This post was authored by Ariel Cerrud and Nicole Cheetham of Advocates for Youth, a member of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls.
In a sea of experts, government leaders, advocates, and law-makers, it’s easy to lose sight of who knows best about the lives of adolescent girls: adolescent girls themselves. Often, and to our detriment, the international development community fails to appreciate the unique needs of adolescent girls and the valuable insights they can bring to our programs and policies. Girls’ voices and opinions are strong, their ideas are informed by direct experience, and their contributions often make organizations more effective.
Like many members of the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, at Advocates for Youth we envision a society in which all young people are valued, respected, and treated with dignity. Valuing young people, especially adolescent girls, means authentically involving them in the design, implementation, and evaluation of the programs and policies that affect their health and well-being.
By working directly with young leaders, especially girls in the global south, we can empower them to advocate for policies and champion programs that recognize their rights to education, safety, economic empowerment, participation, and equitable sexual and reproductive health information and services. Caren Odanga, Kenyan activist and founder of the Sisari Women’s Initiative (SWI), is one of those young leaders.
As the founder of SWI, Caren is a young woman leading a community based organization that advocates for women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights. SWI teaches young women and girls in rural schools about unintended pregnancy, sanitation, gender-based violence, and reproductive rights. This past month, SWI celebrated Menstrual Hygiene Day in an effort to end the global silence and stigma that surround menstrual hygiene management. “Although the impact of inaccessible sanitary towels on women and girls living in marginalized areas is highly documented and acknowledged, very little effort, if any, has been put in place to overcome this major challenge,” says Caren.
This challenge did not stop Caren; instead she led an effort to partner SWI with local sponsors and donors who produce and distribute reusable sanitary towels.
“Many women and girls, particularly those living in rural areas in developing countries, don’t have access to sanitary towels to hygienically manage their menstruation. Locally produced and distributed sanitary pads that are cost effective, reusable and eco friendly help end this problem.” Caren Odanga
Breaking through the taboos associated with menstruation, SWI is empowering young girls to advance each other’s education about menstruation, ensuring good health, strengthening the economy, protecting the environment, and realizing women’s and girls’ rights.
By working in partnership with youth and their adult allies, Caren and SWI are shifting the cultural paradigm that often marginalizes young and adolescent girls. In utilizing coordinated approaches between key stakeholders, making programs and education accessible, and giving other girls a meaningful project to advance their health and well being, SWI is utilizing many of the principles of effective girl engagement. In doing so, Caren is changing a culture that too often marginalizes girls to one that embraces young people as partners and recognizes menstruation as normal and healthy.
Adolescent girls’ issues and rights are inextricably linked to all humanitarian issues. Unfortunately, many organizations’ projects are not directly informed by adolescent girls. Engaging girls in the creation of such projects, or in other aspects of an organization’s operations, can benefit all involved. It is for precisely this reason that the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, with Advocates’ support, is convening its members to produce a toolkit focused on girl engagement and enabling organizations to assess their readiness to engage girls.
We recognize that young girl’s voices and perspectives must be central in the fight for their sexual health and rights. Adolescent girls have the right to be active partners in developing, shaping, and implementing programs and policies that impact their health and lives. Decision makers, including leaders of organizations and government agencies, as well as program managers and other adult professionals, need to move beyond policies and practices of the past that discourage engagement of young people. For young and adolescent girls who are often left out of the dialogue, it’s time to embrace their diversity and support their participation and the great contributions that they have to provide.