International Day of the Girl Child is an opportunity for the Foundation to celebrate some remarkable success stories, but also to acknowledge that so much work remains to be done in order to truly achieve equal opportunity for both girls and boys.
In Uganda, where we have been supporting BRAC in their roll out of a series of interventions combining livelihoods training and microfinance, the adolescent fertility rate is a staggering 126.4 per 1,000 births. That is significantly higher than the Sub-Saharan African average of 86. Early marriage and childbearing prevent adolescent girls from achieving their full potential, and enforce economic dependence on men. The impact of constraining women’s agency on a country’s economic development is undeniable: the lifetime opportunity costs of adolescent pregnancy, measured in terms of lost income, has been estimated as high as 30 percent of GDP in Uganda. Avoiding early marriage and pregnancy in favour of pursuing a career can influence the trajectory of future generations of women, as social empowerment is passed on from mother to daughter.
Adolescence is a critical moment for young girls. Dependence on their parents may come to an end, and they face a choice: between delaying childbearing to pursue a career (and economic independence) or shifting dependence towards a husband or temporary relationships. A lack of economic opportunities in their community may push adolescent girls to marry young.
BRAC’s Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) program targets adolescent girls between the ages of 13 and 21. It seeks to achieve socio-economic empowerment of adolescent girls by combining a safe social space for them to meet with livelihood and life-skills training, community participation and targeted microfinance. Through the program, girls accumulate two types of human capital: vocational skills to help them start an income-generating activity, and life skills to help them make informed choices about sex, reproduction and marriage.
Since BRAC started the ELA program in 2008 it has achieved considerable reach. But even more impressive has been the observed impact on participants’ health awareness, reproductive practices, and engagement in income-generating activities. A study implemented by The World Bank and London School of Economics revealed the following impacts on adolescent girls who had participated in the ELA programme for two years:
Expanding opportunities and amplifying voices of adolescent girls and women isn’t a zero-sum equation. Gender equality conveys broad development dividends for men and boys, families and communities. That is why it is imperative that adolescent boys are engaged in these interventions as well. So, as we mark International Day of the Girl Child, let us also reflect on how we as a development community can be more intentional about how our programming strengthens girls’ and women’s agency and access to opportunity for the ultimate benefit of entire communities.