Post written by Devan Shea, Senior Policy and Partnerships Associate at CHANGE
Girls are at the heart of building a sustainable, empowered, and healthy future for all of us. Today, on International Day of the Girl Child, there is a lot to celebrate.
This year, for the first time, the U.S. government has articulated a strategy for empowering adolescent girls across its global health and development programs. In March, when Secretary of State John Kerry announced the Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls (also known as the “Adolescent Girl Strategy”), he committed to making it “part of our foreign policy DNA.”
Sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) are featured prominently in the strategy, which acknowledges the high burden of HIV and early pregnancy faced by girls and young women. It builds on key adolescent girl-focused policies and initiatives that are already being implemented, like PEPFAR’s DREAMS Partnership, a public-private partnership focused on HIV interventions for adolescent girls in sub-Saharan Africa. And, it recognizes the connections between poor sexual and reproductive health outcomes and structural factors such as barriers to education, gender-based violence, and lack of comprehensive, youth-friendly health services.
Through the Adolescent Girl Strategy and DREAMS, the U.S. government has stepped up its game on girl engagement – weaving into the fabric of these initiatives the core principle that girls are critical partners in these efforts. For example, DREAMS engages adolescent girls through country-level advisory committees, and the DREAMS Innovation Challenge Fund is supporting unique approaches to grassroots capacity building to ensure that smaller, community-based organizations are able to take part in DREAMS implementation.
As we celebrate these advancements, however, we must continue the conversation about how to enable girls and young women to fully participate in charting the course of their own healthcare.
Young women leaders are driving this conversation. At an International AIDS Conference session co-sponsored by CHANGE in July, Jacquelyne Alesi of Uganda Network of Young People Living with HIV & AIDS (UNYPA) challenged the audience to consider that, before we can get to the conversation about how to increase access to SRHR services for youth, we have to talk about the root issues. Are young women given a seat at decision-making tables? And if they are, is their time, expertise, and labor acknowledged and compensated?
Jacquelyne was touching on a well-worn theme – “meaningful youth engagement” – but she challenged us to think beyond engagement and ask ourselves what we are doing to unpack the systems of power that keep girls and young women from having autonomy over their own health and lives. Language barriers, poverty, discrimination, street harassment, criminalization, and technology barriers limit girls’ access to meetings, consultations, advisory boards, and other spaces where critical decisions about their health and lives are being made.
As our colleague and young leader, Catherine Nyambura of Dandelion Kenya, said about DREAMS at a CHANGE event last year, “Here is an opportunity for bold thinking and young women offer expertise to make this succeed.”
Girls and young women are experts, community leaders, and movement builders. Beyond living free from poverty and disease, adolescent girls and young women – especially those who are of color, Black, indigenous, poor, queer, trans, disabled, migrant, and/or otherwise marginalized – must be given space to live and thrive creatively, powerfully, joyfully, and with full control over their sexual and reproductive lives.
While individual empowerment through education and access to quality health care is crucially important, we need to think about how we can shift political and economic power toward girls and young women so that their participation in the political processes, funding decisions, and research agendas that impact their health and lives are not an afterthought, or tokenized, but central. Today’s Day of the Girl is another opportunity for bold thinking, and to let girls and young women lead the way.
Feature photo caption: At the July 2016 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa, Jacquelyne Alesi, Executive Director, Uganda Network of Young People Living HIV (UNYPA), discusses the role of young women’s leadership in ensuring access to comprehensive prevention services.