Ideas with Impact

Pursuing Evidence to Uphold Girls’ Rights

With the largest generation of young people that the world has ever seen, and because of the grave cost that gender inequality extracts from their potential, the test of whether or not the next 15 years deliver sustainable development lies with the adolescent girl. She is the face of the future. Realizing her rights to dignity through access to health, keeping her safe and in school, and giving her critical information and a say in her own life will transform her future. Transforming her future means all of our futures are transformed.

Investing in the 500 million adolescent girls in the developing world is not only the “right” thing to do, it’s among the most effective and efficient ways for governments to improve social, health, and economic development. Look at the potential of what we might achieve and the suffering we can alleviate:

  • When a girl in the developing world receives 7 years of education, she marries 4 years later and has 2.2 fewer children. (Girls Count 2009).
  • Babies born to adolescent mothers are 50% more likely to be stillborn or die within the first few weeks of life than those born to older mothers (WHO 2014).
  • An extra year of primary school education boosts girls’ future wages by 10%–20%, and an extra year of secondary school adds 15%–25% (Psacharopoulos and Patrinos 2002).

And a World Bank study showed that excluding adolescent girls from school, community participation, and meaningful livelihoods has a substantial negative impact on economic growth (Chaaban and Cunningham 2011).

In the 1990s, the Population Council was among the first organizations to recognize that adolescent girls are central to the world’s development agenda. The Council’s landmark publication, The Uncharted Passage, transformed thinking about the centrality of girls’ lives. It inspired the design and evaluation of programs to empower girls with the knowledge, skills, and supportive social connections they need to thrive, and it gave policymakers research results they can use to confidently enhance programs, efficiently allocate resources, and remain loyal to the interests of girls.

What were epiphanies 20 years ago are now conventional wisdom: engage girls before and throughout puberty, reach girls in and out of school, and give married and unmarried girls the skills and knowledge they need.

But while the international development community is eagerly expanding programs for adolescent girls, we still have too limited data about which strategies in what contexts work best. Principles and information and not intuition alone must guide our efforts to improve girls’ lives. And in a world of limited resources, it’s crucial that we invest in interventions that we know will work.

Today, the Council is building the world’s largest body of rigorous research evaluating programs to improve the lives of adolescent girls.

For example, the Council’s Berhane Hewan program in Ethiopia was one of the first rigorously evaluated projects to significantly delay marriage and increase school enrollment among girls ages 10–14 who lived in a child marriage hotspot. Based on positive results from the program, including reduced levels of child marriage and increased schooling and use of contraception, UNFPA proudly awarded Berhane Hewan first prize in a 2013 contest to identify good practices related to adolescents and youth. Our judging criteria—which Berhane Hewan amply fulfilled—included relevance, innovation, impact, and reproducibility.

However, the program was not designed to tease out the relative effectiveness of the different program components. To generate this evidence, the Council expanded the study in Ethiopia and also launched similar approaches in Burkina Faso and Tanzania comparing four strategies to delay marriage: engaging the community in conversations; supporting girls’ schooling by providing uniforms or school supplies; providing livestock to girls who remained unmarried; and combining all of these approaches.

In Ethiopia, new research shows that simple, streamlined strategies to delay child marriage can work. It was possible to significantly delay marriage among younger girls (ages 12–14) by offering them educational support and by engaging communities in discussions about the benefits of educating girls and the harms of child marriage. Older girls (ages 15–17) who were offered economic incentives in the form of chickens were significantly less likely to get married. The research also generated rarely available data on the costs of implementing each of the strategies to improve and advance future girl-centered programs.

The Population Council is learning what works best (and what doesn’t) by identifying best practices, refining critical elements of girl-centered programs, and using solid evidence to help organizations allocate scarce resources to the most effective programs. And it is working with governments to then formulate the most effective evidence-based policies to improve girls’ lives and meet national development goals.

At this pivotal moment as we begin work on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, we must acknowledge that much will depend on what we do for the sustainable development generation—namely those who today are entering their adolescence! However, to reap the fullest benefits of their wonderful potential as nation builders, peacemakers, and entrepreneurs we need girls to be included, their rights to be upheld, and the discipline of information and evidence to guide our interventions.

Tomorrow is today aged 10. And it is a girl. Change her life, change the world.

Kate Gilmore is the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. Prior to joining the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Gilmore was Assistant Secretary General and Deputy Executive Director for Programmes with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Previously she was National Director of Amnesty International Australia and then Executive Deputy Secretary General of Amnesty International. From 1986 to 1992, she was coordinator and then program development manager of the Royal Women’s Hospital, Australia. From 1992 to 1993, she was CEO of Broadmeadows Community Health Service, then Australia’s largest community health service based in Melbourne, and from 1993 to 1996, she was manager of the division of community care in the Royal Women’s Hospital. In 1996, Ms. Gilmore joined Amnesty International Australia as national director and in 2000, she was appointed executive deputy secretary general of Amnesty International based in London.


Previous entry: Developing Highly Effective, Long-Acting, and Reversible Contraceptives, by Carolyn Westhoff