Delivering for Girls Requires Better Evidence Rather Than Good Intentions

By Thoai Ngo, the director of the Poverty, Gender, and Youth (PGY) Program at the Population Council, also directs the Council’s new Girl Innovation, Research and Learning (GIRL) Center.

On this International Day of the Girl, it is worth remembering that we are witnessing the largest generation of adolescent girls (ages 10–19) — 600 million — the majority of whom live in low- and middle-income countries. Although girls have been traditionally overlooked in the development agenda, research is increasingly showing that investing in girls creates a profound ripple effect for their families, their communities, and the world. Today, it’s hard to find a global development organization that isn’t implementing some program or project aimed at improving some aspects of girls’ lives.

But too often, many of these initiatives are designed and implemented with a wealth of good intentions and little in the way of concrete evidence. This means that frequently, the policies and programs that target adolescent girls aren’t based on rigorous research and, in fact, may have even been shown to be ineffective.

Although research has demonstrated that youth centers, peer education, and one-off public meetings are not effective in increasing adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health services, changing their behavior, or influencing social norms in those communities, these programs continue to be championed, funded, and implemented around the world. For instance, a body of evidence published in the Journal of Adolescent Health points out that abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOUM) programs do not work to delay sexual debut or change other risky sexual behaviors. Yet the United State Congress recently approved allocating $15 million to AOUM programs under a new name, sexual risk avoidance. As a result, millions of dollars are being wasted on ideas that sound or feel good because organizations continue to ignore the evidence.

That’s exactly why the Girl Innovation, Research, and Learning (GIRL) Center was founded. Girls deserve rigorous evidence. The GIRL Center is a new global research center that generates, synthesizes, and translates evidence for policies and programs that are aimed at transforming the lives of adolescent girls. Leveraging existing data from individual research studies and programs, the GIRL Center asks and answers new questions about the most pressing issues facing girls worldwide.

Adolescence is an important period for cognitive, physical, and social change. During this period, adolescent girls face a wide range of issues, including gender inequality, discrimination, and harmful practices, such as child marriage. Many girls drop out of school, get pregnant, and/or married before they are 18 years of age. The GIRL Center is building the largest open data repository on adolescents, both boys and girls, by curating the Population Council’s decades of research on approximately 200,000 adolescents from around the world, as well as data from other organizations working on girl-centered research and programs. The GIRL Center’s open data repository is being designed to help connect people across different disciplines and sectors with the goal of promoting systemic changes to prevent adolescents, especially girls, from falling into or remaining in poverty. Ultimately, the goal is to maximize investments in adolescent girls across the globe that are informed by evidence.

If we are serious about improving girls’ health and well-being, then we need to make our investments serious and long-term. We need rigorous research that sees girls as powerful actors, and analyzes them as people, not problems. We need open data to ensure that we are working together, not at cross purposes.

At the GIRL Center, we are imagining a world where adolescent girls across the globe own their futures. We hope to aid them in this process by producing insights on the needs of girls as they pass through adolescence in order to identify proven programs that deliver the best outcomes for girls and their communities.

On this International Day of the Girl, we should acknowledge that girls deserve solutions that are backed by rigorous evidence. The GIRL Center is committed to working across disciplines and sectors to help deliver those solutions.