Council Commentary

IWD 2016: Pursuing the Evidence, Pushing the Boundaries

Today there are close to 515 million in the developing world. Fifteen years ago, the Population Council’s landmark publication, The Uncharted Passage, demonstrated the key role these girls play in the health and development of their families, communities, and the world. The book also documented a gap in knowledge about girls’ lives and a lack of thoughtful evidence-based programs. The Council’s contributions galvanized efforts to gather evidence on ways to empower girls and enhance their lives.

We believe that if we improve girls’ health, keep them safe and in school, and give them critical information, a say in their own lives, and a strong network of support, they will prosper. Our beliefs are based on rigorous scientific analysis of interventions the Council and others have conducted to help girls lead more productive lives. When girls stay in school, they gain skills and knowledge, avoid the disadvantages of early childbearing, and have more earning power. A World Bank study has shown that excluding adolescent girls from school, community participation, and meaningful livelihoods has a substantial negative impact on economic growth.

The Population Council is at the forefront of research, policy analysis, and program design for adolescent girls in the developing world. We have conducted research that identifies which girls are the most vulnerable and where they are geographically concentrated. We have illuminated the scope and negative impact of child marriage. We have shown that programs often don’t reach demonstrated the most vulnerable girls and that it is crucial to reach girls early, before irreversible events anchor them in poverty and poor health.

Our experience shows that when we give girls mentoring, life skills, social support, financial literacy, and educational opportunities, we can measurably improve their lives and the lives of their children. We have demonstrated that we can reduce child marriage in rural Ethiopia. We have evaluated ways to help girls learn about budgeting and begin to save in financial institutions in Kenya and Uganda. We have studied how to improve girls’ literacy and support their return to school through second-chance programs for girls in rural Upper Egypt. And we have designed programs to support girls’ transition from primary to secondary school in the Guatemalan highlands.

The development community is eager to expand programs for adolescent girls, but limited data exist on what strategies work best. Now is the time to invest in providing rigorous evidence on the most effective and cost-effective approaches. So the Population Council is expanding many of the initiatives we have developed for adolescent girls and rigorously testing them to assess their impact.

We are evaluating which programs—and which of their key elements—do the most to help girls stay in school and avoid unwanted sex, child marriage, early and unintended pregnancy, HIV and STI infection, and gender-based violence. 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.

Robust program evaluation takes time. Getting solid answers will take years, not months. But by pursuing the evidence, we will identify best practices, refine the critical elements of girl-centered programs, and eliminate ineffective approaches.

A few years from now, we will have an even richer trove of evidence that we and others will use to improve and advance girl-centered programs. As we always have, we will share information with governments, advocates, policymakers, researchers, nongovernmental organizations, and community organizations about what works to empower girls, help them gain an education and cultivate savings, and improve their sexual and reproductive health. With this knowledge, we can build local capacity to expand and deliver these programs to vulnerable adolescent girls.

So on this International Women’s Day, we commit to our relentless pursuit of the evidence and to using rigorous data and analysis to push the boundaries that confine girls’ futures.