How can we ensure adolescent girls have a safe and healthy transition into young adulthood? We must start when they are young, and understand the enabling environment that surrounds them.
These were the take-home messages from two recent conferences I attended this fall. The first was at the Adolescence, Youth and Gender: Building Knowledge for Change Conference in Oxford, which brought together 170 academics, policymakers, donors and practitioners to exchange research and ideas on the themes of adolescence, gender, and youth. The second was at the American Public Health Association (APHA) conference in Denver, Colorado.
As a youth development community, we recognize that in order to see girls transition to a healthy adulthood, we must not only empower them, but also address the environment that surrounds them. This environment includes peers, parents, teachers, community and religious leaders. It includes the norms and customs in a community, such as gender norms. The environment contains the structures and opportunities for quality resources like education, lifeskills training, and jobs. Adolescent girls must have strong connections and support from each of these in order to thrive in adolescents and adulthood.
A number of presentations at these conferences highlighted projects that seek to understand the enabling environment that surrounds adolescent girls. These projects—Young Lives, the Global Early Adolescence Study (GEAS), and the Adolescent Girls Initiative-Kenya (AGI-K)—look at very young adolescent girls, to understand how diverse elements in the enabling environment set the stage for a positive transition into young adulthood.
Young Lives is a longitudinal study focused in four countries. While Young Lives’ main focus is childhood poverty, the data have provided great details on poverty and inequality, health and nutrition, education, gender and youth and child protection. By following boys and girls over time, the Young Lives team has been able to follow gender inequalities that blossom during adolescents over time and see how the causes of inequality shift and persist in different ways. The study data have allowed the study team to pinpoint specific policy priorities or programmatic needs to support adolescents early, before the gender inequalities begin to take shape. Data suggests a focus on families, encouraging social protection measures to mitigate poverty, removing barriers to education, creating employment opportunities, and improving access to health services and information networks.
Similarly, GEAS—which works in over 15 countries globally—seeks to understand how young people 10 to 15 years old perceive gender norms that regulate interactions between boys and girls, and how these inform beliefs, and how these beliefs align with social norms in their community and environment. Early findings suggest that adolescents learn about gender role expectations at a very young age from direct and indirect observation of parents and family members, and that parents are more restrictive of their daughters than of their sons. These findings suggest that parents are a critical factor of the enabling environment.
AGI-K is testing whether different combinations of the multi-sectoral interventions targeted to adolescents girls ages 11 to 14 years can improve their well being in the long term. Specifically, they are evaluating the impacts of a violence prevention intervention, and educational intervention, a health intervention, and a wealth creation intervention. Each intervention taps into a key aspect of the enabling environment. The underlying theory of change is that girls need a combination of each these key factors in the enabling environment in order to “make safe, healthy, and productive transitions into adulthood.” By building assets, girls will have increased educational attainment, delayed marriage and childbearing, and decreased experience of violence, among other things. Early findings highlight the positive effects of and satisfaction with the Safe Spaces meetings and paid school fees.
These research projects have and will continue to provide insights into the opportunities for policymakers to invest in young people during the second decade of their lives, so that girls and boys can reach their full potential. Other projects, such as YouthPower, similar seek to understand and bolster factors in adolescents’ enabling environment.
As long as an enabling environment surrounds adolescents, we can trust that empowered adolescents will make the transition. We should do all that we can to promote adolescence for adolescents, and build a supportive environment while simultaneously empowering the young people in that environment, so that they can grow into healthy, happy adults.