Advancing an Evidence-Based Agenda for the World’s Young Women and Girls (and Boys!)

By Dr. Nicole Goldin

Last month at the United Nations, as Women’s History Month was drawing to a close, Intergovernmental negotiations continued toward a post-2015 framework to follow the expiring Millennium Development Goals with a focus on goals, targets and indicators. Promoting gender equality remained one of the top priorities.

Of the world’s approximately 3.6 million women and girls, nearly 1 million are adolescents and youth. They are part of the largest youth generation in human history, an estimated 85% of which lives in developing countries or fragile states.

Adolescent and young women are often at a bigger disadvantage in getting an education, finding political space and leadership, or financial inclusion; are more vulnerable to trafficking or gender-based violence; and have unmet needs in sexual and reproductive health. Similarly, though young men and boys face are often worse off, for example with tobacco or drug use, traffic accidents, or interpersonal violence, the female experience has been markedly more difficult among many of the common challenges facing youth such as the unemployment crisis or continued spread of HIV.

Unfortunately, however, far too many adolescent girls and young women have historically suffered in silence. They haven’t necessarily found their place on the global agenda. A lack of resources, lack of voice, lack of information, and lack of empowerment has sidelined their needs and aspirations despite how important their success is to promoting families and securing a demographic prosperity and peace dividend.

In setting a framework that advances the needs and aspirations of all young people, this is a critical moment to define and advance an agenda for young women; to shine a light on progress, but also take note of where work the work is unfinished. Doing this will be easier thanks to an important new report from the No Ceilings initiative of the Clinton and Gates Foundations released for International Women’s Day last month. The initiative brings together nearly a million data points from across 189 countries over 20 years. The landmark report explores the gains and lingering gaps for women and girls since the historic 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

Indeed there is much progress to celebrate in health, education and more, but much still remains to be done. In health for example, although there has been progress since 1995, the data shows teenage pregnancy (and complications during childbirth) remain the second highest cause of death for 15 to 19 year old girls worldwide, and 95 percent of births to adolescents globally occur in the developing world. And, although new HIV infections are declining, 40% of them are among youth and females aged 15 to 24 have infection rates twice as high as young men.

Young women are also showing both gains and gaps in education. Literacy is rapidly increasing, but roughly two thirds of the remaining illiterate youth are female. Similarly, despite closing the gender gap in primary school and progress in secondary, 20 years after Beijing, only a third of adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa and less than half in South Asia are enrolled in secondary school, and even fewer actually complete it — making them more susceptible to early marriage and childbearing and putting their health and economic future and that of their children at risk. At the same time, results from the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted in 65 countries and economies shows that girls generally outperform boys in in reading, though still lag on mathematics.

Though all youth are facing an unprecedented jobs crisis, available data also suggest the situation for young women is particularly acute. For example, measured unemployment is routinely at least 25 percent higher among female youth than their male peers. Cultural and social norms, early marriage and motherhood, and other conditions keep girls young women from fully participating in the economy and achieving their potential. Roughly a third of countries allow young women to be married at a lower age than men.

And as much as we now know thanks to this effort, there is much we still don’t. Unfortunately, as we saw in developing the Global Youth Wellbeing Index, data specific to adolescent and youth (ages 10–24) is not always captured. Only by measuring and knowing the facts, can we work to change them.

In the interests of women — and men — everywhere young and old, I hope global momentum will carry these findings and No Ceilings data to a wide, diverse audience. Further, I hope it will help inspire, inform and define a new evidence-based agenda and collective response. A response that elevates the world’s youthful women while advancing and investing in the interests of all young people towards a better world for everyone.

Nicole Goldin is professorial lecturer at George Washington University, senior associate (non-resident) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and runs a private advisory and consulting practice – NRG Advisory. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn. Goldin will speak on these and other youth issues at the CSIS Global Development Forum on April 23, 2015. 

*This post also appears on Medium via No Ceilings: The Full Participation Project. A version of this article originally appeared on LinkedIn. 

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