How Do We Challenge Limitations So That Young Women Can Prosper?

Chelsea Pallatino, Research, Evaluation, and Learning Specialist

For 110 years, we have been celebrating International Women’s Day. We acknowledge the achievements of great women around the world. We take the time to think about the strongwomen in our lives and how they inspire us. And, we think about how far we’ve progressed in the fight for women’s rights, and how much work is yet to be done.

Globally, girls and young women experience more disadvantages compared to their male counterparts due to damaging social and gender norms that limit their ability to access education, assets, information, and opportunities for personal and professional development.

What Does the Evidence Show Us?

In a recent review we conducted of 17 cross-sectoral youth assessments completed under YouthPower Learning (YPL) and YouthPower2: Learning and Evaluation (YP2LE), in all but two assessments, gender was identified by participants as a factor of vulnerability that impacts youth livelihoods, education, and health outcomes. In many assessments, one of the key barriers identified in promoting youth development was early pregnancy and marriage, particularly for girls and young women. Issues of discrimination in the education and workforce setting, including sexual extortion, rape, and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV) were also highlighted by participants.

Women’s economic empowerment and their equal participation in the workforce is crucial to eliminating poverty and strengthening global economies. We must ensure that we are creating an enabling environment for women’s participation in the workforce and design activities in our development programs that are responsive to women’s needs.

YP2LE’s gender work includes activities that identify obstacles and share learnings that can help advance women’s economic empowerment. The Unleashing the Economic Leadership Power of Young Women: Strengthening the Evidence Base activity, part of the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative, conducted a literature review on the most important barriers and remaining knowledge gaps related to young women’s economic empowerment. The review of the literature and key informant interviews with gender and youth development subject matter experts revealed that girls and young women experience intersectional barriers to furthering their education and engaging in training and workforce development opportunities, including limited access to information and education, domestic chore burdens, financial constraints, poor workplace conditions, risks to personal safety, and expectations to prioritize marriage and childbearing over professional development. These barriers are exacerbated by the lack of existing policies to promote education and training opportunities for girls and young women.

The literature activity for our work in Mozambique, under the Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-Free, Mentored and Safe (DREAMS) Partnership, found that over half of girls drop out of school by fifth grade, and, while young women make up the majority of graduates in programs focused on health and welfare, there is a mismatch between the number of skilled members of the workforce and formal opportunities to engage in work in these sectors. Findings corroborated the understanding that barriers for young women include low literacy rates, the risk for experiencing GBV, and early marriage, all of which impede women’s access to professional development opportunities. Additionally, we learned in key informant interview and focus group discussions with youth and youth development stakeholders that young women who may want to start their own business experience many barriers, including lack of finance, gender-based discrimination, and sexual harassment.

Overcoming the Barriers

So, with all these challenges, how do we move ahead in helping young women prosper? We learn, adapt, and stay persistent. We also must apply the Positive Youth Development (PYD) approach. For progress to occur, implementers of gender-based initiatives and programs need to give young women shared decision-making power, solicit their input at all stages of programming activities, and be responsive to their feedback. Creating programs that are effective, scalable, and sustainable becomes possible when beneficiaries feel ownership in these processes.

In the DREAMS activity, participants noted opportunities for developing businesses in menstrual hygiene management (MHM) to sell products that are affordable and local, educate girls on promoting their own menstrual hygiene, and supporting related waste management. They also highlighted the need for supportive services to promote young women’s reproductive health, family planning, and provide GBV-prevention and -treatment services.

Applying the PYD approach in this scenario means funding is provided to a local NGO for implementation of this type of entrepreneurship program. Local young women are asked to help design and implement it, including taking part in the measurement and evaluation. Part of the design would involve creating an enabling environment that implements education related to MHM, GBV, and youth entrepreneurship—not only for the young women, but also for the community that will support them.

PYD provides a framework that can help achieve economic empowerment, improve employment outcomes, and incorporate principles of social inclusion for young women and our most vulnerable populations of youth. However, we must acknowledge young women’s intersecting identities, anticipate barriers to their participation, and use this information in designing activities to promote their engagement in the workforce.

The process of challenging and changing the status quo is never easy. It takes time. Nevertheless, remembering what other women have achieved and seeing today’s young women leading large-scale calls to action and challenging the limitations placed on them gives me hope that we will get there in much less than 110 years.