Improving post-conflict development outcomes: Empowering adolescent girls
Post-conflict development efforts cannot afford to forget about adolescent youth. While all youth face certain challenges in adolescence, girls are constrained in different, and often more detrimental, ways than boys, particularly in post-conflict settings.
In many contexts, girls’ mobility starts to be restricted at this age, and their actions and decisions are increasingly directed by social norms that guide gender roles. It is a time when young men often gain agency, and many young women do not. Girls carry a higher burden of domestic responsibilities, which is not only unpaid work, but it also results in less time for girls to go to school, gain skills, or find a job. Gender norms also affect family investments in girls and boys, particularly when a girl’s marriage prospects are seen as a way to provide for her future. Too many girls receive the message that their body and sexuality are their economic future. By this logic, marriage and fertility are the only ways to secure their future. Interventions that empower girls can shift this message to one that values girls’ contributions to economic growth. Girls are also at greater risk for practices that serve to anchor them in poverty, such as early pregnancy, child marriage, and leaving school. These events are likely to have a decisive impact on the ability of girls to accumulate human capital, and participate in the labor force.
In fact, research has shown just how important educated girls are to development. This is often referred to as the “girl effect”—when girls stay in school, they gain skills and knowledge, are less likely to marry early or become pregnant, have improved health outcomes, and have greater earning power. A cross-country study on the effect of education on average wages (a proxy for productivity) estimates that primary education increases girls’ earnings by 5 to 15 percent over their lifetimes, while boys experience a 4 to 8 percent rate of return. In addition, returns to secondary education are 15 to 25 percent higher for women than men. It is also proven that more educated girls provide better education and health care to their children, which ultimately improves the well-being of families and communities.
However, conflict interrupts livelihoods, schooling, and the social fabric, which can prevent societies from benefiting from the “girl effect.” Conflict and crises greatly increase the vulnerabilities of children, including risks to their development and well-being. According to the World Bank, these risks can include developmental problems, such as the formation of identity, self-esteem, and purpose, as well as social interactions marked by distrust and violence. Particularly in cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, the functions necessary for attention, memory, and higher-level learning are also affected. While trauma affects people at every age, when it is left unaddressed in adolescents, it can cause them to fail to socialize in their community, potentially producing a “lost generation.”
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