On Day of the Girl, Putting Girls First

Mariam Ahmed, 10, center, listens to a teacher, unseen, in a classroom on the first International Day of the Girl Child, in S
Mariam Ahmed, 10, center, listens to a teacher, unseen, in a classroom on the first International Day of the Girl Child, in Sanaa, Yemen, Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012. The U.N. has declared October 11th as the International Day of the Girl Child. Girls face double discrimination due to their gender and age, and are the most marginalized and discriminated group across the globe. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

Today, there are 600 million adolescent girls in the developing world. With the right help, they can become catalysts for positive change in their own lives as well as in their families, communities, and the world. Yet the things that they need to thrive are those that most of us take for granted: skills, knowledge, meaningful links to others, and a say in their own lives.

Adolescent girls in the developing world today face greater disadvantages and more limited opportunities than boys the same age. They may be out of school, away from home, married, or trapped in a cycle of exploitative work and poverty. They experience multiple forms of violence and they are disproportionately affected by the HIV epidemic. They are often difficult to reach and overlooked by social and community-based programs and services.

Research has shown that the best way to empower the poorest adolescent girls in the poorest communities -- the ones most in need -- is to put them in the position to determine the course of their own lives. To do this, we need to improve their health, social safety net, and financial knowledge and status. It will take concerted focus from policymakers, program managers, and champions to ensure that these girls have the tools they need. Today, the world's first observance of the International Day of the Girl Child, is the perfect time to rededicate ourselves to this goal.

This is already happening: yesterday, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) announced a $20 million commitment to reach the most marginalized adolescent girls at risk of child marriage, continuing its longstanding partnership with the Population Council and other organizations. But this dedication must continue and more groups need to get involved.

To support the establishment and success of new programs for adolescent girls, the Population Council has just published the Girls First! series*, outlining where the field must direct its resources in order to most quickly and effectively improve girls' lives. The reviews put forward new arguments for investing in girls, highlight promising practices, and make recommendations for how to allocate scarce resources.

To make the biggest impact programs must:

Make full use of existing data: Delving into the data can reveal a diversity of adolescent experience that is not immediately apparent. Different girls need different services. To make informed decisions about how to spend limited funds, we recommend mapping communities to identify opportunities to reach those girls who are at the highest risk of the worst outcomes.

Cultivate girl leaders: Girl leaders serve as role models for younger girls, empower older girls, and challenge outmoded community standards by demonstrating girls' competence and ability. Employing leaders and mentors who are themselves girls is an effective and sustainable way to deliver programs to girls in the community. Including girls in program planning improves the success of projects intended to address girls' issues, needs, and challenges.

Improve girls' health and let them help others: Research can help us identify places where girls are at increased risk for bad outcomes, such as unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections. In these locales we can increase and tailor services that girls need and teach girls how to access them. Giving girls a workable livelihood by employing them to deliver needed health solutions -- like distributing bed nets and recognizing the danger signs of pregnancy -- can greatly benefit communities, too.

Refocus girls' education: One of the most significant problems in most developing countries is the failure of education systems to equip girls with marketable skills. As a result, girls are held back from full labor force participation. To give girls a leg up in the job market, we should ensure that they have English literacy, computer, and financial literacy skills.

Prevent violence against girls: Many violence prevention programs work "on behalf of girls," with parents, communities, and even perpetrators, but not with girls. Engaging directly with girls and strengthening their skills, knowledge, and safety nets is critical to preventing violence against them. We need to find and engage girls at the highest risk, and provide them with safe spaces to make supportive friends and acquire the skills to protect themselves.

Changing the way the world thinks about the value of investing in girls will take patience, perseverance, and the meaningful involvement of girls themselves. We still have a long way to go before girls reach their capacity to be fully participating, productive members of society but we know more now about the steps that are needed than ever before. We simply need to commit ourselves to making it happen.

* With funding and support from the UN Adolescent Girls Task Force and others