Adolescence is a very important stage in a girl’s life. It is a time when support in their education, health, nutrition and safety is critical to fulfilling their future potential. Girls who are educated and healthy are ready to take on opportunities and become productive members of society. They can provide a better future for their children and break the intergenerational transmission of poverty.
Girls, however, face particular vulnerabilities in their adolescence that can bring a life-time of consequences. They are more likely than their male peers to drop out of school, marry at an early age and disproportionately bear the impacts of poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Understanding these vulnerabilities and responding to them at the right time can help protect girls from these risks.
The Adolescent Girls Index (AGI) represents the first global effort to capture the vulnerability of girls at the individual, household and community levels. UNICEF Uganda in partnership with the government and Population Council developed the index to understand and address the needs of young girls. It aims to draw attention to adolescent girls and inform policies, programmes and resource allocation that respond to the risks and vulnerabilities they face.
Individual vulnerabilities look at education and the home environment. A girl who is two years behind grade for age or has no education is considered vulnerable. Girls who do not live with their parents are also classified as vulnerable at the individual level. Several factors determine household level vulnerability. These include having no access to improved water sources, no access to improved sanitation and having a household head with no education. The AGI innovates by capturing community level vulnerabilities. It looks at indicators for women which reflect the type of environments girls grow up in. These include high (i.e. above average) rates of early marriage, high illiteracy rates, high HIV prevalence and high rates of having no comprehensive knowledge of HIV. Girls are considered extremely vulnerable if they face vulnerabilities in all three levels.
The findings of the AGI reveal that a fifth of adolescent girls in Uganda are extremely vulnerable. There are disparities in vulnerabilities across the regions and girls in Karamoja (north of the country) suffer the most and those in the Western region the least. More than half of the girls in Karamoja, which is recovering from years of conflict, face extreme vulnerability. Girls from this part of the country are almost twice as likely to be vulnerable at the individual level compared to their peers in Kampala. Unsurprisingly, girls in poorer regions tend to be more vulnerable than those from richer parts of the country.
Lack of education is a key driving force behind individual vulnerability. In Karamoja, 90 percent of girls 10-14 years are two years behind their education or have never been to school. Girls in the central region and in the capital fare better with half on track their schooling, but that still means that the other half are left behind. Adolescent girls generally face less vulnerability at the household level than at the individual and community level, however lack of sanitation is a key driver of vulnerability at home.
The community strongly influences vulnerability among girls. Those in the North and Eastern parts of Uganda face a higher risk of early marriage. Girls in Karamoja and the Eastern region live in areas with higher than national average illiteracy rates, while those in the Western, Southwestern and central parts of the country are in communities with high HIV prevalence and limited knowledge on the matter.
These vulnerabilities put the education, health and safety of adolescent girls at great risk. There are limited programmes in Uganda targeted to adolescents and often boys make up the majority of the participants in these programmes. The conclusions of the AGI indicate that adolescent girls do not feature as a distinct priority in Ugandan policy.
There is clearly a need to design policies and programmes that reach very young adolescent girls (10-14 years of age). Often this group is left out of “children” and “youth” discussions and their needs fall through the cracks. We need interventions that keep them in school and protect them from risks at this critical time. In Uganda, we need better data to guide investments for adolescent girls and monitor changes in vulnerabilities. We must invest in scalable and replicable programmes, paying particular focus on those regions where most girls are extremely vulnerable. Improving the quality of education is important to increase school retention and completion among this group. Interventions addressed at the community, a strong predictor of vulnerability, are crucial to improving the well-being of adolescent girls. These include sensitising the community to the dangers of traditional practices, such as child marriage, which prematurely put girls into adult roles.
Adolescent girls must get the chance to develop and thrive at this critical stage in their lives. They are powerful agents of change and we have to put in place an enabling environment that protects them from vulnerabilities which impacts could last a lifetime. Transforming the lives of adolescent girls is crucial to ensuring a bright future for them and their homes and communities.
This blog is written by David Stewart, Chief of Policy and Evaluation, and Rica Garde, Head of Research, Evaluation and Advocacy at UNICEF Uganda. Follow them on twitter: @dmistewart1 and @ricagarde for more on the AGI and social policy issues in Uganda.