parents, prison populations, ethnic minorities, those living in hard-to-reach areas and those living with disabilities. 

Our approach recognises that during the different stages of human development, people have different health needs. We aim to integrate care throughout the adolescent's lifecycle by focusing on people while they are young. 

We view youth's reproductive health holistically, as something that will benefit themselves and their families for years to come.

Find out more in our 2021-24 Global Health Strategy (PDF, 434KB)

VSO’s global health strategy seeks to drive change for adolescents and youth, including those most excluded from their health rights: those from marginalised groups, fragile contexts, LGBTQIA+, people with disabilities, refugees and prison populations.

Papa Diouf
Global Practice Area Lead for Health

Our flagship twinning partnership 

We’re delighted to share with you key learning and evidence from our pilot twinning partnership project between Nyagatare District Hospital, Rwanda and NHS Lewisham and Greenwich, UK.

This twinning partnership, funded by the FCDO, has facilitated clinicians to share and learn from each-other and has produced a range of benefits for both hospitals and communities, from improved laboratory technology in Nyagatare to greater community outreach in both hospitals.

Read the twinning evaluation

Where we support health initiatives

Bangladesh

Health

eSwatini

Health

  • Interactive theatre for justice
  • Improving the health and wellbeing of prison populations in Southern Africa

Ethiopia

Health

  • Equipment and skills to reduce newborn deaths

Malawi

Health

  • Improving the health and wellbeing of prison populations in Southern Africa

Nepal

Health

Rwanda

Health

Sierra Leone

Health

Tanzania

Health

Uganda

Health

  • Equipment and skills to reduce newborn deaths

Zambia

Health

  • Training and Local knowledge (TALK!)
  • Improving the health and wellbeing of prison populations in Southern Africa

Zimbabwe

Health

  • Improving the health and wellbeing of prison populations in Southern Africa
  • Speak it Loud

Latest news

BBC Africa film. Family planning for deaf women in Kenya.
BBC Africa

Family planning for the deaf

BBC Africa recently visited the UK Aid funded “Delivering Equitable Sustainable Increases in Family Planning” (DESIP) project in Kenya where they captured our work helping young women with hearing impairment with information on family planning. Watch the short film here.

Volunteer Carol Carson walks in woodland in Scotland
Carol Carson

The nursing volunteer making a world of difference

Carol Carson transformed training for student nurses, improved communities' patient care and trained midwives in life-saving skills, before being honoured by the Queen in 2020.

Little Sister Anjali Patel at home with her mother Munni Devi Patel
VSO/P Mathema

The shadow pandemics

The coronavirus pandemic has devastated so many lives. But it isn't just one pandemic – from plummeting mental health to escalating gender-based violence – the most vulnerable in society are living through multiple invisible crises all at once.