I grew up with a strong sense of social justice. I am Native American and was exposed early to gender violence, alcoholism, employment problems, and discriminatory class and race attitudes. I wanted to do something about these issues, so I gravitated toward economics as a measurable way to look at social issues. Research gave me an opportunity to dig into some of the root causes of the problems that surrounded me.
As a child, our family moved frequently—every four months on average—from mobile home park to mobile home park with our travel trailer because my father was a pipeline welder. I didn't always have a social network growing up. I identify with my research at the Population Council because it focuses on improving the way socially marginalized and impoverished adolescents navigate the challenges of growing up, particularly their experiences in relation to schooling, sexual activity, and work. I'm most interested in how policies and programs can help young people make well-informed decisions about their education, work, marriage, and sexual and reproductive health.
In South Africa, young people face a multitude of challenges. The many young people who live in households affected by HIV and AIDS tend to be poor and socially disconnected. Many youth-oriented HIV programs don't reach these young people in meaningful ways. If we could provide them with social and economic support, they might be able to improve their life prospects.
In partnership with the Isihlangu Health and Development Agency in South Africa, the Council developed and tested a program called Siyakha Nentsha (which means "building with young people" in isiZulu, the local language). This program is taking place in peri-urban neighborhoods of KwaZulu-Natal Province. We realized that if we could find a way to inform young people about a range of health, economic, and social issues, we could reduce their vulnerability to HIV and increase their financial literacy and productive social networks. This could help them fare better.
The program staff worked with girls and boys who are in school. The vast majority of young people in South Africa attend school during their teenage years. Through discussions with guardians and traditional leaders, we determined that working through schools would be the most effective way to reach a large number of participants. Girls are a primary focus of the program because of their vulnerability to HIV and early pregnancy. Boys participate, too, because in addition to gaining valuable skills, their working together with girls has resulted in increased respect, understanding, and communication with the opposite sex.
The participants face a host of challenges. One-third of girls and boys who took a baseline survey had at least one parent who had died. Among those with living parents, their mother might be a domestic worker in the city or their father might be away working in a mine. Many participants lived with grandmothers, siblings, aunts, or uncles. Nearly a quarter reported their households did not have enough money to buy food or other basic necessities.
We tested two versions of the program, one that focused on developing social and health capabilities, and another that helped build financial capabilities as well. We're finding that both versions of the program are making a real difference in the lives of these young people. For example, girls report more saving and interaction with financial institutions, and greater confidence in their ability to obtain a condom, if necessary. Boys know how their families can access social programs and are more likely to remain sexually abstinent or have fewer sexual partners if they do have sex, than boys who did not participate in Siyakha Nentsha.
There are very few programs like this, and even fewer that reach boys and girls together. Programs such as Siyakha Nentsha that are informed by careful, context-specific research, developed in partnership with communities, have the greatest impact on changing the way policymakers think about reaching vulnerable young people in their community. Young participants in KwaZulu-Natal will become adults who are better equipped with the skills they need to improve their lives.
Young people who are marginalized because they are poor, have language barriers, or don't have a parent in their lives often don't know how to connect with the different opportunities that should be available to them. An example of this is the work my colleagues are doing in Guatemala with Mayan girls. After a long conflict in Guatemala, the peace accords brought more services from the government and NGOs to indigenous populations, but people were hesitant to access these mainstream services. In our Abriendo Oportunidades (Creating Opportunities) program, we have seen girls thrive as they access resources, stay in school, and build their skills. Equipping the most vulnerable young people—especially girls—with knowledge and skills that empower them to "walk through the doorway" to access resources available to them is a common thread of Council programs in many countries where we work.
I see so many intelligent and talented young people throughout the world who are just looking for the one little thing that is going to guide them onto a better path. My research is aimed at getting young people who are socially marginalized back into the mainstream and to help them access social networks, education, job training, or health services. I can relate to this because I was the first person in my extended family to go to college, let alone go to graduate school and get a PhD. Statistically, I should have been pregnant by 16 and dropped out of high school, but I was lucky that my parents and a school guidance counselor took an interest in me. Being able to help implement change and policies that help young people fulfill their potential is the bottom line for all my research.