This post is written by Lucie Faucherre, Junior Gender Equality Policy Analyst at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Adolescent girls have gained unprecedented visibility on the international agenda, sparked by the leadership of young women such as the Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai. In 2012, the International Day of the Girl Child was celebrated for the first time. That same year saw the adoption of a landmark resolution on eliminating child, early and forced marriage by the Human Rights Council, sponsored by more than 110 countries. And tomorrow, a Girl Summit will be hosted by the United Kingdom, bringing together more than 400 representatives from around the world, including girl ambassadors, to put an end to early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation within a generation.
Adolescent girls are critical agents for change
The case for investing in adolescent girls is clear. Today, half of the 1.5 billion young people living in the world are girls, 600 million of whom live in developing countries. Adolescence is a pivotal phase where girls are disproportionately vulnerable to gross human rights violations. Yet, adolescence also offers a unique window of opportunity to empower young women with lasting effects on their life chances. When a girl in a developing country receives seven or more years of education she marries on average four years later and has two fewer children. Studies have also shown that an additional year of schooling for girls increases their earning power, gives them better economic prospects and improves their decision-making autonomy.
Despite this, girls have remained on the margins of development efforts, partly as a result of the lack of available data on their specific situation – although weakness of data is a consequence as well as a cause of political inaction. As Judith Bruce from the Population Council puts it, “the fact is that from their last immunisation until the birth of their first child, adolescent girls have been off screen when it comes to development practice”.
Transforming the drivers of gender inequality
The past 15 years have seen mounting acknowledgement by the international community of the need to invest in girls as both a human rights and development effectiveness imperative. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) proved catalytic in galvanising new resources in support of girls’ education, leading to an increase in bilateral aid targeting gender equality in education from USD 1.2 billion in 2002 to USD 4.4 billion in 2012. However, the root causes of gender disparities in education remain largely intact – lack of safety and security in and around school, harmful traditional practices including early and forced marriage, care responsibilities at home, and the unmet need for family planning services.
An unequivocal lesson from the MDGs experience is that tackling entrenched norms and practices is the business of development. In fact, it is a prerequisite to creating an environment that respects and protects girls’ rights. This might mean taking risks and being innovative. In Nigeria, for example, the DFID-funded Voices for Change programme is experimenting with challenging the discriminatory social norms that underpin girls’ disadvantage through the creation of a lifestyle brand called “Purple”. It might mean channelling money directly into the hands of young women activists and their organisations, as the Dutch MDG3 Fund has done so successfully. It might require placing a higher priority on supporting young women to raise their voices and become leaders in their community, as the Pacific Young Women’s Leadership Strategy is setting out to do.
Leaving no-one behind
The post-2015 development agenda represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to adopt a structurally-transformative roadmap for women and girls that confront the really tough issues – among them, access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, the unequal distribution of unpaid care work, and the continuing prevalence of violence against women and girls. If the international community is serious about leaving no-one behind then these thorny topics must be on the agenda, backed by ambitious resources and accountability frameworks. The systematic collection and use of sex and age disaggregated data is also essential to ensure that decision-making and policies are informed by empirical evidence.
Adolescent girls are the best investment we can make in building a better future for all. We must listen to their voices and priorities, dismantle the barriers to their empowerment, and equip them with the tools they need to drive the changes that they want to see.