Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Adolescent Girls Count

A global investment and action agenda seeks to put adolescent girls at the centre of development initiatives in developing countries. These girls, say the authors of a new report, form a special category, deserving exclusive attention of the state, donors and NGOs. 

Adolescent girls have so far occupied a marginal position in the discourse on development, which either directs the gender lens on the girl child or on adult women. The awkwardness of adolescent girls' position between childhood and adulthood render them a 'controversy-generating' category which governments and donors have so far been uncomfortable dealing with. Dealing with these girls requires dealing with the fraught areas of gender roles, sexuality and parental domination and control, and many of these define the core of a society's ethos. 

Now, a global investment and action agenda seeks to correct this imbalance and put adolescent girls at the centre of the development agenda in developing countries. The agenda has been put out in a report titled Girls Count, as a combined effort of the Centre for Global Development, Population Council and International Centre for Research on Women. 

At one-eighth of the world's population, young people between 10 and 19 years of age are the fastest growing segment of the world population. Moreover, the poorer a country, the larger is its share of young people. This age group is also the period in which there is a marker divergence in roles of boys and girls and the cultural and social disadvantages of being a girl start becoming obvious. As a girl moves from childhood to puberty and beyond, her roles as a wife, mother, worker and citizen begin to take shape with consequences that have lifelong implications. 

The opportunities, choice and freedom available to boys usually expand while those available to girls undergo many curtailments. As compared to boys, fewer girls go to school, do more domestic work, can go out of home less often, have fewer friends and mentors and have fewer public spaces and leisure activities available to them. Often lacking the right to vote, own property and shun unwanted sexual advances, girls in this age group are a very vulnerable section of the population. In these respects, as on indicators of health, education and labour force participation, girls are considerably behind their male peers. Marriage practices including child marriage and the rule of residence with the husband's family after marriage, etc., increase girls' vulnerability and also do not allow their natal families to appreciate their full potential. 

The report suggests that economic opportunities for women in the future will be substantially greater. In particular, with the reduction of the burden of unpaid domestic work due to improved technological devices, the authors believe young women's labour would increasingly be available to the non-domestic economy. But are large segments of the adolescent and young female population getting exempted from the burden of household work due to availability of household gadgets? This is not clear from the report; in any event, it is hard to imagine which gadgets have made any real difference to the condition of rural women who neither have running water nor electricity to put such appliances to use. 

The broad agenda set out by Girls Count is that development data should be disaggregated by sex and age to make girls clearly visible to policymakers. It recommends strategic and significant investments in programs focused on girls, and demands that rights and benefits be distributed equitably once this segment of the population is clearly identified. 

The report suggests increased government activity in the domain of ensuring legal rights to girls, delivering social services and employment guarantees. Curbing child marriage and ensuring equitable inheritance laws should be major focus in the legal domain. Significantly, the report also recommends compulsory registration of births, and even issuance of an identity card to all children above 12 years. Further, it recommends that education and health services should be proactively delivered to reach the most vulnerable girls. Apart from training young girls for participation in emerging economic opportunities, governments should also address their specific needs for employment keeping in view their more constrained spatial mobility. 

Apart from supporting the above thrust areas, the report further recommends that donor agencies and UN bodies should specifically focus upon prevention of HIV/AIDS, and on promoting post-primary education which is crucial for realizing the full economic potential of young women. The transition from primary to secondary education requires specific attention as adolescent girls are most likely to drop out due to societal pressures during this stage. This issue requires specific attention by way of creation of a gender sensitive learning environment for girls who are either approaching or past puberty. 

Significantly, the report suggests that multinational companies have a vanguard role to play in every country, and urges them to invest in schools for girls. Private employers are urged not to discriminate on grounds of gender, marital status, or pregnancy. In addition to facilitating access to micro-credit, private employers are also urged to facilitate onsite-banking facilities for young women, which allow them to have savings independent of their families. Private companies must also push the state to invest in infrastructure like water and transport, say the authors. This would indirectly help young women by easing their domestic burdens. 

The report envisages a vast role for civil society organisations to further the agenda it lays out. Apart from being pro-active in seeking appropriate policy changes, CSOs are urged to reshape family and community expectations through community sensitisation and social marketing programs. Creating safe spaces for adolescent girls to congregate, share information and ideas and seek support is another task such organisations could fulfill. This would be a crucial step towards enhancing the social and cultural capital available to girls. 

The report has done a good job of highlighting how adolescent girls form a special category, deserving exclusive attention of developmental agencies, whether it is the state, the donors or the NGOs. But it is not clear whether the situation of these girls can change drastically as long as large segments of the population remain economically marginal. 

If the report falls short, it is in not recognising the enormity of some of its recommendations. The authors admit that formal employment opportunities are minimal in most developing countries, but do not dwell upon the immense significance of this for the economic opportunities and conditions of employment for both young men and women. The report also urges civil society groups to organise workers in the informal sector, but the gulf between those employed in the formal and the informal sectors is too vast and significant to be dealt with in this cursory manner. Moreover, while gauging the economic and social opportunities of the marginal sections of the population, it can hardly be ignored that sweeping current trends in globalisation and liberalisation are implicated in widening this gulf.

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