Reducing Adolescent Girls’ Vulnerability to Sexual Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa

A recent Population Council study in Uganda has demonstrated that addressing girls’ financial needs—such as giving them access to savings accounts—without simultaneously addressing their social and health needs could increase their chances of experiencing sexual harassment.

Adolescent girls living in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to many core community resources, including banks, health clinics, and safe places to meet with friends. They also face high rates of gender-based violence, are at greater risk for unsafe sex that can lead to unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection, and have limited economic resources and income-generating opportunities. Evidence suggests that equipping the most marginalized girls and young women with basic assets—skills, knowledge, and resources—will help them become productive, safe, and successful adults. 

Assets are skills, resources, or knowledge that empower girls, reduce their vulnerability to bad outcomes, and give them new opportunities. The Population Council’s asset-building framework posits that adolescent girls need a combination of social, health, cognitive, and economic assets in order to make a safe and healthy transition from childhood to adulthood. Weak social assets—including a lack of friends, mentors, and self-esteem—and lack of economic independence can be significant obstacles to girls taking control of their lives, especially decisions regarding their sexual health and relationships.

“With our study, we were able to dig a bit deeper,” said Karen Austrian, Population Council researcher and lead investigator on the study. “What happens when girls are given access only to a savings account without access to other assets that may have a protective effect?”

The Intervention

Between 2009 and 2010, researchers implemented a four-component intervention that involved:

  • meetings with other girls in a safe, public location,
  • reproductive health information,
  • financial education, and
  • savings accounts.

More than 1,000 adolescent girls aged 10-19 living in low income areas of Kampala, Uganda, participated in the study.

To enter the program, girls were offered savings accounts at two local banks. Girls typically have little money, so banks do not serve them. However, these banks—Finance Trust Bank and FINCA-Uganda—partnered with the Council to make it possible for girls to save. The banks also offered quarterly meetings to the girls’ parents, where they provided them with information about money management and the banks’ other services. When girls signed up for bank accounts, they were invited to join weekly girl-group meetings.

Building economic assets in isolation may actually increase the risk of sexual violence for vulnerable adolescent girls. To improve outcomes, programs must address and empower the whole girl, not simply one element of her life.

In the weekly girl-group meetings 15 to 25 girls met with a mentor for short training sessions and a chance to socialize, helping them to build a safety net of trusted relationships. The reproductive health training offered at the meetings included 30 sessions on topics ranging from puberty and family planning, to drug abuse, peer pressure and gender-based violence. Through the financial education component, girls gained personal money management skills, learned about budgeting and saving, and explored options for earning money in formal and informal economies.

A few months into the intervention, the researchers discovered that due to an error in training bank staff members, not all of the girls who signed up for bank accounts had been offered membership in the girl groups. Bank staff members were immediately retrained, but in the end, 300 participating girls had only a savings account and no participation in a girl group. Another 451 girls received savings accounts and attended girl-group meetings. An additional 313 girls were part of a comparison group that did not receive any services. Though this design was unintentional, it enabled the researchers to compare girls who simultaneously built their health, social, and economic assets, with girls who only increased economic assets through savings accounts, and with girls who did not receive any intervention.

The Findings

The researchers found that girls who received only a savings account were significantly more likely than they had been at the start of the intervention to have experienced sexual harassment. For girls who only had savings accounts, the proportion who experienced indecent touching increased from 9 percent to 15 percent. The proportion who were teased by males increased from 19 percent to 25 percent. This difference remained significant even after taking into account other factors that might make some girls more vulnerable. Risk of sexual harassment did not increase significantly for girls who received social support along with health and financial education and savings or for girls in the comparison group.

“This evidence suggests that building economic assets in isolation may actually increase the risk of sexual violence for vulnerable adolescent girls,” said Eunice Muthengi, a Population Council researcher on the study. “Our findings highlight a critical issue for policymakers and program managers looking to improve the lives of the most vulnerable girls. To improve outcomes, programs must address and empower the whole girl, not simply one element of her life.”

This result has important implications for the design of programs focused on adolescent girls and programs focused on livelihoods and economic strengthening. When designing and implementing programs, researchers must recognize that building economic assets alone may increase girls’ risks. Therefore, economic strengthening programs should be situated within more comprehensive asset-building interventions.

Austrian, Karen and Eunice Muthengi. 2014. “Can economic assets increase girls’ risk of sexual harassment? Evaluation results from a social, health and economic asset-building intervention for vulnerable adolescent girls in Uganda,” Children and Youth Services Review 47(2): 168–175. 

Financial Education Fund and Nike Foundation