Beyond the Girl Summit: creating a legacy of health, education and empowerment

Life events

 As someone who spends most of my time involved in the nitty-gritty of research, from fieldwork through data analysis to publishing papers and producing policy briefs for consultation with government and other stakeholders, coming to London to attend the Girl Summit was an extraordinary experience. The energy and excitement was palpable and the general enthusiasm especially from vocal young women was infectious.

Brave girls at the forefront

The Girl Summit on 22 July was an inspiring event held in a south London school with girls at the forefront. Four brave young campaigning women made moving speeches: Farwa who got her aunt to persuade her parents in Bangladesh to stop her early marriage, Alimatu who spoke out about coming to terms with the FGM she underwent in Sierra Leone, Malala who took on the Taliban in Pakistan and was standing up for the girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and 16 year old Hanah, UNICEF ambassador for Ethiopia, whose plea at the end of the summit for everyone to get involved got a standing ovation.

Galvanising support

The Summit was important for obtaining commitments for action from more than 20 countries, including by ten African ministers and the Ethiopian Deputy Prime Minister, and from major national and international donors. The Charter was signed by leading organisations (including Young Lives Ethiopia) and, though the event was mainly preaching to the converted, it reached out worldwide through social media.

Mindful of twin sensitive issues

Tackling culturally sensitive issues head on is complex and sensible suggestions were made, notably by women from countries where the practices are common, about the need to avoid blaming or ostracising the victims and the risk of sparking a backlash, and about avoiding fuelling Islamophobia and muddying the waters with references to terrorism, both mentioned by British women from immigrant communities.

Tougher measures giving teeth to laws

The British government unveiled plans for tougher sanctions and prosecution of people involved in the practices, making parents in the UK liable if they marry off or circumcise their daughters, and imposing legal sanctions against health professionals who fail to report FGM. However, some concerns have been expressed, for instance by the Royal College of General Practitioners, that this may discourage women who have been circumcised from seeing a doctor (The Guardian, 26 July 2014).

‘The numbers don’t lie’

At a pre-summit meeting organised by DFID about research on these issues, one participant echoed the general sentiment that the statistics were compelling and ‘the numbers don’t lie’. Yet others pointed out that we do not have reliable figures. Perhaps more worrying is that establishing the facts about such sensitive topics may be difficult if not impossible when people are worried about acknowledging involvement in illegal practices, and where ‘checking’ about FGM would raise ethical issues. The alarming projections unveiled by UNICEF at the Summit may be based on shaky foundations and also do not factor in the likelihood that the practices are likely to decline dramatically, even without all the recent media attention, government commitments and funding.

Unintended adverse consequences: field evidence

Evidence from Young Lives in Ethiopia suggests that the imposition and strict enforcement of legislation banning child marriage and FGM/C may lead to the practices going underground or being circumvented by those who are not convinced that they are harmful. Unless parents and girls believe that FGM is harmful and are protected from adverse risks, they may hold the ceremonies at night or in the bush to avoid prosecution, or may circumcise girls earlier than is customary or pretend the ceremony is for a male circumcision to avoid detection. Likewise, they may pretend girls are older to marry them before the legal age of 18, particularly since birth registration is only just starting to be implemented in Ethiopia. We came across cases of girls arguing that it was their right to decide to be married and/or circumcised, and who had organised their own ceremonies despite parents’ and teachers’ opposition. Moreover, imposing a legal age of marriage of 18 (when it is 16 in the UK) may put adolescent girls who are sexually active at risk.

Older adolescent girls at risk

The recent expansion of education, particularly for girls, has brought new risks with it. The current shortage of secondary schools means more girls have to travel further from their communities for school, and some parents fear that their daughters may be abducted and raped. With restricted access to contraceptives for teenagers, consensual sex before marriage may expose them to risks from STDs, notably HIV/AIDS. Parents fear that their daughters may become pregnant and have unsafe abortions, or that they risk being rejected by their boyfriend and bring shame on the family if they decide to have a child before marriage. Girls themselves also worry that they are at risk of abduction or rape, and that they cannot access contraception or safe abortion. They fear rejection and ostracism if they have a child outside marriage, as well as face the daunting challenge of bringing up a child singlehandedly, often having to migrate away from their communities to seek work while caring for an infant without support (usually without any childcare facilities).

Linking to poverty reduction and women’s empowerment

The focus of the Girl Summit 2014 on child marriage and FGM has galvanised political will and public attention around these issues in a way that was unimaginable a decade ago. Maria Eitel, the CEO of the Nike Foundation recalled what a ‘hard sell’ focusing on adolescent girls had been in starting up what became the Girl Hub. The energies generated by the Summit should enable better social protection systems to be established for girls at risk and already affected, and hopefully also for those likely to suffer from the unintended adverse consequences of legislation. If this first Girl Summit becomes a springboard to broaden the agenda to adolescent reproductive health and improving girls’ access to affordable, quality and relevant education and pathways to training and employment, so much the better. If this spotlight on adolescent girls is just a beginning and leads to more attention on the fundamental underlying issues of intergenerational transmission of poverty, young women’s empowerment and the broader international poverty reduction agenda, it will have a lasting legacy. Otherwise, these inspiring energies and commitments may fizzle out as other concerns take the limelight or the massive investments committed may be tackling issues that are in any case on the wane and are symptoms of much more deep-rooted gender and poverty issues.  

Girl Summit 2014 – the Ethiopian perspective

View the video produced by the Ethiopian Embassy in London with footage from the Summit and in-depth interviews with HE Demeke Mekonnen (Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia) and HE Zenebu Tadesse (Minister of Women, Children and Youth Affairs) (YouTube video 20 mins in Amharic)

Beyond ‘zero tolerance’ of FGM: transforming traditional practices

Kirrily Pells
Kirrily Pells

To mark International Day for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, Young Lives Policy Officer Kirrily Pells, explores how efforts to end FGM in Ethiopia are faring.

The Ethiopian government has taken a strong stance against female genital mutilation so anyone who performs, commissions or publically encourages the practice can be punished with a hefty fine or prison sentence. They’ve also promoted a wide range of preventative initiatives, including advocacy campaigns in schools and the media to spread knowledge of the adverse health and social consequences.

Efforts to combat FGM have reduced the number of Ethiopian parents who admit to continuing the practice from 51% in 2000 to 38% in 2005 (when the government last collected national data before penalties were introduced). But the prevalence of FGM is declining quite slowly, with regional variations between 10% of girls in the capital Addis Ababa reportedly undergoing the procedure and about 60% in the Afar region in the east of the country in 2011.

We found that Ethiopian officials are generally adamant that FGM should be banned and believe in taking a strong stand. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that other members of the community believe the same thing. Our research found that the reasons why many families still cling to the practice isn’t because they’re ignorant of the consequences or that they’re indifferent to their children’s health and well-being. Knowledge of the FGM ban is widespread and people well understand the adverse health consequences that have been communicated through the media. And they’re also well aware of sanctions and express fear of being punished.

The most common reason for communities refusing to abandon FGM is that they see it as a way of protecting girls’ social and moral development, so that their reputation within the community will be protected and they won’t have difficulty to find a husband. This is particularly important for poor families with limited education and work opportunities because they believe marriage is the only way to ensure that their daughters will be provided for in adulthood.

Tackling stigma needs new approaches

Some of the girls told us that instead of the ceremonies taking place during the day, now they’re being held at night to try and avoid official attention. Girls described a lot of peer pressure to undergo the practice and said that girls who haven’t been circumcised are being bullied. And there are strong fears that uncircumcised girls won’t be able to marry well. So that’s why some girls reported that they were organising circumcision ceremonies themselves even though their parents weren’t forcing them to do so.

The fact that girls are prepared to choose to undergo a painful and potentially dangerous procedure rather than risk social stigma shows just how entrenched FGM is in local custom. But this doesn’t mean cultural attitudes can’t change. We shouldn’t see culture as a static or monolithic phenomenon because it is dynamic and it does change. Within any culture there are different practices and different voices. It’s often assumed that the anti-FGM agenda is driven by Northern-based activists, but there are very vocal African women and women’s organisations who are leading the way in campaigning against FGM.

Having a law in place provides a useful framework and sets an important standard. But rather than trying to impose ‘zero tolerance’ through harsh legal enforcement which risks driving the practice underground, it’s important to think about a broader spectrum of approaches and to engage the whole community to find the approach that’s most likely to work.

Watch your language

It’s even important to be careful about the language used: If you go into a community and you ask about mutilation, you’re immediately going to put people on the defensive because you’re telling them that what they’re doing is wrong, even though they have a strong rationale for doing it. So it’s better to take a sensitive approach and engage in constructive dialogue rather than creating tension and potentially driving FGM underground and making it more dangerous.

Looking for solutions

One of the most important things is to build more opportunities for girls, particularly in terms of education and livelihood opportunities. Because if girls have opportunities then there’s going to be less need for a practice that’s seen as securing their social and economic well-being because they will have other routes to do that. And Young Lives research shows very strongly how education is changing children’s roles and aspirations for the future.

Addressing FGM means working across a range of areas of intervention. Providing information about the adverse consequences as well as giving girls education and economic opportunities will go a long way towards helping to reduce the underlying rationale for FGM.


Listen to a podcast by Kirrily on the PodAcademy:

Changing Children's Lives: Risks and Opportunities

Kirrily Pells
Poverty and inequality
Community change
Policy paper

Children's development and well-being are significantly influenced by their family and community environment, with poor and marginalised children facing a heavier burden of risk. This paper summarises emerging findings from Young Lives to show how children's development is shaped by different environmental influences, highlighting the changes that are taking place in children's daily lives during the first decade of the twenty-first century, including the changing nature of risks and opportunities.

We show how poverty reduction and improved access to services and schooling have reduced some risks and created new opportunities for many children. However, we also see three core areas in which the poorest children are being left behind against the backdrop of generally rising living standards.

First, expanding education systems and the high aspirations that both children and their parents hold need to be capitalised on through improvements in school quality, effectiveness and relevance. Not all children have benefitted from increased enrolment, given the clear variations in quality and the school environment that exist and which can either compound or mitigate any disadvantage children already experience.

Second, children living in the poorest communities are likely to experience multiple disadvantages, including remote location in rural areas, weak infrastructure and services, poor-quality education and less access to modern technology. Tackling uneven development processes necessitates area-based policies which are targeted at geographical areas rather than individual households.

Third, processes of social change in attitudes and aspirations are bringing new opportunities for children, as well as changing expectations for future roles and responsibilities. At the same time there are new tensions and social risks, especially for girls and young women. Policies addressing social norms need to take account of the broader structures, such as poverty and gender, that shape children's and families' experiences. Ensuring that young people can access good-quality schooling, health services and employment opportunities is an important part of reducing attachment to traditional practices.

We argue that creating a supportive environment for children's development requires tackling the structural causes of disadvantage with a particular focus on communities where children experience multiple disadvantages. This is the context for the post-2015 environment, and for the development of effective social policies to ensure that "no-one is left behind".

The Impact of Social Protection Schemes on Girls’ Roles and Responsibilities

Social protection
Children's work and time-use
Journal Article

The focus of this article is the effect on adolescent girls' roles and responsibilities of public works schemes or cash transfers, which are the main forms of social protection in developing countries. Increasing participation in social protection is intended to enhance the development of girls in participating households, but evidence on their school participation and workloads suggests that the reverse may be happening. The article probes what happens to girls' roles and responsibilities when households participate in social protection schemes in rural Ethiopia and Andhra Pradesh. It argues that effects are complex, and often context-specific; however, the assumption that "beneficiaries" benefit means that negative impacts are rarely acknowledged. The article combines a review of other papers addressing the effects of social protection on children's work with analysis of quantitative and qualitative data, recognising that this question cannot be answered with a methodology that considers girls' schooling or workloads in isolation.

Available on the journal publisher's website.

Social change without a backlash - tackling early marriage and genital cutting in Ethiopia

Kirrily Pells

Yesterday was the Day of the African Child, held every year to commemorate the 1976 massacre of black children and youth in Soweto, South Africa, who were protesting about the inferior quality of their education and demanded to be taught in their own language. The theme for this year’s observance was “Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices affecting Children: Our Collective Responsibility”. While there is international consensus that female early marriage and genital cutting can cause physical, emotional and social damage to girls, the key question for policy is how to eliminate such practices without creating a backlash that endangers girls. Failure to understand the root causes of these practices undermine their effectiveness and may bring about resistance and unintended adverse consequences.

The Ethiopian government opposes female early marriage and genital cutting, designating them as Harmful Traditional Practices and proscribing them in law. The government has introduced legislation in the constitution and legal codes and promoted a wide range of preventative measures, largely comprising advocacy campaigns in the media and among local associations around the adverse health and social consequences in schools. In some areas, this has resulted in changes in values and practices, also supported by greater participation in school and greater economic opportunities for young people. However there is considerable resistance to reform even in areas that have experienced intensive advocacy endeavours. Peer pressure leads some girls to opt for genital cutting against the wishes of their parents. This resistance has caused disagreement within families, contestation of state policy and clandestine actions, such as elopements under the guise of abduction and clandestine cutting rituals, themselves a potential risk to the girls involved. This indicates that the practices are driven underground rather than disappear.

Persistence of the practices can be attributed to the strong vested interest in the productive and reproductive capacity of women, as expressed through the regulation of their sexual conduct and marriage by older generations. Early marriage and genital cutting are also often seen as protecting girls against the social stigma of pre-marital sex and not having been circumcised. The practices are seen to ensure girls’ social integration and their moral and social development, particularly in times of social change.

Positive ways forward

Young Lives research suggests a couple of positive ways forward – starting with listening to the perspectives of girls and their families on early marriage and genital cutting to develop a better understanding of the reasons for the continuation of the practices. A more effective and culturally appropriate policy approach requires a move away from focusing on specific practices and towards linking more with wider social processes, integrating strategies aimed at reducing their prevalence with other initiatives aimed at improving the health and socio-economic status of women and families more broadly.

Other measures include encouraging culturally appropriate and sensitive ways of celebrating rites of passage (at birth or adolescence) which promote cultural values without causing physical damage. This involves working at the community level, including with local and religious leaders, especially to clarify misconceptions about religious prerequisites for genital cutting. Changing cultural values is much easier through open dialogue about fears and anxieties concerning social processes of change, rather than through legislation. Other drivers for change include the promotion of education and employment opportunities for women and girls. There is a lower prevalence of female early marriage and genital cutting among girls with literate mothers and better economic prospects provide girls and their families with more options.



Parental Education, Gender Preferences and Child Nutritional Status

Nutrition, health and well-being

This paper examines whether the distribution of bargaining power between parents affects permanent and transitory nutritional indicators in the early stages of boys' and girls' life. Rafael uses the Young Lives sample, which is a survey of young children living in poor households in Ethiopia, India (Andhra Pradesh state), Peru and Vietnam. By adopting a methodology to disentangle gender differences produced by technology and preferences, he finds evidence that the allocation of household resources varies with the gender of the child and the gender of the parents. After accounting for the potential endogeneity of the indicator of power distribution within the household, related to assortative mating in the marriage market, he finds that maternal power has larger effects on girls' health than on boys' health in Peru and Vietnam. In contrast, in India, maternal bargaining power has a negative effect on girls' health, whereas in Ethiopia no differential effect is found. Further analysis confirms that differences in parental behaviour drive the estimated effects and that these are robust to the inclusion of genetic information.

For the full text of the article, click here.

This paper has since been published as a journal article in Oxford Development Studies (July 2018)

Why are Current Efforts to Eliminate Female Circumcision in Ethiopia Misplaced?

Early marriage and FGM
Child protection
Journal Article

This article discusses female circumcision in Ethiopia and the eradication challenges. It argues that despite an overall decline in the practice nationally, eradication efforts have caused significant quandaries for girls and their families. The most common justification by far for its continuance is that female circumcision confirms a girl's social place by proving her readiness for marriage and adulthood and thereby ensures her protection against material want. Often intervention has resulted in the transformation, rather than the elimination, of the practice, the exchange of one type of risk for another, or even increased risk to girls. In discussing policy, the article argues that there has been a misapplication of the risk concept in the promotion of change in Ethiopia. It calls for risk definitions and interventions that are more holistic, correspond more closely with children's social realities, and take into account the phenomenological dimensions of experience.

The final published version of the article is available on the journal website.



Jo Boyden (2012) Why are current efforts to eliminate female circumcision in Ethiopia misplaced?, Culture, Health & Sexuality, 14:10, 1111-1123, DOI:10.1080/13691058.2012.726743

Growing Up in Ethiopia and Andhra Pradesh: How Is Increasing Participation in Social Protection Schemes Affecting Girls’ Roles and Responsibilities?

Social protection
Children's work and time-use
Working paper

The focus of this paper is the effect on adolescent girls' roles and responsibilities of public works schemes or cash transfers, which are the main forms of social protection in developing countries. Increasing participation in social protection is intended to enhance the development of girls in participating households, but evidence on their school participation and workloads suggests that the reverse may be happening. The paper probes what happens to girls? roles and responsibilities when households participate in social protection schemes in rural Ethiopia and Andhra Pradesh. It argues that effects are complex, and often context-specific, however, the assumption that "beneficiaries" benefit means that negative impacts are rarely acknowledged. Nonetheless, the most important question to ask is not "do schemes increase girls' work?" but "how do they change the nature of girls' work and its relation to other valued dimensions of their lives?" The paper combines review and analysis of quantitative and qualitative data, recognising that this question cannot be answered with a methodology that considers girls? schooling or workloads in isolation.