Population Council

Challenging Assumptions for Adolescent Girls
The Upside of Failure

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Today, it seems like everyone is focused on adolescent girls – how to help them, empower them, and ensure that they have healthy and fulfilling lives. Billions of dollars are invested into programs and policies for adolescent girls every year – but how do we know that those investments are working to make girls’ lives better?

Too often, we don’t. We are failing, and will continue to fail, adolescent girls until we not only accept, but insist that every program and policy to improve their lives is based on evidence not intuition.

Girls deserve better, and so do we.

The Population Council has been a leader in understanding what works, and as importantly, what doesn’t work, to improve the lives of adolescent girls. Not every policy works. Not every program works. But rather than be afraid of failure, we are committed to embracing it.

At the Population Council, we’re fearless in pursuit of science. We're challenging assumptions, analyzing what’s known, and not known, and we’re putting that information in the hands of decision-makers to make the best decisions about how to expand opportunities for girls.

In the spirit of embracing and learning from failure, we’re sharing some examples of what didn’t work as well as we’d anticipated, and how learning from those “failures” influenced and enhanced future endeavors to improve lives.

What We Learned

Girls Don’t Live Their Lives in Siloes

An evaluation of a girls’ empowerment program in Zambia found that while the program was not broadly impactful for the most vulnerable girls, and that programs must address the underlying economic and social constraints surrounding them.

When designing a similar program in Kenya, we incorporated community components into the program.

The results:

Significant improvements across a range of outcomes for many more girls. 

A One-Size Fits All Approach to Contraception for Adolescents Won't Work

It's assumed that young people will go to public health clinics to access a full range of contraceptive methods. However, our research tells us otherwise.

We know that:

  • Adolescents are largely going to pharmacies, not public-health facilities, to access contraception.
  • And more than half (54%) of sexually active or married adolescents have never used any contraceptive method.
    • Only 2.5% of them are using a long-acting method.

Developing HIV Prevention Methods Means Understanding Women’s Lived Experiences

Population Council researchers took Carraguard, a gel used before sex, through a Phase III clinical trial with the hope it would prevent HIV in women.

Carraguard was found to be safe, but it didn’t prevent HIV; not enough women used it consistently.

 But Carraguard did show researchers that it’s not enough for a woman to like a product; it has to be feasible for the realities of her life. That lesson reverberates with HIV prevention research today.

What We Learned: Preventing HIV in Adolescent Girls Requires Understanding Their Partners

Council-led research from the DREAMS Initiative shows that in three African nations:

  • More than half of men reported multiple concurrent partnerships with adolescent girls and older partners in the last year.
  • About half of men’s sexual relationships were transactional in nature and characterized by inconsistent condom use.
  • Male partners of adolescent girls experience high rates of trauma and violence in their own lives.

In order to prevent HIV in adolescent girls, engaging men in HIV prevention and targeted health services is critical.