"Adolescence is often the moment when a girl’s potential is irrevocably lost or stolen," Jennifer and Peter Buffet recently wrote in an article arguing girls need to be safe, seen, and celebrated. With girls facing tremendous risks at this critical juncture, what evidence-based approaches should be pursued to promote skills, education, and livelihoods of adolescent girls and young women? This discussion explores dimensions of empowerment (economic, social, political), types of skills, the role of boys, and how to get adolescent girls on the policy agenda. Join moderator Shubha Chakravarty of the World Bank, and three other experts, Judith Bruce of the Population Council, Jeannie Annan of International Rescue Committee, and Mayra Buvinic of UN Foundation, in a conversation about Adolescent Girls' Empowerment.
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The roots of unemployment and poverty among adults in developing countries can often be traced back to obstacles encountered during adolescence. Dropping out of school, early marriage and parenthood, and engaging in risky behavior can prevent youth from achieving their potential. Young women face particular challenges during adolescence, as their educational and livelihood choices are more constrained by fertility considerations, domestic work burdens, and limited knowledge of opportunities. Social norms around women’s work and mobility as well as discrimination and gender-based violence can further prevent young women from taking up available opportunities. Adolescence offers a critical window for interventions to help young people establish a better path toward adulthood, improving not just their lives but those of their children, their families, and their communities.
With these challenges in mind, the World Bank launched the Adolescent Girl Initiative in 2008 to promote the economic empowerment of young women. To date, the Initiative has launched eight pilot projects in Liberia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Nepal, Afghanistan, Jordan, Laos, and Haiti. Each pilot offers a context-specific combination of skills training, entrepreneurship support, and complementary services to help young women succeed in the labor market. Six of the pilots include rigorous impact evaluations to measure how the programs affect economic, social, and reproductive health outcomes of participants. The evaluations lay the groundwork for evidence-based programming and policymaking on youth development and gender equality. Emerging lessons from these pilot projects show strong gains in young women’s employment, particularly in low-income settings, but we still have a lot to learn on empowerment in the non-economic dimensions of a girl’s life.
To explore the various dimensions of adolescent girls’ empowerment, we have invited several experts with a range of perspectives to kick off our conversation on what we know, and what we are still learning, about how to unleash the potential of adolescent girls and young women in the developing world today. Please join myself, Senior Economist Markus Goldstein and our three expert panelists:
One thing most people working in poverty alleviation know is that very little is reaching young women. Caught by these headlines, many institutions are putting together programs for girls based on somewhat arbitrary criteria. Though fueled by enthusiasm, this is not the best way to proceed. The basic theory of change and sifting of the data has not been used to create the plan. Indeed, the passions have overwhelmed the plan in many cases. Of course, I admire anyone who is moved by girls, but my concern is that we now use the same systematic methods that we’ve used to tackle any number of other issues. It’s not enough to be concerned about negative outcomes for girls, but to articulate a widely achievable set of benchmarks. Where should they be by age 12? Is it different than where boys should be? Yes, because they face very different challenges.
The sound foundations for adolescent girls programs include a fairly simple set of analyses. What are the factors or risks we’re trying to change in girls’ lives (being out of school during schoolgoing years, subject to child marriage)? Where are such girls concentrated? Within those communities, what’s the universe of girls? What’s the denominator for so many programs that say “I’m simply going to pick out 25 girls” without reference to the number of girls in the community and/or the particular theory of change tied to the proportions that they need to reach, with what, and for how long?
The lesson in all this is that we have the have the possibility of using the same powers of analysis, commitment, and follow-through that have been used in every other field to develop business plans for girls and get resources reliably to them. We need to find the best way to ensure that these investments build the girls enough to get them through the hard “stops”—puberty, the beginnings of sexual activity (whether voluntary or forced, as it is in many cases), marriages (which may not be fully chosen), and having children. Building a solid foundation for young females must begin earlier than for boys and be geared to passages that uniquely narrow female prospects.
I would like to see a wave of experiments over the next decade on how to build young female leadership cadres, and to carry forward national agendas to systematically chart levels of coverage of different populations (as we have certainly done in the family planning field)— to assess unmet needs, set goals, and incrementally or perhaps radically reach our girls. And of course, in line with the introduction of this online seminar, let us find the tipping point levels of investment in girls that reliably set in motion the virtuous cycle.
The International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) adolescent girl empowerment programs are designed to support girls’ transition into adolescence and adulthood. The idea behind our programs is simple: as girls pass through adolescence, a number of factors play roles in influencing whether the girl will complete secondary school, avoid teenage pregnancy, and develop the life skills, attitudes, behaviors, and relationships that will set her on a path to a healthy and productive adulthood.
An important component of our programs in this area is the mentorship piece: a life skills curriculum implemented by mentors made up of young women from the local communities. The aim is to equip girls with the skills and experiences necessary to make healthy, strategic life choices and to stay safe from abuse and sexual exploitation.
We still have a lot to learn about what works best for adolescent girls, and we are committed to testing our approaches with rigorous research. We have recently started impact evaluations on adolescent girl programs in Liberia, Ethiopia, and DRC. In each case, we are evaluating either a package of interventions or a particular component, such as mentoring or working with parents. Together with partners from the World Bank, Innovations for Poverty Action, Columbia University and Population Council, we hope these evaluations help us improve our interventions in the future.
At the UN Foundation, we recently completed a report in collaboration with the ExxonMobil Foundation, “ A Roadmap for Promoting Women’s Economic Empowerment”. The report examines “what works” to promote women’s economic empowerment, “for whom” – which types of women, and “where” – in which social and economic contexts.
One of the groups we considered was young women. In most of the developing world, growing levels of female school attendance, combined with low labor force participation, suggest that young women have a more difficult transition from school to work than young men. These initial disadvantages call for greater policy and program efforts focused on young women’s transition into jobs to equalize opportunities with young men.
We identified program interventions that are proven, promising, or have high potential to increase young women’s productivity and earnings by analyzing recent rigorous empirical evidence. A number of key lessons emerged:
For young women, demand-oriented skills, on-the-job training, vouchers and/or wage subsidies are effective in increasing employability and earnings, if social restrictions that prevent firms from hiring young female workers are not binding. These interventions can be expensive but are still cost-beneficial. Some components, such as providing job information through targeted campaigns or mobile phones, implemented on their own could be effective at much lower costs.
Cash grants or incentives to young women to access education increase their school attendance and may improve their schooling outcomes; cash grants with no conditions may help increase young women’s employment and income (if they are large enough) and have sizeable social benefits.
Livelihood programs that combine reproductive health with income generation and asset building show promising results for young women in low-income settings and in socially conservative environments, but need to be further evaluated before they can be delivered at scale.