Posted by Ofra Koffman
Friday 10 February 2012 02.00 EST
Many development organisations see empowering girls – and enabling them to delay childbearing – as a powerful means to tackle poverty, but the evidence so far doesn’t bear this out.
The call to invest in adolescent girls has been sweeping the development field in recent years. Among the supporters of this policy are key stakeholders such as the UK Department for International Development (DfID), the World Bank and several UN agencies.
In part, this is linked with the effort of Nike and its philanthropic arm, the Nike Foundation. Several years ago the foundation began focusing on adolescent girls, coining the term the “girl effect” (on development). The empowerment of girls, it is argued, is a powerful way to tackle poverty. This is because, as a special UN taskforce claimed in 2010, empowered girls will “marry later, delay childbearing, have healthier children, and earn better incomes that will benefit themselves, their families, communities and nations”.
The slogan used by DfID describes this as “stopping poverty before it starts”. But is it really so straightforward? At the heart of this policy is the assumption that the prevalence of early marriage and childbearing is a key factor affecting a country’s economic prospects. However, a glance at the statistical data reveals there are many developing countries in which adolescent fertility is actually less prevalent than in the US, one of the world’s wealthiest nations.
For example, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Burma, Jordan, Lebanon and Morocco, all had lower rates of adolescent fertility than the US in the last reported year. In Rwanda, one of the countries where DfID and the Nike Foundation are rolling out girl-focused interventions, adolescent fertility is not much higher than in the US. These examples highlight the limit of the association between the prevalence of early childbearing and a country’s economic standing.
Even more questions arise if we consider the UK’s experience of teenage pregnancy prevention. In the UK, teenage motherhood was described as linked with incomplete education, economic difficulty and poor health. In the late 1990s, the Labour government launched a 10-year strategy to curb the rate of teenage pregnancy. The effort was based on the assumption that if young women postponed childbearing, their economic prospects would improve.