Voices of Change

Judith Bruce: Pioneering Strategies for Adolescent Girls

Judith Bruce is a senior associate and policy analyst with the Population Council's Poverty, Gender, and Youth program. She has coordinated a program of policy-oriented research on issues related to women’s and adolescent girls’ social and economic development.

Back in the early 1990s—the “dawn” of youth programming—before anyone was focusing on girls, we posed the question: Who is at risk of and carries the most promise to solve the problems the Population Council is serious about solving?

These problems include: reducing maternal mortality since the youngest first-time mothers carry elevated risks; delaying childbearing; creating the conditions for women to negotiate for protected, consented relations and the timing and number of their children; protecting against STIs (which now unhappily include the rising HIV epidemic, whose victims are increasingly young, poor, and female); and broad-based development given that a rising proportion and often majority of households are supported by women. The answer was and is: the poorest girls in the poorest communities.

The biggest challenge is convincing people that these neglected and unappreciated girls are worth investing in. Even now, there is an overwhelming tendency to try to fix girls’ problems without ever working with the girls themselves.

Programmers—in the name of "girls"—want to work with teachers, with parents, with healthcare professionals, with the police, with male peers, and community gatekeepers. There is still a deep resistance to directly building the health, economic, and social assets of girls, especially the youngest.

I am deeply proud of the emerging army of girl advocates and the programs developed by the Council. Each program is innovative and well adapted to its context. Each one brings real change to real girls by engaging them directly while developing their leadership capacities. Following the initial pilots that provided "proof of concept," each has been scaled up.

I've been at the Council since 1977. I’ve stayed because it has been a supportive environment, now and from the beginning, for critical inquiry and innovation; I get up in the morning because of the girls. The combination is fantastic. I get to go to the Council, which feels like a home to me, and work on the subject closest to my heart—the six hundred million girls of the developing world.