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October 18, 2013

Uganda Wakes Up to Plight of Adolescent Girls

by Hilary Heuler

Uganda has become the first country in the world to institute an Adolescent Girls Vulnerability Index, thus recognizing the unique challenges that teenage girls face and their effect on society as a whole.  The index could help with policy making.

Earlier this month the Ugandan government and UNICEF released a study providing a rare glimpse into an issue largely ignored by the development community.

The Adolescent Girls Vulnerability Index, the first of its kind in the world, measured the difficulties girls faced between the ages of 10 and 19, when their needs and challenges started to differ dramatically from those of boys.

The index found that more than 20 percent of Uganda's adolescent girls had "extreme vulnerability."  UNICEF’s David Stewart said the demographics of the country made it urgent to address the needs of this underserved group.

“Uganda’s going through a sort of youth bulge.  A very high proportion of the population is going to be young, and of productive age.  One of Uganda’s ambitions is to achieve middle-income status by 2040, but to do that, I think the country really needs to unleash the potential of adolescent girls,” he said.

He said a survey of social programs in Uganda found that very little was being done at the moment to help young adolescents.

“There tends to be a focus on younger children, and then on youth.  But this 10-14 year age group, which is such a crucial part of an adolescent girl’s life, often doesn’t receive the focus that it should.  It sort of gets lost between childhood and youth,” said Stewart.

The index, which will be updated every few years, measured things like education and rates of early marriage and pregnancy, as well as poverty levels.  But it also took into account the situations of older women in the community, who would serve as examples to adolescent girls.

The study revealed dramatic regional differences, with the eastern region of Karamoja faring worst, said Mondo Kyateka, youth development specialist at the Ugandan Ministry of Gender.

He said this information should help in policy-making.

“We are thinking that with this index, it will inform government to say, ‘OK, we are sitting on a time bomb, we need to invest in these children.’  And the gains that are likely to accrue from this investment are likely to be very significant in term of economic growth [and] in terms of social issues,” he said.

Kyateka added, adolescent girls can play a vital role in breaking the cycle of poverty.

“We know that when we empower the girl child, then we are empowering communities.  Then we are addressing a lot of other issues, like issues of nutrition, like issues of early childhood marriages [and] early childhood pregnancy,” he said.

But Vivian Kukunda, who works with the Kampala-based Girl Child Network, pointed out that many of the challenges girls faced came from the boys and men around them.  She said to truly address their problems they had to work with boys as well.

“We are working with them and we are empowering them, but who is empowering the boys?  If they fix the whole issue of the boys it will also help the girls, because they will stop oppressing the girls.  No one is telling them, ‘You need to be a good man, you need to be this and you do that.’ They don’t have that,” said Kukunda.

For the moment, UNICEF has no plans to extend the index to the rest of the world.  But Stewart said for other African countries the data on adolescent girls was already there.  It only needed to be analyzed for the initiative to spread.