U.N. Task Force Pushes for Investment in Teen Girls

  • by Elizabeth Whitman (united nations)
  • Saturday, February 26, 2011
  • Inter Press Service

'Investing in the world's 1.2 billion adolescents in an imperative if we want to break entrenched cycles of poverty and inequality,' said Richard Morgan, director of UNICEF's Division of Policy and Practice.

Children 'face grave vulnerabilities and grave challenges as they make the transition towards adulthood,' he added.

The U.N. Adolescent Girls Task Force, which organised a panel on the issue Friday, is comprised of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), the children's agency UNICEF, the newly-launched U.N. Women, and several other U.N. entities.

It aims to facilitate the empowerment of adolescent girls by working with governments and civil society on policies to that effect. In a joint statement, the UNAGTF organisations listed educating adolescent girls, improving their health, protecting them from violence, promoting their leadership, and collect statistic data on them as five priorities in their efforts to advance the rights of adolescent girls.

The panel took place during the CSW, which meets every year to assess current conditions of gender equality as well as create policies for the advancement of women and gender equality.

In countries where the majority of the population is extremely young, such as Malawi, investing and empowering adolescents through education is critical to the country's development. The median age in Malawi 17 years old, and 73.6 percent of the population is below the age of 29, noted Janet Zeenat Karim, head of the Malawi delegation to the U.N.

Karim praised the work of U.N. agencies in Malawi, where adolescent girls face many challenges, including early marriage and early childbearing, which pose serious health risks. Additionally, females account for more than half of all HIV infections in Malawi. The level of sexual and reproductive health of girls in Malawi is among the worst in the world.

'The U.N.'s support will enable Malawi to address the comprehensive needs and rights of adolescent girls for education,' she said. Karim also stressed that investment in adolescent girls is necessary for eradicating poverty.

The task force operates in two ways. On a higher level, it works through governments, civil society, and youth networks to strengthen the abilities and knowledge of these institutions, and by helping set up systems that allow governments to implement certain policies. On the ground, U.N. organisations within the task force can provide training and support.

Sylvia Wong, a technical specialist with UNFPA and the co- chair of the U.N. Adolescent Girl Task Force, shared some success stories with IPS.

'The UNFPA has mobilised and worked with the National Youth Council [of Malawi] to advocate against a bill on child marriage that was going to go to parliament that would have made the legal age of a marriage 16,' she said.

With the U.N.'s support, 'The youth network in Malawi... mobilised young people under the campaign that effectively stopped the bill from happening.'

The UNAGTF is currently supporting other government efforts in Malawi to help young girls deal with the challenges they face. UNICEF is leading the educational component of the programme and will provide scholarships to girls, enabling them to attend school without having to resort to desperate methods to raise money for school fees.

Wong also stressed the importance of respecting local culture while introducing new ideas and relevant practices. In Ethiopia, for example, UNFPA has found that working with the community is enormously beneficial, particularly in bringing about long-term change that seriously improves the lives and futures of adolescent girls.

'We've found that when you work with the community, when you do certain programmes with the support of the community, you slowly change social norms for the benefit of the girls and ultimately for the benefit of the community,' she told IPS.

UNFPA has organised ways for communities to come together and identify the issues of a practice such as child marriage, and then come up with solutions on their own, leading to deeper-rooted and stronger change.

'We've been able to slowly change the mindsets of traditional leaders and families to realise that first and foremost girls need to stay in school and be educated,' she said. 'We've been able to see change for the girls and a delay in child marriage.'

Although the status of adolescent girls still has a long way to go before their rights are fully realized and accessible, progress can be seen in various ways.

'We worked with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to make some public statements about the dangers of child marriage,' Wong relates. 'The head of the church even made a pronouncement that the church can no longer bless these child marriages.'

© Inter Press Service (2011) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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