Are we truly listening to adolescent girls and young women?

Community Participation
Adolescents and Youth
Geographic Focus

This article is part of the Committing to Change: Girls’ EiE from Charlevoix to COVID-19 blog series. 

Adolescent girls and young women have the power to change the world. As emphasized at the Generation Equality Forum, an inclusive and gender just world cannot take shape without them in the lead. Their demand is constant and clearly articulated in their manifesto: they want to co-lead and co-create. 

Adolescent girls and young women in all their diversity face a lack of opportunity, support and discriminatory gender norms, as well as blatant violation of their rights, limiting their choices, participation and impacting the quality of their lives. Multiple programs are developed to transform their lives and to accelerate gender equality. While some are implemented directly by adolescent girls and young women-led groups, many others are implemented through a range of other actors who view them as beneficiaries only, focusing on providing services to them and advocating on their behalf. As a result, they do not involve them in the details of the design and implementation process, nor do they listen to them sufficiently or seriously, resulting in a lack of ownership and leadership by adolescent girls in interventions, which, in turn, can limit the impact of initiatives. Ensuring that adolescent girls and young women participate as leaders and empowered partners in the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of programs that address their needs and priorities has the potential to create more equitable, effective, and sustained outcomes.

Why is it important?

Married / in union / pregnant or young mothers aged 15-19 discussing SRHR using community resource mapping tool - Benin, August 2019

There is no doubt: no one knows better than adolescent girls and young women the priorities, perspectives, and scope of the interconnected and intersectional gender-related barriers they face. Adolescent girls and young women are experts of their lives. Plan for Girls, a Plan International project funded by Global Affairs Canada to address the complex and interrelated determinants of vulnerability and marginalization of adolescent girls' and young women in Benin and Cameroon, engaged as part of its start-up phase, an inclusive and participatory consultative process using a toolkit to listen to adolescent girls and young women. Adolescent girls and young women from diverse backgrounds have demonstrated their expertise in identifying deep-seated issues affecting their rights, their needs and aspirations. They have also identified and designed solutions leading to lasting improvements in their lives. However, it is one thing to express one's priorities, but another thing to be heard and taken into account. As guaranteed by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child such as Article 12 which recognizes the right to freely express views and to be heard in all matters affecting the lives of children and young people, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women which recognizes the right of women to freely participate in civil, political, economic, social and cultural life, Plan for Girls has ensured the meaningful participation of adolescent girls and young women by making them a primary force behind the entire project’s implementation process and treating them as equal partners. 

Listening seriously to adolescent girls and young women is not a one-time investment 

Adolescent girls and young women in a workshop prioritizing interventions and formulating their asks to municipal stakeholders - Benin, August 2020

Listening to adolescent girls and young women is a “must have”, but equally it should not be “one-time”.  It must be a reality throughout the project cycle through guidance, strategies, and mechanisms to ensure leadership and meaningful participation of adolescent girls and young women at all times. This includes a gender-transformative design co-created and led by them, their collaboration and leadership in all aspects of implementation and monitoring, and girl-led advocacy. Plan for Girls has established a Girls and Allies Advisory Committee (GAAC) to serve as a platform for listening to and engaging girls at all stages of the project. The Girls' and Allies' Advisory Committee was central to the development of the "Girls' Plan", a document summarizing the integrated and holistic package of interventions and asks expressed by girls to simultaneously realize their rights to participation, education, economic empowerment, protection, health, and sexual and reproductive rights, while paying particular attention to social relations and discriminatory gender norms that hold them back. With the collaboration of their allies, including young boys, male and female leaders, elders and local officials, girls’ perspectives are considered before, during and after implementation of major project activities. The Committee participates in the governance of the project and is responsible for advocating for coordinated financial, programmatic and policy investments by communal partners to support their plan. As mentioned by Aline, a 23 year old young woman who is “Not in Education, Employment or Training” (NEET) and a member of the Benin Girls' Advisory Committee, in this video, "thanks to this project, I realize my potential and I now plan my future differently.” 

The results are worth the efforts

Placing adolescent girls and young women not only at the center, but as leaders with agency, confidence, space and power to take responsibility to influence design and implementation of programs affecting them is inclusive and empowering. Listening to adolescent girls and young women is key in fostering their agency towards gender transformative change. This process has the additional impact of making girls' leadership and collective action visible. It also fosters relationships between adolescent girls, young women and other stakeholders, creating a network of collaborators and supporters and creating a gender transformative landscape where harmful social gender norms are challenged. 

While many new investments have been announced in the Generation Equality Forum, including for adolescent girls and young women, the realities and constraints of project and program implementation as well as the challenges faced by adolescent girls and young women must not override the quality of adolescent girls' and young women's meaningful and substantive engagement in programs that affect them. An adolescent girl-led approach is necessarily intersectional and rights-based and requires agility, determination, and willingness to learn to work differently. Its effectiveness in creating a solid foundation for transformative change in the lives of adolescent girls and young women, and its impact and sustainability are well worth the effort!


About the Author

Nafissatou Faye is Senior Advisor, Gender Equality at Plan International Canada. She has spent the last 20 years supporting education, health, protection, and economic empowerment programs in several sub-Saharan African countries with a particular focus on gender equality and the rights of women and girls.

Geographic Focus