Although curtains closed on the 61st Commission on the Status of Women about  two months ago, we must not fail to acknowledge the voices and experiences of young people that informed discussions at the annual global gathering. Surely, it was a mark of progress in the march towards gender equality. And when UN Chief Antonio Guterres tweeted: “I’m going to appoint a new @UNYouthEnvoy and this time it will be a young woman,” that was arguably the icing on the cake. However, data on the reality of girls across the world – especially in developing countries – still leaves a lot to be desired.

Across the world, adolescents and young people represent a growing share of people living with HIV. According to UNICEF data, 670,000 young people between the ages of 15 to 24 were newly infected with HIV, of whom 250,000 were adolescents between the ages of 15 and 19 in 2015 alone. Also, only 13% of adolescent girls and 9% of adolescent boys aged 15-19 in sub-Saharan Africa – the region most affected by HIV – have been tested for HIV in the past 12 months. If current trends continue, hundreds of thousands more will become HIV-positive in the coming years. Additionally, there is the threat of child marriage, which abruptly stops the development of adolescent girls. Despite shocking statistics – like every year 15 million girls are married before they turn 18 – progress has actually been made over the years.

Adolescent beneficiaries of the Mabinti program in Tanzania. Photo Credit: Sofia Jagbrant for Restless Development Tanzania

In the last decade, the world has seen increased levels of programs led by non-profits and government aid agencies which help improve the lives of young people and especially young girls. However, capturing the realities of the most vulnerable groups of youth and girls and reaching them with truly impactful programming still has more weight in rhetoric than action. “We find in the last decade a great expansion of “the talk”, but troublingly not “the walk”. “The talk” draws on the broad appeal of youth—their strong and sometimes rising numbers in our populations, their media friendly and vivid contributions—but change will only take place through on-the-ground investments (the walk). We cannot condone “the branding” over the doing,” says Judith Bruce, a senior associate and policy analyst at the Population Council, which conducts biomedical, social science, and public health research and helps build research capacities in developing countries.

At Restless Development, a global agency for youth-led development, we know that our holistic programming can be impactful on all genders, especially those who are most vulnerable, who in many cases are young women and girls. “We see similarities in the challenges faced in effective youth engagement and girl focused programming,” US Director for Restless Development Jean Manney says.

“On one hand, people tend to make assumptions as to what girls need and want, and what their realities are, and on the other there is not enough done to really understand the specific contexts that girls are living in and facing, and what they want and need in their lives,” Jean adds, explaining how Restless Development works with young people throughout the program cycle.

“We have young people involved in designing our programs, and when we have programs focused on girls, girls and young women are involved in designing the program.

“We do consultations or youth-led research to have young people – in this case, girls – informing the design of programs. We conduct surveys and focus groups to get that baseline of information on communities,” she explains further. This approach emphasizes the need to incorporate young people (or, in this case, girls) in designing programs meant to improve their lives.

Working closely with the Population Council has also helped Restless Development to capture the reality of girls in different communities – and reduce what the Population Council calls “elite capture”. Additionally, the Population Council has developed tools that improve programming for girls. According to the Restless Development USA’s Director, these tools are really in line with what is necessary. “They were practical tools that helped us design and improve our programs,” she says.

Coupled with consultations or youth-led research and surveys with young people, who inform the design of programs, tools like Girl Roster™ and ASERT™ have helped Restless Development bridge the gap between policy and reality. One program, where the tools helped reach the most vulnerable groups of girls, is the Mabinti Tushike Hatamu (Girls Let’s Be Leaders) program in Tanzania.

Mabinti Tushike Hatamu engages out-of-school adolescent girls aged 10-19 girls to empower them to make safe choices regarding their sexual reproductive health and rights, economic and social well-being, ultimately contributing to reduced vulnerability to HIV, pregnancy and gender based violence. It was piloted in both rural Tanzania (where over 80% of Tanzania’s population lives), and in urban Tanzania, and builds on Restless Development’s model of having young social mobilizers leading programs at the local, national, and global level.

“We have young women from other parts of Tanzania, as well as young women from the local community, working as volunteer peer educators and organizing girls into groups,” Jean says of the program.

So how do the tools make programming better?

The Girl Roster™ helped move beyond the “assumption” of who the girls are in the community and what they need. It helped with understanding and mapping – community to community, door to door – who the girls are exactly. How old are they? Are they in or out of school? Are they married or unmarried? Do they have children? Are they pregnant? The tool also mapped where girls go in communities and where they feel safe as well as where they go to find various services.

“It also helped us in our efforts to build a network of support around girls. So if we identify a place where girls are going that may be unsafe, we can help warn girls about it and work to make that a safer space for girls. And, similarly, if they are going to community organizations or different service providers, we can help map that and develop partnerships with those organizations, so we can build better support networks for girls,” Jean adds.

The Population Council designed and implemented the ASERT tool within some of Restless Development’s programs. It was a participatory action research project with adolescent girls which identified and mapped the different types of sexual partners that girls have and why. Research already showed that girls had intergenerational and transactional sexual relationships, but by using the ASERT tool with the girls in the Mabinti program, they demonstrated that there was a greater nuance within those relationship types. According to Kelly Hallman, a senior associate in the Poverty, Gender, and Youth program at Population Council, “a lot of HIV Prevention programs are targeted at peer relationships, but in actuality the girls were telling us that girls have a wide range of sexual partners, some same age but men many of who[m] are older men. The latter population of men have a very high risk of HIV, and prevention programming is not targeted at these intergenerational relationships.”

At a recent Restless Development and Population Council-led webinar, Chernor Bah, who leads the Council’s work on post-emergency programs for adolescent girls in Sierra Leone, mentioned the idea of a “business plan” for girls. He talked about approaching girls programming with a business mindset, mapping and investing on assets, and scaling on a local, national, and global level. Restless Development is already thinking along these lines – they even go a step further and say it should be a business plan by, with and for girls. And if the world is serious about “walking” the girl programming “talk”, we all should.



Douglas Imaralu is a trisector athlete with focus on communications and business development for individuals and organisations in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. He served as an Atlas Corps Fellow (class 21) at Restless Development USA in New York. He tweets from @jefumare