Almost 25 years on from the Beijing Platform for Action, adolescent girls are starting to make their voices heard in the corridors of power. From the G7 Development and Finance Ministers meetings in Whistler in 2018 to the 2019 Global Women Deliver conference in Vancouver – where Zambia’s Natasha Mwansa shared the stage with the presidents of Canada, Kenya and Ghana – world leaders are finally recognising the importance of showcasing and listening to girls’ voices.
Much progress has been made since Beijing in 1995, when ‘The Girl Child’ was singled out as one of 12 priorities for advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment. Improvements in girls’ access to education and empowerment have accompanied reductions in child marriage. But there is still a long way to go to ensure that all adolescent girls in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) can exercise voice and agency in their families and communities.
My recent fieldwork trips to Azraq camp in Jordan (home to Syrian refugees) and Ethiopia’s pastoralist Afar region really underscored this. It is not just that girls need opportunities to exercise voice and agency within their families and communities; there is also the urgent and daunting collective task of ensuring that governments and development partners translate these voices into adequate support and resourcing.
Data and evidence gaps in assessing progress
We now have better tools and targets to capture changes in gender equality and women’s empowerment – not least thanks to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But these still don’t go far enough.
For example, none of the SDG targets measure progress in girls’ voice and agency. UNICEF’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS) span child survival, development and protection, but similarly have no modules on participation, voice and agency; the United Nations Development Programme’s Gender Inequality Index looks at formal political representation and decision-making in the legislative branch but has nothing on the antecedents of this in adolescence. National Demographic and Health Surveys include questions about participation in decision-making in the home, but only survey married 15–49-year-olds. They capture nothing about younger (and unmarried) adolescents.
There are some exciting advances on the measurement front, though, which could be replicated at scale. The World Health Organization (WHO)/Johns Hopkins Global Early Adolescent Study (GEAS) looks at 10–14-year-olds in 12 urban settings. It asks girls and boys about mobility and decision-making (albeit with limited specifics on what kind of decisions and who they negotiate with). These measures show that gender equity gaps in voice and agency grow during adolescence.
The Young Lives longitudinal study found similar gender gaps in adolescent self-reported agency and self-efficacy – and that when these did not manifest in the second half of adolescence (15–19 years), they had developed by early adulthood (22 years). In Nigeria, the UK Department for International Development (DFID)’s Voices for Change initiative harnessed youth and women’s voices to contribute to change, but deliberately targeted better-educated and better-off young people.
Gender and Adolescence: Global Evidence (GAGE), a longitudinal study following the lives of 18,000 adolescents, is collecting survey data and qualitative evidence on adolescents’ mobility, access to information and say in decisions (on education, work, relationships, sexual and reproductive health and marriage). We are also investigating adolescent and caregiver perceptions of gender norms that affect adolescent decision-making, as well as opportunities to develop collective capabilities through civic participation.
Evidence from our participatory research groups with adolescent girls with disabilities, those who were married as children or who are displaced or living as refugees – and who are usually overlooked – provides an especially rich picture, capturing the nuances of the opportunities and challenges facing these disadvantaged young people. It also gives insights into what support mechanisms would be most conducive in advancing adolescents’ voices, in their own communities and more widely.
An agenda for action
As we review the commitments to girls at Beijing+25 and five years into the SDGs, we need to champion a strategic and bold agenda for change – one that puts adolescent girls’ voices centre stage – to persuade world leaders to:
- Ramp up investments in a costed minimum package for all girls in LMICs that includes not just academic learning but also opportunities to develop voice and leadership skills – in and out of school (for instance, providing safe spaces, civic participation or volunteering initiatives and funding for girls’ collectives or mixed-sex social innovation labs). Girls should be able to make important decisions – about their relationships, marriage, parenthood, decent work – and have access to justice when these rights are violated.
- Implement complementary initiatives to shift discriminatory gender norms by talking to communities and traditional and religious leaders to explore what arguments resonate, and provide incentives (such as cash transfers or scholarships) to drive behavioural change.
- Invest in standardised indicators to measure adolescent voice and agency, and routine collection, analysis and dissemination of mixed-methods data to assess progress over time (as per SDG 5, on gender equality and empowerment, and SDG 16.7, on ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels).