Half a billion adolescent girls in the developing world are our next generation of leaders, workers and mothers. What opportunities they have, what barriers they face and what they achieve today will set them on a life course that will not only determine their futures, but the future of their families, their communities and their nations.
Australia has an opportunity at a political and government level to make adolescent girls visible, for the first time ever, in Australia’s agenda on foreign policy, trade, overseas aid and development. Here’s how:
Change for adolescent girls cannot be achieved without strong political leadership, without parliamentarians from all sides of politics standing alongside girls and committing to championing their rights.
Political recommendation: All political parties commit to achieving gender equality for adolescent girls in party policy platforms.
There is enormous potential for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to build on its commitment to achieving gender equality globally by developing a stand-alone action plan for adolescent girls, similar to the US Government’s 2016 Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls.
Government recommendation: The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade develop a stand-alone action plan on achieving gender equality for adolescent girls through Australia’s foreign policy, trade, aid and development.
The Government’s budget commitment to aid and development is Australia’s greatest tool for advancing the rights of adolescent girls globally, providing the foundations of our diplomatic leadership on this agenda. There are clear and specific budget investments that can create real benefit to adolescent girls globally.
- Set a target that at least 15 per cent of all investments with the principal or significant objective of advancing gender equality, identify adolescent girls as the primary beneficiaries by 2030.
- Increase overall investment in initiatives where the ‘principal’ objective is gender equality, from 6 per cent to 20 per cent by 2030. Rebuild the overseas aid and development budget by increasing investment in aid expenditure to 0.7 per cent of GNI by 2030.
Adolescent girls can change the world. However, they can only do so if they are able to fully enjoy their rights, participate as active citizens and leaders and stay safe from harm.
Ending Violence And Harmful Practices
Girls experience violence in ways that are different to adult women. The young age of adolescent girls and the changes that they experience as a result of puberty make them particularly vulnerable to sexual and physical violence.
The consequences are life long, disrupting their pathway to adulthood and impacting on their learning, their future choices, their relationships and their emotional and physical well-being.
Over 120 million adolescent girls worldwide have been subject to sexual violence including rape. In three quarters of low- and middle-income countries more than one in five adolescent girls have experienced violence by their partner in the last 12 months.
Girls experience violence in school and at the hands of family members. Adolescent girls are more likely to be exposed to harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation. They are more vulnerable to trafficking and sexual exploitation, particularly in humanitarian emergencies and when on the move.
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
Adolescent girls that can access sexual and reproductive health services, including contraception and making their own decisions on pregnancy and childbirth, to be educated and economically empowered, lifting themselves and their families out of poverty.
Sadly, there are millions of adolescent girls around the world who do not have access to contraception, family planning and maternal health services, and the information that will keep them safe, healthy and empowered.
Their rights are limited by unfair laws and policies that stop girls from accessing family planning services because they are not adults or they are unmarried.
The sexual health and reproductive rights of women and girls are limited by the lack of investment by governments in adolescent centred sexual and reproductive health education and services.
Fighting Poverty Through Education
Every year of secondary education that an adolescent girl can access and complete, yields greater returns for herself, her family and the nation’s productivity and economic growth.
There has been important progress, globally, in increasing girls’ enrolment in primary education, but this alone will not provide the conditions necessary to create economic prosperity.
With the onset of puberty adolescent girls face unique challenges such as limited access to school toilets and sanitary pads during menstruation, the risk of gender based violence in travelling to and from school and at school, and the gendered norms and circumstances that lead to girls dropping out of secondary school – such as child marriage, early and unplanned pregnancies and the expectation and burden of domestic work.
If governments are serious about unlocking the potential of the millions of adolescent girls in the world, there must be a global effort to break down the barriers that stop adolescent girls from accessing inclusive, equitable and quality secondary education. Adolescent girls that face additional layers of disadvantage face even more barriers to accessing education.
Economically Empowering Girls
They make up an astonishing 76 per cent of young people around the world that are not in education, training or employment. Providing opportunities for these girls and young women to transition from unemployment or education into productive employment and business could make the difference needed to lift their families out of poverty and to accelerate a country’s economic growth.
This is a global challenge for governments that must be addressed with urgency.
There are many reasons why economic empowerment is beyond the reach of so many adolescent girls and young women. Prevailing cultural and religious attitudes, the absence of gender transformative training and entrepreneurship programs, ready for work job schemes and the devaluing of women’s economic contributions limit the potential of girls and young women; denying them opportunities and, in some cases, funnelling them into lower paid, lower skilled jobs.
Apart from transforming economies, creating economic opportunities for girls and young women also empowers them for life.
It sets girls and young women on a pathway out of poverty and lays the foundation for future financial stability. It strengthens their rights – providing income, independence and choice. It can reduce the risk of early and forced marriage and strengthen their leadership and decision making status in communities and families.
Protecting Girls in Emergencies
Conflict, displacement and fragility have a disproportionate impact on adolescent girls as cultural norms, the intersecting issues of age and all the dimensions of pervasive gender inequality and other forms of discrimination are amplified and exacerbated. However, if girls are listened to and their needs are met, they can go on to play a critical role before, during and after emergencies.
Humanitarian emergencies bring new and renewed risks and dangers that are greater for adolescent girls compared to other population groups; abuse, early marriage, early pregnancy, abduction and isolation.
Research into adolescent girls in emergencies suggest that emergency responses do not account for the unique risks faced, and how their routines, roles and assets shape their abilities to safely access vital resources.
Adolescent girls can be rendered invisible, forced to take on roles and responsibilities that restrict their mobility and visibility; yet girls that are able to gather together in safe spaces can provide a strong and cohesive social network, essential in times of crises.
Girls that are able to access education during times of crisis are less likely to be at risk of child marriage, trafficking and gender based violence.
Girls are transformative agents, playing a role in educating their families and communities of the risks of climate change and leading risk reduction and adaptation activities.
Girls are Leaders
Providing adolescent girls with the opportunities to be leaders and change agents is essential to accelerating progress towards achieving gender equality.
Adolescent girls can be leaders in their homes, their communities, their schools, through business and work, in peace and security and at a national and global level through political and public life.
Around the world, girls are held back from being change agents and leaders because of gendered attitudes and norms of behaviour and patriarchal power structures which they encounter in their homes, their schools, their communities, in business and in politics.
These attitudes and behaviours can hold girls back by limiting their control over all aspects of their lives – limiting their choice of when and who they marry, their access to education, their freedom of movement and their ability to participate fully in decision making.
“Girls are not allowed to participate fully in decision making. The community believes women don’t have good ideas; rather they are good at housekeeping. Boys participate fully in decision making, they also play a role in influencing decisions because the community values the boys’ ideas [more] compared to that of a girl.”
The absence of female role models can have a detrimental impact on girls’ aspirations of leadership. Adolescent girls need female role models at all levels of society in order for them to see themselves as leaders and change agents.