Charting a positive future for girls in developing countries.


The Landscape

Through the 1990s, little was known about the lives of girls in developing countries across health, social, and economic dimensions, and few policies and programs existed to support girls. Research on adolescence, defined roughly as ages 10 to 19, focused primarily on premarital sex and pregnancy, and researchers routinely classified girls as adults once they married or gave birth, regardless of their age.

The Paradigm Shift

Population Council researchers began concentrating on the study of adolescents in the early 1990s, with the goal of bringing broader attention to social and economic issues that underpin adolescent health and wellbeing.

In 1998, the Council published the Uncharted Passage: Girls' Adolescence in the Developing World, by Council senior social scientists Barbara S. Mensch and Judith Bruce, and Margaret E. Greene of the Center for Health and Gender Equity. The book interpreted available data on the lives of adolescent girls and argued that the second decade of life is a time of heightened vulnerability for girls and of critical capability-building for children of both sexes. "What happens between the ages of 10 and 19, whether for good or ill," wrote the authors, "shapes how girls and boys live out their lives as women and men--not only in the reproductive arena, but in the social and economic realm as well."

The available data made clear that adolescence is a time of widening opportunities for boys, but constricting opportunities for girls. Girls' school enrollment lagged behind boys', and girls spent far more time than boys on domestic chores, such as cleaning and fetching water and fuel, and far less time with friends.

The Uncharted Passage also drew attention to child marriage and its consequences. "We maintain that a girl remains a girl until she reaches age 20," wrote the authors, "no matter what occurs in her life prior to that time.... Girls' promise and vulnerability do not end when their sexual, reproductive, or married lives begin." Classifying girls who are wives or mothers as adults deprives them of rights, protections, services, and opportunities afforded to other children their age. The book outlined gaps and biases in information about girls and defined a framework for creating effective policies and programs for them.

Recognizing the Council's thought leadership on adolescence, in 2005 the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine tapped a panel of experts--led by Cynthia B...

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