Charting a Positive Future for Girls in Developing Countries

The Landscape

Through the 1990s, little was known about the lives of girls in developing countries across health, social, and economic dimensions, and few policies and programs existed to support girls. Research on adolescence, defined roughly as ages 10 to 19, focused primarily on premarital sex and pregnancy, and researchers routinely classified girls as adults once they married or gave birth, regardless of their age.

The Paradigm Shift

Population Council researchers began concentrating on the study of adolescents in the early 1990s, with the goal of bringing broader attention to social and economic issues that underpin adolescent health and wellbeing.

In 1998, the Council published The Uncharted Passage: Girls’ Adolescence in the Developing World, by Council senior social scientists Barbara S. Mensch and Judith Bruce, and Margaret E. Greene of the Center for Health and Gender Equity. The book interpreted available data on the lives of adolescent girls and argued that the second decade of life is a time of heightened vulnerability for girls and of critical capability-building for children of both sexes. “What happens between the ages of 10 and 19, whether for good or ill,” wrote the authors, “shapes how girls and boys live out their lives as women and men—not only in the reproductive arena, but in the social and economic realm as well.”

The available data made clear that adolescence is a time of widening opportunities for boys, but constricting opportunities for girls. Girls’ school enrollment lagged behind boys’, and girls spent far more time than boys on domestic chores, such as cleaning and fetching water and fuel, and far less time with friends.

The Uncharted Passage also drew attention to child marriage and its consequences. “We maintain that a girl remains a girl until she reaches age 20,” wrote the authors, “no matter what occurs in her life prior to that time. . . . Girls’ promise and vulnerability do not end when their sexual, reproductive, or married lives begin.” Classifying girls who are wives or mothers as adults deprives them of rights, protections, services, and opportunities afforded to other children their age. The book outlined gaps and biases in information about girls and defined a framework for creating effective policies and programs for them.

Recognizing the Council’s thought leadership on adolescence, in 2005 the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine tapped a panel of experts—led by Cynthia B. Lloyd, then Population Council director of social science research, and including other Council researchers—to examine the lives of adolescents in developing countries, identifying evidence gaps, promising programs, and policy options for young people. The resulting book, Growing Up Global, provided a theoretical framework for thinking about adolescence in an era of globalization. It focused on the influence of gender and pointed to the particular educational and health disadvantages suffered by poor girls. Growing Up Global identified areas for future research, such as examining patterns of migration among young people and determining the consequences of early marriage for reproductive health and education. The years since its publication have witnessed a growing appreciation of the need for comprehensive approaches to meet the needs of young people.

The Lasting Impact

These publications and related Council leadership on the topic of adolescence spurred tremendous growth in attention to the needs of adolescent girls in developing countries and a recognition of the benefits of addressing their vulnerabilities. Council guidance has shaped the formation and approach of multiple organizations and coalitions—including The Girl Effect, the Coalition for Adolescent Girls, and GirlHub—aimed at addressing girls’ needs and ending child marriage. Early marriage is now a priority area for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which in 2012 pledged $20 million to reach the most vulnerable girls at risk of early marriage. Growing Up Global set the stage for the World Bank’s adolescent Girls’ Initiative.

Today, the Population Council has the world’s largest body of rigorous research on programs to improve the lives of adolescent girls. The Council is currently testing ways to improve the lives of girls in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.


Mensch, Barbara S., Judith Bruce, and Margaret E. Greene. 1998. The Uncharted Passage: Girls’ Adolescence in the Developing World. New York: Population Council.

Lloyd, Cynthia B. (ed.). 2005. Growing Up Global: The Changing Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries, a report of the National Research Council Panel on Transitions to Adulthood in Developing Countries. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, National Academy of Sciences, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, United States Agency for International Development, and The World Bank