Council Commentary

Unprecedented potential: Evidence to empower girls

At the recent Girls Summit DC, Keeping Our Promises to Adolescent Girls, global leaders and advocates discussed how current programs and policies affect the lives of adolescent girls around the world and called on the global community to build on efforts to expand programming that improves girls’ lives.

The world is beginning to realize the importance of investing in policies and programs that directly address the needs of girls.  Women and girls are at the forefront of the Sustainable Development Goals.  More than $2 billion was pledged at the 2016 United Nations General Assembly to improve policy and programs for girls, and for the first time ever, the United States Government has a Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls, which we need to uphold and expand as a new administration takes office.

As both an advocate for girls and a data person, I am thrilled to see the rising interest in “gender data” across these commitments. Donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are investing in efforts to improve the way data are collected and used to better design policies and programs that work for women, girls and their communities.  But much more needs to be done.  We need to ensure that our programs for girls are intentionally designed with their unique needs at the center. And we need more high-quality research that is rigorously evaluated to inform what programs we take to scale.  Without this evidence, we may never understand when interventions truly deliver for girls, nor the impact of our investments on girls’ programs. 

 In a forthcoming review, we will share striking findings from our assessment of published research on “what works” for adolescent girls over the last two decades.  We looked at 77 research articles on 61 programs for adolescent girls aged 14-24 in low- and middle-income countries, and found that only 29% of the programs were of “high quality” (i.e. randomized controlled trials).  We also found that only about half were of “moderate quality” (i.e. quasi-experimental with pre/post and comparison or matched case-control), and 21% were of low quality.  These conclusions are aligned with findings in the recently published Journal of Adolescent Health supplement, Evidence and Evidence Gap in Adolescent Health, which calls out “the poor quality of evaluations and insufficient use of RCTs.” 

Now is the time to invest in providing rigorous evidence on the most effective and cost-effective approaches to improve the health and well-being of adolescent girls. I am honored to help the Population Council expand many of the interventions we have developed for adolescent girls and rigorously test them to assess their impact.  For the last two decades, the Population Council has designed, tested and scaled innovative solutions that have delayed child marriage, increased savings, improved literacy and school attendance, and increased the empowerment of girls around the world.  These studies are allowing us to discover what knowledge and skills given to a girl make the biggest difference in the life of the woman she becomes.

My colleagues and I are committed to helping programs of all types become more cost-effective, reach more girls in need, and attain measurable results.  Our new Collection of Tools for Program Design -- based on many years of rigorous research on the best ways to reach girls and young women, reduce their risk of negative outcomes, and help them chart a safe transition to adulthood -- is helping partners reach adolescent girls in some of the poorest communities around the world and design programs with their needs at the center.

As we build on the momentum from Keeping Our Promises to Adolescent Girls, we must recognize that the upfront investment in collecting high quality data and evaluating policies and programs rigorously will yield the biggest return.  The largest generation of adolescents have grand plans for their futures, and, we owe it to them to invest in evidence-based policies and programs to help achieve those plans.  Using evidence to guide our investment will help millions of girls attain their aspirations through improved health and well-being, which will allow governments, donors, and others to maximize their investments.