KIGALI, Rwanda – Investing in impoverished girls -- especially very young adolescents and those who are married or out of school – is key to achieving health development goals. Yet these girls are virtually invisible in programming.
That was a main message to emerge at a technical workshop on adolescent reproductive health held here from 24-29 August sponsored by UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.
The message was hammered home in a presentation by Judith Bruce of the Population Council based on recent disaggregated data from the ten countries represented at the workshop (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Sierra Leon, Uganda and Zambia). Most of these countries are among the poorest in the world and face rapid population growth. They also have high rates of maternal mortality, child marriage and HIV epdemics that are increasingly young, poor an female.
The development paths of these countries can be dramatically altered by effective programming to build up girls’ health, social and economic assets, according to information presented at the workshop. “Young adolescence is a critical moment. It’s a time when, for many girls, vulnerability is consolidated and their rights are irredeemably lost,” said Ms. Bruce.
“In many African countries, at least half of all women will become the sole support of their families by age 30,” said Ms. Bruce. “And half of all children will rely on their (often young) mothers for all their support. Who is going to invest in this next generation of African children? It is their mothers. That mother was an impoverished girl just a few years ago. We must invest in those girls now.”
But progamming will not reach the poorest girls in the poorest communities unless initiatives are carefully planned and segmented by age and gender to reach specific target groups, according to Ms. Bruce. She said current programming requires radical revisions to meet the needs of this age group. “If we do not begin with programming to reach young girls, we will not get to them later,” she said. “There is no ‘trickle down’.”
For most girls, puberty often marks a steep decline in girls’ well-being, she added, a time when many young girls face the loss of human rights that are impossible to recover later.
Female genital mutilation/cutting, for example, represents an irretrievable loss of bodily integrity. Early coerced sexual initiation – very common for poor and marginalized girls in this part of the world – can damage one’s sense of self for life. HIV infection, which is rising among adolescent girls, abridges the rights to health and life. Child marriage curtails childhood and educational opportunities, isolates young girls, and subjects many to forced sexual relations, sometimes even before their menses. Early childbearing leads, all too often, to deepening poverty, disability or death.
Child brides and girls living on their own without parental support are two other groups whose rights are routinely violated, with little redress, said Ms. Bruce. “If present patterns continue,” she said, “a hundred million girls will be married as children in the next ten years. This is likely the most serious human rights abuse in the world.”
Child marriage also has enormous population implications, she said. If age of first childbearing were delayed for girls by just five years, population growth would be dramatically affected, she added. Bruce also highlighted the plight of hundreds of thousands of girls in Africa aged 10-24 who are living without parents, including domestic servants, displaced persons and orphans. In Ethiopia and Mozambique alone, some 800,000 girls fit into this category.
“Often these girls do not have friends, cannot read or write, have no safe places, have no one from whom to call in an emergency or borrow money from,” said Ms. Bruce. “These girls are minutes away from being sexually abused. This is the pool of children who will be called ‘sex workers’.”
In an exercise following the presentation, country teams identified strategies to reach different groups of vulnerable young girls in their respective countries. The team from Malawi, for instance, considered specific strategies to reach young girls who belong to no groups, have little media access and do not feel safe in public spaces. A representative from Rwanda talked about the importance of targeting adolescents who had lost their families in the 1994 genocide, and are now heading up households.
“Efforts to invest more in young adolescent girls in UNFPA programmes are underway,” said Laura Laski, chief of UNFPA’s reproductive health branch. “And we are not alone. We are part of a task force on adolescents involving many UN agencies. Many private foundations are now focusing on this group as well,” she said.
Workshops like the one in Kigali aim to ensure that country teams will emphasize the needs of this vulnerable group as they work with government counterparts in national development plans, she added.