Empowering adolescent girls: Promising approaches at key tipping points in their lives

Today’s global learning crisis focuses for good reasons on adolescent girls in the developing world. Globally, 600 million adolescent girls continue to face huge challenges to access their right to an education while 130 million girls are still out of school. These are staggering figures indeed that add up to lost opportunities and broken dreams. Poverty, gender inequality, and pervasive patriarchy are some of the major barriers that stand in the way of girls’ education.

Adolescence is a key tipping point in a girl’s life when she stands on the threshold of adulthood. According to Sarah Gordon, adolescence “magnifies the difference between girls and boys, it entrenches norms that disproportionately create negative experiences for girls.”

Cultural expectations in many parts of the developing world, including India, often limit a girl’s future to an early marriage and child bearing. These social norms compromise a pivotal moment in a girl’s life when she especially needs support to pursue her educational goals and successfully transition to the next stage of adulthood. Supporting adolescent girls’ multifaceted needs at these tipping points in their lives by providing them with the necessary skills, resources, and competencies is key if they are to realize their educational aspirations and lead lives of dignity, choice, and opportunity.

Ashta No Kai (ANK), a grassroots non-profit organization I founded in 1998 works in 10 villages located in rural areas of Maharashtra state, India. It aims to make a positive difference in the lives of marginalized adolescent girls by promoting their education and empowerment. In the early years of the project, ANK villages witnessed a high dropout rate among adolescent girls after primary school and also a high number of child brides. One reason for this was a lack of secondary schools in these villages. Fearing for their safety, parents were reluctant to allow their daughters to travel to distant schools in other villages, and often chose to marry them off at a young age instead.

To address some of the barriers to adolescent girls’ education, ANK launched various interventions, which I detail in my paper, Giving Girls Wings to Fly: Tools to Empower Adolescent Girls in Rural Communities in India.

ANK first initiated a Bicycle Bank, a simple low-cost intervention to promote adolescent girls’ access to secondary school. Access alone, however, was not enough to improve girls’ educational outcomes, as is evident from a study in Bihar, where girls’ enrollment increased dramatically after they received bicycles, but not their retention and completion rates. Consequently, ANK launched a life skills program for adolescent girls in tandem with the Bicycle Bank. This component helped to empower girls with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to make their own informed life choices. Further, when some of the girls who had received bicycles expressed a desire to pursue continued education, ANK supported them with scholarships. Later, as a result of increasing incidents of sexual violence in India, ANK introduced a karate program to teach girls self-defense skills.

Another lesson learned was the importance of developing girls’ agency, whether through bicycles, or by fostering communication and negotiating skills, or raising awareness of gender and legal rights.  ANK research established that the Bicycle Bank and life skills education interventions succeeded in increasing the age at which girls married, and helped to improve their educational outcomes. Further, it revealed that starting early in adolescence is optimal; also, the duration of such interventions matter. In other words, earlier and longer interventions raise the likelihood that girls will be able to reach their educational goals.

It is widely recognized that the benefits of educating girls are manifold. If the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals related to gender equity and quality education for all are to be reached by 2030, it is critical to ensure that adolescent girls enroll and stay in school.

Without a doubt, the educated girl of today can become the empowered woman of tomorrow. Hence, ensuring every girl receives a quality education is mission critical: it could transform the future, not just for girls, but for their communities, their countries, and for us all.

In this video, Armene Modi, 2017 Echidna Global Scholar, describes her work in education with girls in rural India.

Photography credit: Deb Clearwater/Embraced Photography