Panelists at ICRW Event Discuss Investments in Adolescent Girls

Article Date

10 March 2014

Article Author

By Gillian Gaynair

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Anne McPherson

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The global development community must continue to identify program models that help shift perceptions about adolescent girls and how they are regarded by some societies. And research has to be a priority – particularly as it relates to understanding the impact of interventions with adolescent girls and determining how best to scale up promising efforts.

So went some of the recommendations from a panel of thought leaders who discussed the return on investment in the world’s adolescent girls during a March 5 International Center for Research on Women’s (ICRW) event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The discussion, in celebration of International Women’s Day, was part of ICRW’s signature Passports to Progress series, which brings together a diversity of experts to spotlight timely global development issues.

The event also marked the official release of ICRW’s latest piece of research: “Impact of Conditional Cash Transfers on Girls Education,”summary of evidence from ICRW’s study of a government program in the Indian state of Haryana that aimed to enhance to value of girls in society and delay their age of marriage.

“Until we are able to change underlying attitudes and beliefs about the value of girls, any investment – whether in health, livelihoods or education – will be diminished if the investment program compartmentalizes their lived experience,” ICRW President Sarah Degnan Kambou said in her opening remarks, helping set the tone for the discussion, which was moderated by Julie Katzman, executive vice president of the Inter-American Development Bank and an ICRW board member.

“Everything girls and young women endure in daily life is part of an interconnected whole,” Kambou said. “Violence and safety are integrally linked to girls’ access to education, experience with marriage and reproduction and potentially, hopefully, their entry in the workforce.”

And according to panelist Rachel Vogelstein, one of the most urgent issues to tackle, one that is intertwined with violence, illiteracy and poor health, is that of child marriage. Ending the practice is not only morally right, but there’s also “a strategic imperative” to do so, said Vogelstein, a fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of Women and Girls Programs in the Office of Hillary Rodham Clinton at the Clinton Foundation.

Early marriage curtails progress toward improving global health and education and strengthening economies, among other global development goals. For instance, a World Bank study suggests that a 1 percent increase in the share of women with secondary education can raise a country’s annual per-capita income growth.

“These economic benefits vanish from the economy when girls’ education is cut short by marriage,” Vogelstein said.

The U.S. government has a strategy in place to address issues that impact the lives of adolescent girls worldwide, including child marriage and other forms of violence, according to panelist Carla Koppell, chief strategy officer for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“That frame exists, but it’s existed now for a couple of years,” she said. “What we’ve started to do are a number of things to make it real.” That includes developing the capacity of staff to move the USAID agenda forward and sensitizing them to gender issues. It also includes supporting key research efforts and deepening the government’s focus on women, peace and security and girls’ leadership, among other targets.

In terms of research, Koppell said it’s important for USAID to evaluate its efforts to ensure they don’t yield negative, unintended consequences. She also said the government is looking at how to scale up interventions focused on girls and women so that they may be “transformational” in “changing the course of history.”

“It’s really essential to deliberate our own findings and research … to think about what are the implications of this, what is the next step, how to move the agenda forward,” among governments, civil society organizations and others, Koppell said. “It’s only through that collective, analytical process that I think you get your best outcomes.”

Howard Taylor, vice president and managing director of the Nike Foundation, agreed, saying that organizations “need to be open in real time” in terms of sharing what they learn “now – not decades later.” Doing so can contribute greatly not only to strengthening programs, but also changing perceptions many societies have about adolescent girls.

Shifting attitudes and behaviors toward girls is a monumental task, especially in societies where women and girls are deemed practically expendable. ICRW found this to be true in Haryana, India, the location of one of its latest research efforts.

During the discussion, Priya Nanda, director of reproductive health and economic empowerment programs for ICRW’s Asia Regional Office, shared a few findings from ICRW’s evaluation of an innovative government program in Haryana that sought to prevent parents from marrying off their daughters early as well as elevate girls’ value in society.

The conditional cash transfer program, called Apni Beti Apna Dhan (ABAD) or “Our Daughter, Our Wealth,” offered a small amount of money to mothers within days of delivering a daughter. Within three months of her birth, the government bought a savings bond in her name. The bond was redeemable once the girl turned 18 – only if she remained unmarried.

The initial cohort of beneficiaries turned 18 in 2012-2013. Led by Nanda, ICRW researchers evaluated the program’s impact on the educational attainment of girls’ who participated and those who did not. Another survey will take place later this year to determine ABAD’s effect on delaying girls’ age of marriage.

ICRW discovered that ABAD beneficiaries were more likely to stay in school than girls who were not in the program. However, parents saw the government’s investment in their daughter as a way to improve her chances of getting married; having an education would make her an even more attractive candidate for marriage. “Her identity is still very much linked to her (ability to marry),” Nanda said. “The belief is that the returns go to the marital home, so you (the parents) don’t invest beyond what you think you’ll get in return.”

Globally, financial incentives targeting adolescent girls’ education, health and other outcomes are indeed making a difference. “But how do they interact with attitudes and aspirations?” she said. “I think there are many more complementary interventions that need to be in place.”

Related: New ICRW Report Summarizes Effect of Indian Cash Incentive Program

View full session of the 2014 Passports to Progress panel discussion

Gillian Gaynair is an independent writer and editor based in Washington, D.C.