Adolescent Girls Initiative Empowers Girls in Poor Countries Through Education

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By Elayne Clift, Womens Feature Service

“When a baby is born in my village in Bangladesh,” Sanchita says, “families desperately hope it will be a boy. It has been this way for as long as anyone can remember. It is believed that boys will contribute to the family income in a place where people are very poor.”

Sanchita’s words were spoken by Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway at a recent meeting hosted by the World Bank to draw attention to “The Girl Effect” defined as the powerful social and economic change brought about when girls have the opportunity to participate.

Identified by the Adolescent Girls Initiative undertaken by the Bank and the Nike Foundation, the two-year old initiative is designed to empower girls in poor countries through education and skill-building geared to help them transition into the workforce.

A dozen girls and young women like Sanchita participated in this meeting. They came from developing Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries and they are just a few of the women benefiting from the training and education programmes that will help them participate in the labour market.

In preparation for the meeting the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) prepared a report, entitled “The Girl Effect: What Do Boys Have to Do with It?” The reports cited the importance of increased investment in girls’ education. The report underscored the need to focus on the brothers, fathers, friends, and partners as well of young women in order to address the consequences of gender-based discrimination.

There are varying schools of thought on how to engage boys and men in the empowerment of girls and women. The ICRW advocates for a “gender and developmental perspective” aimed at exploring what boys have to do with the “girl effect.”

The key to this approach is understanding the physical and emotional development of adolescent boys and girls as well as the socialisation they experience as males and females.

Several programmes are now in place which operate from a developmental as well as a gender perspective to address inequities that curtail the “girl effect.” One is Program H (for hombres) that is being used by over 20 Spanish-speaking countries. Using a video called “Once upon a Boy”, it helps young men question traditional norms related to manhood.

In Mumbai, India, a school-based programme, “Parivartan”, enlists coaches and community members to serve as role models for boy cricket players aged 10 to 16 in more than 100 schools. This programme helps both mentors and kids to adopt different values about what it means to be men.

“Entre Madres y Amigas,” a Nicaraguan programme, focuses on the critical role of mothers in a culture where girls have limited mobility. It fosters intergenerational dialogue around issues of sexuality and reproductive health.

In South Africa, “Stepping Stones” provides a training package on gender communication and HIV. It consists of both sex-specific and mixed-sex programming in safe spaces where participants can explore HIV and gender relationship issues.

At a 2009 Global Symposium on Engaging Boys and Men in Gender Equality held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, participants reached a consensus on a set of expectations for boys based on a gender equality perspective. Among them were respect and support for girls and women as equal members of society in all walks of life.

The Adolescent Girls Initiative, a public-private partnership with $20 million in funds, is at work in seven countries including Jordan, Afghanistan, Laos, and Rwanda, and will soon expand to Haiti and Yemen.