Work with girls, not simply on their behalf
Council research has shown that when programs work directly with girls, their lives—and by extension the lives of others in their communities—can improve substantially. But we see a tendency among policymakers and program managers to give priority to working with the people who control girls' lives, rather than with girls themselves. Such programs are nominally working "on behalf of girls," but not with girls. The Population Council believes that empowerment programs need to begin with the girls themselves—offering them the opportunity to express their needs and experiences as well as help shape programs that benefit them.
Collaborating with individuals who are most directly affected is consistent with a human rights–based approach to programs and policies, and Population Council studies show that such programs can have significant benefits. In Amhara, Ethiopia, where child marriage is common, girls report moving into their future husbands' homes as soon as they are engaged. Further, the majority of girls said their sexual experiences as child brides were usually coerced. The Council’s Berhane Hewan program brings girls together and promotes school attendance to prevent child marriage. Young girls who participate are 90 percent less likely to become child brides than girls not enrolled. In Nairobi, Kenya, girls who participate in the Council's Safe and Smart Savings program are significantly less likely than nonparticipants to think that "girls are not as good as boys in school" or that "some girls deserve to be raped because of how they behave."
"Working to reach individuals with power over girls is not enough," says Population Council policy analyst Judith Bruce. "We must invest in girls' protective assets as a first step—essentially what you would do to prepare your own daughter to be safe. Can you imagine an effective effort to raise wages that simply made appeals to executives and never mobilized the workers?"
"Improving the norms and behaviors of both girls who are at risk and those who hold the reins in their lives is important. But the girls at risk, not their gatekeepers, should be our priority," says Bruce. "We must focus scarce resources on those who are at the highest risk of the worst outcomes at the youngest ages, as both a practical matter and an ethical imperative."
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