The Adolescent Girl Moment: Passion is Our Fuel But Not Our Plan

Picture: Jessica Lea/Department for International Development
Picture: Jessica Lea/Department for International Development via Flickr

Guest blog post by Judith Bruce, Senior Associate and Policy Analyst, The Population Council

In a recent interview, I was asked, “Can you tell a story of a girl who has touched you?” This question is not surprising; the stories of the poorest girls in the poorest communities are compelling. However, although these stories fuel our passion, they do not reliably move us to effective action. Without clear, targeted, evidence-based plans and resources on the ground, the impressive adolescent girl campaign will have few lasting results.

Images of girls, individual success stories, and the recent UK/UNICEF Girl Summit provoke the powerfully emotive right side of the brain, but may not fully engage the logical and analytical left side. It is that left side we require to move this agenda forward and to Earth.

Further, the very success of this beautifully crafted campaign may unintentionally suggest that girls’ telegenic presence in development communications reflects substantial programmatic investment on the ground. It does not.

Though investments in poor adolescent girls are central to the achievement of Millennium Development Goals, girls are subjects of relatively few dedicated programs. When that changes, when we effectively reach and build the assets of the poorest girls, we will set in motion a virtuous cycle that will speed the realization of core health, justice, and poverty alleviation goals.

Currently, most conventional development approaches—including programs directed at “youth”—do not reach the poorest 40% of girls. These girls carry the greatest burden of disease and abuse, but are the least likely to have access to services and skill building. For example, youth programs in communities with high HIV-burdens disproportionately engage older males, even though younger females are at persistently higher risk for HIV.

The exclusion of the bottom 40% stems not from a lack of data; disaggregated national datasets (by age, gender, schooling, living arrangements, and marital status) which allow the identification of communities in which “at risk” girls are concentrated have existed for over a decade, as have data that demonstrate “elite capture”—better-off young people receiving a disproportionate share of vital services. Why are we so slow to see, count, or reach the 200 million poorest girls?

Increasingly, this delay feels more like resistance than ignorance. Do we not want to give up our “universal credit card”? Girls are a fungible asset. When infrastructure is inadequate, who is going to walk farther for water or firewood? When money is tight, who is forced to drop out of school or subtly be encouraged to “find” school fees through dangerous sexual exchanges? When families are displaced, who is forced into marriage to provide “emergency” resources? The sexual exploitation of girls is a growing industry.

Despite this abuse, adolescent girls are the most reliable guarantors of the well-being and economic preparedness of the next generation. They are the ultimate high “value for money” investment. On the other hand, their poverty is played forward rapidly as the great majority of girls will be substantial or sole supports for themselves and their children.

There should be no more excuses; we have the means to find the “off track” girls and engage them at tipping point levels to bring them, and their communities, meaningful change. Scattered boutique programs of 25 girls selected on no particular basis should not be allowed to “stand in” for systemic change.

This girl moment must be seized, lest the “talk” outpace the “walk.” The adolescent girls campaign—so successful as “branded communication”—must be transformed into on-the-ground activity. Large organizations and donors alike should be admonished to fundamentally recast their approaches and their metrics. Success should not be measured by girls’ visibility in institutional materials or twitter feeds; it should be measured in the numbers of real girls in real places whose health, social, economic, and cognitive assets have been improved. Let girls’ share of resources match their prominence on walls and annual reports.

We can do this. A handful of government and nongovernmental actors are prioritizing, executing, evaluating, and scaling adolescent girl-centered programs. Targeted, evidence-based programs bringing measurable change are present in every developing region of the world. The best of these are reaching large numbers of out-of-school girls in high-child marriage areas; extremely isolated girls, such as those 8 to 15 living in urban and peri-urban areas with one or no parent; and the vast and frightfully neglected population of married girls. In the first stages of prototyping are programs for girl migrants—crucial given girls’ heavy presence in migration streams—and girls affected by humanitarian and conflict emergencies, a high and rising number.

Still moved by girls’ resourcefulness and courage, and drawing on the passion of the right side of the brain, we must exercise the equally formidable systematic left side of the brain to accomplish something really useful and lasting.

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Tagged with: adolescent girls    Child Marriage    Investments    MDGs    Millennium Development Goals    sustainable development    Sustainable Development Goals