Caring for adolescent girls
 Naimul Haq

An international team of over 140 participants including 25 adolescent girls and boys from 16 countries are in Dhaka participating in a week-long February 2-7 international review on Meeting the Development and Participation Rights of Adolescent Girls.

The review meeting, organised by UNICEF, UNFPA and WHO, marks a major step forward in building practical partnership among governments, development partners and the adolescents.

South Asia is considered home to more than a million adolescents. The main focus of this convention is understanding the adolescents; acceptance of their identity, dignity and social and cultural values. Perhaps, this deliberation could bring an opening for a global movement through --

Sharing of experiences, reviewing strategies and interventions and identifying lessons learnt from the participating countries;

Building networks and linkages between countries and the organising partners to strengthen programme implementation through exchange of information;

Identifying technical support needs in programming for adolescents and generating indicators to measure impact of the project; and lastly

Hearing the views and experiences of the adolescents at first hand.

The global effort is supported by the United Nations Foundation to lend impetus to initiatives in developing countries for realising the rights of, specially, adolescent girls through a global project.

The meeting was formally inaugurated on Saturday (February 2) at a city hotel by Begum Khurshid Zahan Haque, Minister for Women and Children Affairs as the chief guest while Md. Fazlur Rahman, State Minister for Youth and Sports attended as the special guest. Mahfuzul Islam, Secretary of MWCA was also present. Morten Giersing, Dr. Suneeta Mukherjee and Ms. Sunity Acharya, representatives of UNICEF, UNFPA and WHO, respectively, delivered speeches on their common interest and commitment in realising the rights of the adolescents.

The Project incorporates active participation of the adolescents at every stage from planning, implementation to monitoring and evaluation. The outcome of the review meeting in Dhaka is geared towards future directions for global work on adolescents and building networks and connections between countries and organising partners. More importantly, the exchange of ideas and experiences among adolescents, who often bring fresh vitality and outlook, will enable them to actively participate in decisions affecting their lives and the society at large.

Recognising the reality of adolescent girls, the United Nations Foundation has come forward to support initiatives in developing countries for realising the development and participation rights of adolescent girls through a global project. The project initially supported the countries through UNICEF field offices in assessing the situation of adolescents and designing interventions applicable to the particular context of respective country.

This review meeting is part of the Adolescents Girls Project initiated in 1999 and will focus on the situation of adolescent girls, which is particularly complex. In many parts of the world deep-rooted traditions of patriarchy and subordination women and girls to an inferior status from early childhood, make it difficult for adolescent girls to realise their rights.

Consequently, they remain deprived of some of the fundamental rights like basic education, adolescent friendly health services, access to life skills and livelihoods, right to participate in decisions affecting their life and an enabling environment free from violence, abuse, exploitation and discrimination. "These are some of the areas that the review will throw lights on in the context of youth participation, gender concerns and community mobilisation," said one delegate from India.

Bangladesh has nearly 28 million adolescents, more than one fifth of its total population. Out of this, 13.7 million are girls. The number of adolescent girls can be further broken down into 7.6 million in the age group of 10-14 and 6.1 million in the age group of 15-19 years. For every adolescent girl living in the urban areas there are more than five living in the rural areas.

Data shows that half of the girls below 19 years in Bangladesh are married and by this age, about 58 per cent of them are already mothers or are expecting a child.

The literacy rate among Bangladeshi females aged 15 and above has, however, shown a marked increase. It rose from 24 per cent to 43 per cent between 1990 and 1998.

Adolescent girls working in the garment sector gives a gloomy picture. About 400,000 girls aged 14 to 19 years are now employed in different garment factories across the country. Their working conditions are far from being ideal but many enjoy sort of autonomy and independence from their families than other girls.

Most of the female garment workers come from rural areas and are single when they start working. It is estimated that there are 250,000 female child domestics in the capital, 90 per cent of them are between 9 and 16 years of age.

Bangladesh is involved in the project since the initial planning stage. The country offices of three partner agencies UNFPA, WHO and UNICEF offered to jointly host the meeting in Dhaka. Other countries participating in the meeting are Benin, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Ghana, India, Jordan, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russia, Senegal and West Bank and Gaza.

In addition to UNICEF, UNFPA and WHO agencies with extensive experience in research on and work with adolescents like the Population Council, Commonwealth of Youth Programme, International Centre for Research on Women became some of the key associates in this project.

The participants will observe the field level implementation of the adolescents' project in Bangladesh, which adopts an innovative model to address the needs of both married and unmarried girls, and is being implemented through a partnership between the government, adolescents, NGOs, UNICEF and UNFPA.

Why adolescents?

According to the accepted definition of WHO, the age group between 10-19 is termed as 'adolescence'. This is a very crucial stage in the lives of young people. Unfortunately society often views adolescents as problems. It is not recognised that these young people also have rights to an enabling and supportive environment offering them the opportunity to develop their full potential.

Young people can bring in unique energy, strength, optimism and idealism if they are given the right chance. They are on the threshold of adulthood and the opportunities they get will determine the extent to which they can realise their own potential and make meaningful contributions to the society.

Development and participation rights of adolescents

Basic education: The reality of adolescents in many countries show that they are often deprived of access to formal schooling. In most cases they are engaged in work, where such access is difficult without recourse to alternatives like non-formal schooling or second chance education.

Adolescent friendly health services: Existing health services in most countries are not geared to meeting the special needs of adolescents.

Access to life-skills and livelihoods: Life-skills enable young people to acquire the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to manage their own lives with confidence and competence and make informed choices. Livelihood or vocational skills enable young people to achieve economic self-reliance and pursue future career options.

Enabling environment: where community, society and families understand and address the special needs of the adolescents and provide them with an environment free from violence, abuse, exploitation and discrimination.

Participation: to change the traditional mind-sets in society regarding young people and adolescents by ensuring that they are consulted on matters concerning their own lives and enabling them to contribute to the well-being of the society.

Adolescent girls project: Why and how?

The Project started in 1999 following a planning meeting held in Pawling, New York, USA involving several country participants, including adolescents themselves. In this planning phase of the Project, Bangladesh, China, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Jamaica, Jordan, Malawi, Mali, Mongolia, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Zambia participated.

Countries identified specific areas of intervention for their concentration. In many of the countries in Africa, HIV/AIDS and its prevention through involvement of young people was an area of focus. Other countries focused on education or empowerment of girls through life-skills and livelihood training, responding to issues of concern like early marriage, gender discrimination and subordination of women and girls.

An important aspect of the Project has been ensuring the participation of young people in the planning, implementation and monitoring and evaluation of the interventions.

The Project has evolved now from the planning stage to the implementation stage. Recognising their common interest and commitment in realising the rights of adolescents, this phase is built on a close partnership between the three major UN agencies, UNFPA, WHO and UNICEF.

Bangladesh is implementing an innovative model, based on partnerships between the Government, adolescents, NGOs, UNICEF and UNFPA in addressing the needs of both married and unmarried girls. A field visit to some of the project areas in Bangladesh is part of the programme for the  meeting in Dhaka.

Naimul Haq is a staff correspondent of The Daily Star.


Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, February 7, 2002


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