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 5-15% over their lifetimes, while boys experience a 4-8% rate of return. In addition, returns to secondary education are 15-25% 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.’

If these risk factors are not addressed, girls are likely to fail to learn in school and not have the skills needed to make healthy life choices. In the long run, a ‘lost generation’ of girls may translate into a less educated workforce, lost productivity, fewer women in decision-making roles and, consequently, diminished progress in economic development and growth.

However, since many aspects of society are disrupted during conflict, post-conflict interventions have the opportunity to build on the norm disruption in a way that gives greater agency and protection to women and girls. Programming that integrates social and emotional learning (SEL), for example, can mitigate risks that arise from conflict allowing post-conflict states to harness the productivity of girls. The International Rescue Committee defines SEL as a process by which children acquire skills that improve their well-being, and academic or vocational performance. The impact of SEL interventions in higher-income countries is well documented. Children with strong social and emotional skills do better in school, have improved relationships with peers and adults, are better adjusted emotionally and have improved mental health. SEL has been proven to strengthen the healing and coping mechanisms needed to deal with adversity, and contribute to improved education outcomes.

Many of the SEL programs that already exist in developing countries are couched in adolescent girl life skills programming, and in post-conflict settings, these programs tend to include a psychosocial support component. Life skills (sometimes known as soft skills) fall into three basic categories:

(1) social or interpersonal skills (which may include communication, negotiation and refusal skills, assertiveness, cooperation and empathy);

(2) cognitive skills (problem solving, understanding sequences, decision making, critical thinking, and self-evaluation); and

(3) emotional coping skills (including positive sense of self) and self-control (managing stress, feelings, and moods).

review of studies on resilience in children affected by war in low- and middle-income countries found that individual coping strategiespositive self perception and perseverance and self-esteem were protective factors for mental health problems.

SEL program models should always be contextualized and reflect the skills and values specific to the community and context. The goal is to provide safe, healthy and productive transitions to adulthood for girls after conflict. It is, therefore, important that group sessions have psychosocial support, and that the curriculum is co-designed with local input on pertinent topics, which might include sexual health, conflict resolution, and self-esteem and leadership building. Governments, organizations or communities can be trained to implement the program in safe spaces, such as community halls, dedicated program space, schools and youth centers.

The International Rescue Committee’s evaluation method of SEL in crisis focuses on contextually-driven outcomes that tend to fall within both well-being and academic or vocational categories. The ‘well-being’ category reflects psychological, emotional and social outcomes such as reduced anxiety, reduced aggression, increased pro-social behaviors, improved memory, and problem-solving abilities. The ‘academic of vocational performance’ category could measure improvements in literacy and numeracy, sexual and reproductive health knowledge, and specific vocational performance outcomes such as general business skills.

Programs focusing on these types of outcomes have been promising. The World Bank’s Adolescent Girls Initiative (AGI) in post-disaster Haitiand post-conflict Liberia, which utilized rigorous randomized evaluations, are good examples.

The AGI in Haiti increased the socio-emotional assets of girls in two years and with $2 million. Since 2010 earthquake, Haiti has begun to move from recovery to development, but the quality of education and learning, among other issues, remains a challenge. The program – a group-mentoring program with a strong psychosocial support component – improved 1,000 girls’ agency in decision-making, personal mobility and building relationships with others. Their stress declined, aspirations grew and mindsets became more positive.

In the post-conflict setting of Liberia, where girls and women commonly experienced physical and/or sexual violence, the AGI program combined life skills and job skills in a supportive and protective environment. With a $5 million budget, the program significantly increased participants’ self-confidence and economic activity (savings and earnings) – results that endured after the training ended.

The empowerment of adolescent girls in post-conflict settings is all too often overlooked and underfunded. The consequences of this on development may not manifest until years later, and it falls in the purview of multiple disciplines. However, it is clear that the learning and socio-emotional well-being of adolescent girls is essential to achieving peace, stability and development in communities after conflict. SEL interventions promote resilience among vulnerable girls after conflict by fostering a sense of belonging and enhancing control, stability and opportunities for self-help. While SEL is only part of the solution, this adaptive approach to education in post-conflict settings is likely to enable communities to become more resilient and rebound over time.

About the Author

Uraidah Hassani is the founder and executive director of The Women Worldwide Initiative, a non-profit organization based in New York City that empowers women and girls in underserved communities to strengthen their capacity as decision-makers. Ms. Hassani is a 2016 candidate in the Master of Science in Foreign Service Program at Georgetown University, where she in concentrating on international development with a special focus on conflict-affected populations. In 2015, Ms. Hassani worked in Sri Lanka with local NGOs focused on transitional justice and land rights. Before coming to Georgetown, Ms. Hassani spent two and half years as the Marketing and Communications Specialist at Swiss Reinsurance. She graduated magna cum laude from New York University in 2011, where she earned a B.A. in International Relations with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa.

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