6 tips for designing programs to better serve girls

Suzanne Petroni, senior director of global health, youth and development at ICRW, Thoai Ngo, deputy director of the poverty, gender and youth program at Population Council, Doris Bartel, director for gender and empowerment at CARE and Kakenya Ntaiya, president of the Kakenya Center for Excellence at Girl Summit D.C. 2016. Photo by: Center for Global Development

Greater involvement for men and boys, starting gender and sex education earlier, and tackling traditional cultural norms, are just some of the expert recommendations on how to end harmful practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, which undermine girls’ rights and health in developing countries, experts say.

Their comments come in the wake of the United Nations Population Fund’s State of the World Population 2016 report, published last week, which says the future of development lies with 10-year-old girls. The report argues that “age 10 is a critical juncture in a girl’s life” and that what happens to her then will “determine the trajectory for the rest of her life,” but also impact society at large.

Speaking at the second annual Girl Summit in D.C., where the report was launched, youth and gender development experts discussed how current programming and research needs to be changed to improve outcomes for girls.

Here are six takeaways from the discussion.

1. Think younger and longer term when it comes to programming.

Current programming tends to be age-centric, as illustrated by the focus of the UNFPA’s report on 10-year-old girls and the fact the event at which is was launched was aimed at adolescents.

As Devex reported last week, Joyce Banda, the former president of Malawi, who spoke at the Girls Summit, called on the development community to shift focus to younger children, saying that interventions which targeted 10-year-olds or teenagers may be “too late” since many negative practices affect younger children.

Thoai Ngo, deputy director of the poverty, gender and youth program at the Population Council, agrees, and said that programs need to support girls from the age of zero all the way to 18 in order to ensure their “safe transition into adulthood.” He pointed out that this would require longer-term funding from donors since many longer-term outcomes for girls will not be realized within the traditional short-term, three-to-five year, project funding cycles.

2. Include men and boys.

Men and boys need to be involved throughout if programs to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment are to succeed, according to Doris Bartel, senior director of gender and empowerment at CARE. This was the “big lesson” to come out of a retrospective analysis of its gender programming, undertaken by CARE, she said.

“If you focus exclusively on women as a target group then your program will backfire in the long run. You need to include men and boys throughout,” Bartel said.

Bartel added that the NGO is currently developing tools to systematize what that involvement could look like and what it means for program design, evaluation, staff training and advocacy work.

3. Let’s talk about sex.

In most cultures, sexuality is a taboo topic. Governments are reluctant to invest in sexual education and parents and teachers won’t talk about it, said Bartel. But concerns about girls’ sexuality as they reach puberty, linked to parental fears about protecting chastity, are one of the main drivers of child marriage and so talking about it needs to become mainstream in order to try and tackle the issue, she said.

Providing comprehensive sexuality education to young people, and supporting schools and the government to deliver CSE and create safe spaces to talk about sexuality, can be key to reducing problems such as child marriage, said Bartel.

“If sexual rights never get mentioned and the main reason girls are getting married so young is because of sexuality, then why not try promoting CSE as a partial solution to child marriage?” she said.

CSE refers to “age-appropriate, culturally relevant approach to teaching about sexuality and relationships by providing scientifically accurate, realistic, nonjudgmental information,” according to a UNESCO report.

4. Address norms.

Programs often shy away from tackling cultural and gender norms which drive many negative practices experienced by young girls, because they are seen as “sticky” and difficult to change, according to Bartel.

“We put a lot more money into policy change, institutional change, and individual behavior change but we need to think about what a norm change intervention would look like,” she said.

Bartel used the term “norm” to refer to collective beliefs seen at the community level, for example the idea that girls need to get married by the time they reach puberty or else risk public sanction.

CARE has been working in South Asia and East and Central Africa to develop tools and frameworks to measure changes in social norms, she said.

5. Cultural context matters.

The societal reasons why a young girl gets married vary from population to population, but many development organizations don’t have a strong understanding of this, according to Suzanne Petroni, senior director at International Center for Research on Women.

For example, ICRW research shows that in Kenya and Zambia, the main driver of child marriage is the lack of alternative opportunities for girls. Petroni explained that in these communities, typically a girl will drop out of school because her parents cannot afford it, become involved with a boyfriend and fall pregnant due to a lack of understanding that sex leads to pregnancy, and then get married.

However, in South Asia and Ethiopia, the chain of causality is very different, Petroni explained. In these communities young girls are being pulled out of school by their parents and married off to someone they’ve never met due to fears that her “chastity” will be under threat, and so also the family’s honor, unless she is married.

Gender inequality is still the underlying factor, Petroni said, but there are different cultural drivers and societal patterns at play. Development programs need to acknowledge that there are “no straightforward answers that apply everywhere,” and be designed accordingly to provide “unique context specific solutions,” she said.

6. More research.

There is a “staggering” gap in the research and literature focused on what works to improve the health and well-being of adolescent girls, according to Ngo. Between 1990 and 2014, only 77 research articles were written on the topic, he said, and of those only 29 percent could be considered “high-quality research.”

Similarly, when ICRW wrote its 2011 Solutions to End Child Marriage paper, researchers could only find 150 potentially relevant papers written over the past 30 years, Petroni said. These were a mixture of published literature and program reports and only 23 were scientifically rigorous enough to be included. Furthermore, the majority focused exclusively on South Asia and so lacked the breadth of context needed to tackle a global problem, she said.

We need to invest more in high quality and rigorous research in order to better understand what works and what doesn't work to help guide investment, program, and policies, Ngo said.

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About the author

  • Edwards sopie

    Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.