This week, the Population Council celebrates International Women’s Day (IWD). The IWD theme of innovation and technology for gender equality will drive discussions at this month’s 67th Annual session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. In that spirit, we want to highlight some of our recent work exploring implications of the shift toward technology-based approaches in programs aiming to improve the lives of adolescent girls and young women, led by the Council’s Grace Saul and Waimar Tun.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of information and communications technologies (ICTs) in many ways across sectors presenting new opportunities, but also exposing existing disparities in access to and use of technology. The implementation of remote learning systems in schools, for example, highlighted and exacerbated existing inequalities in young people’s access to digital resources and skills. This same problem has surfaced in areas of adolescent programming beyond schools as well, with increasing uptake of ICTs threatening to further alienate the most vulnerable.

Without access to digital technology and lacking basic digital literacy, marginalized young women rarely end up joining technology-based programs. The result is a counterproductive widening of social and economic gaps between privileged and underprivileged segments of the population. In this context, programs must anticipate the challenges specific to the digital era while also drawing from existing evidence on what works to improve outcomes for young people. Drawing inspiration from decades of experience in implementing and evaluating adolescent programs, Population Council highlights the importance of maintaining and adapting strategies that have proven to be effective in adolescent programming prior to the digital era.

As Saul and Tun explain, “Digital-era programming should draw on lessons learned from traditional interventions. There is already a lot of evidence out there about what works and what doesn’t work when trying to improve outcomes for vulnerable adolescent girls. It’s important that while programs are undergoing a digital transition, practitioners work to incorporate new methods in a way that builds upon proven strategies that unpin the success of adolescent programming.”

The following are three important insights for advocates and practitioners working in the field in the digital era:

1. Targeting vulnerable segments of the population

Evidence shows that without targeted program design, even interventions explicitly intending to reach the most vulnerable members of a population will disproportionately miss girls who are most marginalized. Following the intentional design methodology, practitioners can utilize data to better understand the specific disadvantages faced by girls in the target population and design strategies for reaching the most marginalized segments of girls.

Population Council’s Girl Roster Tool has enabled practitioners to identify and reach especially at-risk groups and sub-groups within particular populations. This tool, along with additional program planning tools and real-world case studies can be found in the Community of Practice Intentional Design Guide. ICTs can be leveraged to enhance the intentional design approach, enabling more effective identification hotspots of vulnerability and recruitment of key populations segments into programs. The GIRL Center’s Adolescent Atlas for Action is a digital tool that can be used to examine overlapping vulnerabilities at the sub-national level.

2. Recruiting mentors to work directly with young girls

Programs that employ young women to serve as role models and mentors to groups of vulnerable adolescent girls within their communities have proven successful in helping girls. In particular, evidence to date shows positive effects on girls to gain new knowledge, build critical life skills, and acquire key social, economic, and cognitive assets that enable them to make healthy transitions to adulthood. For example, the Population Council studied the impact of local female mentors in skill-building programs in Bangladesh. Through weekly meetings, the mentorship facilitated program goals of preventing child marriage and thereby stopping girls and young women from dropping out of school.

Recent evidence also suggests that programs with this core model can continue to achieve positive impact even when opportunities for face-to-face contact are limited by adopting digital tools strategically. The project we just mentioned continued throughout the pandemic, with mentors adapting their approach by switching to remote contact with their mentees delivering content and maintaining relationship via WhatsApp and Zoom. Programmatic objectives continued to be met, from increasing participants’ awareness of reproductive health topics to building key life skills.

3. Involving the community in maximizing impact

Another core aspect of successful adolescent programming is the importance of working not only with girls themselves but also at the community-level, to transform norms that restrict opportunities for girls or inhibit their ability to claim their rights and reach their full potential. Engaging leadership and other key stakeholders in girls’ lives—such as parents and educators—is critical to ensure an enabling environment. The Population Council’s Keeping Girls in School (KGIS) community leaders program, involved school teachers and officials from education ministries in its development and implementation. The support of these leaders fostered a positive environment for the program while increasing awareness of the negative impact of child marriages and the significance of educational and professional opportunities for girls.

Such community engagement is an equally important consideration for technology-based intervention strategies, even more so where gendered disparities exist with respect to access to and use of technology. Local leaders and authorities—whether legal, religious, moral, or intellectual—can help shift biases and norms that restrict opportunities for girls, including those related to technology use to enable them to fully benefit from ICT-based programming initiatives.

Designing Programs That Work

“Of course, digital technologies generate a host of new ideas and opportunities for reaching young people and improving their lives. At the same time, we caution that rushing to adopt tech-based approaches without considering the evidence on what has worked in the past to improve the lives of adolescent could unintentionally end up exacerbating existing disparities. We believe that there is great promise for digital technologies to be integrated into program models that have proven to be effective,” stated Grace Saul and Waimar Tun.