Council Commentary

What Works Best to Empower Adolescent Girls in Kenya?

Many adolescent girls in marginalized areas of Kenya face myriad challenges to their health, education, economic stability, and well-being.

Often times, singular interventions like the provision of health education or savings accounts alone aren’t enough to improve girls’ lives. Instead, we need stronger evidence about ways to combine interventions and which packages of interventions are most cost-effective. To better assess what works to empower adolescent girls, the Population Council is leading Adolescent Girls Initiative – Kenya (AGI-K), a girl-centered program that will deliver multifaceted interventions for more than 5000 girls aged 11-14 in two low-resource settings in Kenya. (Learn more about the program on our AGI-K project page.)

AGI-K disseminated a baseline report on September 28th, providing a unique snapshot into daily realities faced by adolescent girls in the Nairobi slum of Kibera and the rural North Eastern county of Wajir. The dissemination was attended by a diverse array of government and community stakeholders committed to building girls’ assets.

The baseline findings suggest that the majority of very young adolescents in Kibera and Wajir have not experienced risks associated with poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Thus, investing in girls’ education, wealth creation, health and violence prevention has the potential to prevent or delay these problems as girls navigate the transition to adulthood in low-resource environments.

The findings also illustrate that localized context is key when it comes to adolescent girls. The circumstances of adolescent girls in Wajir (rural) and Kibera (urban slum) were found to be vastly different, thus highlighting the need for tailored interventions in the two contexts:

  • Education: 1 in 4 girls in Wajir had never attended school, compared to less than 1% in Kibera.
  • Wealth creation: Approximately 30% of girls in Kibera had some savings, whereas less than 1% of girls in Wajir reported savings.
  • Health: Only 2% of girls in both locations have ever had sex. This highlights the need to equip girls with culturally-relevant, accurate, age-appropriate reproductive health education.
  • Violence Prevention: 1 in 3 girls in Kibera said they have experienced physical, emotional and sexual violence, whereas only 5% of girls in Wajir reported these forms of violence. Approximately 50% of girls in both locations agreed that a husband is justified in beating a wife for at least one reason.

The AGI-K interventions will strengthen these four asset areas (education, wealth creation, health, violence prevention) and assess the best combination of interventions that empower girls during and beyond adolescence. Population Council’s Karen Austrian is the AGI-K Team Leader and Eunice Muthengi is the Deputy Team Leader.

AGI-K will use a combination of girl-level, household-level, and community-level interventions in a randomized control trial—the gold standard of research—which will allow researchers to compare the impacts and costs of interventions to improve girls’ life chances. The educational intervention involves a conditional cash transfer hinged on school attendance. The health intervention will be culturally relevant, age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health education. The wealth creation intervention equips girls with money management skills, teaches them to save at a young age, and gives them access to bank accounts. Lastly, the violence prevention intervention will take the form of community conversations focused on enhancing the value of girls in the community.

AGI-K’s Theory of Change outlines how providing these interventions to girls in Kibera and Wajir when they are young adolescents will result in their acquiring critical educational, social, health, and economic assets by the time they reach mid-adolescence. It will also lead to positive changes in local gender norms. These assets will translate to increased agency and autonomy for the girls in a number of facets of their lives by the time they reach mid-to-late adolescence and into improved health and wellbeing as they reach early adulthood.

Kibera Member of Parliament Hon. Kenneth Okoth spoke at the baseline report dissemination in Nairobi about the need for safe spaces for girls and the inclusion of faith-based leaders.

“Taken together, the findings show that young girls in Kibera and Wajir are affected by a number of negative issues,” Okoth said. “However, there is potential promise in investing in younger adolescents as investments made during this age while majority are still in school and few are sexually experienced can delay early pregnancies and marriage and help curb intergenerational poverty.”

Lisa Phillips, Head of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in Kenya, stressed that investments in very young adolescents would pay dividends into the future.

“It is important that we reach girls early enough in their lives to help transform their life chances,” Phillips said. “This will give them a greater choice and control over decisions that affect them and will mean they are able to contribute more fully to Kenya’s economic development.”

AGI-K is funded by UK Aid through DFID - Kenya.

“Empowering Kenyan girls is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do,” Phillips added.

His Excellency Mr. Ahmed Abdullahi, Governor of Wajir County, spoke to the audience about the county government’s recent commitments to education and infrastructure.

“As a county government, we are working together with partners and stakeholders to improve primary and secondary education for the children in Wajir,” said Mr. Abdullahi.

AGI-K is implemented by a consortium led by the Population Council, with the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) as research partner, Save the Children as implementing partner in Wajir, Plan International as implementing partner in Nairobi slums, and Itad as consultant on the cost-effectiveness analysis.

His Excellency Mr. Ahmed Abdullahi, Governor of Wajir County, addresses the crowd at the AGI-K dissemination event.