Education & Health

The Adolescent Girl : Transforming The Future — ADAH

(Adah is a fictional character)

Adah is a curious young girl embarking on her secondary school education. She’s excited to keep learning and avoid the path of early marriage and early pregnancy experienced by her teenaged sisters. Living below the poverty line, her family struggles with many hardships, including difficulty in accessing basic services. They’ve dealt with the painful, tragic consequences of poor health due to lack of resources and services, and gender-based violence within Adah’s siblings’ marriages. An investment in Adah’s education means her future is brighter.

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Education & Health

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The Promise of Education

Imagine the first day of school for an adolescent girl in rural, sub-Saharan Africa. Let’s call this girl Adah, and now, let’s imagine what the start of a new year of school is like for her. The excitement. The newness. The opportunity to return again for more education. To learn! For Adah, it is the most exciting time of her year.

What makes this year particularly special for Adah and her community is that it is the first year young girls are able to continue their education at the secondary school level. Things in her community are moving slowly, however, so while there is a state commitment for young girls to access secondary education, not all girls her age will be attending this next level of school. Right now, only a select group of girls with high enough grades were chosen this first year. Still, this is an exciting step forward. Transitioning from childhood to adolescence is never easy for any young girl, but Adah feels new confidence in herself and her capabilities. She is the first of the five girls in her family to go to secondary school.

Adah has two brothers and four sisters. While she is very close to her older sisters, their daily lives are very different. They have husbands and children. Life has never been easy, but now positive changes are emerging within their community and the impact is slowly starting to be felt.

“Girls with a primary education are twice as likely to marry or enter into union as those with a secondary or higher education. However, those with no education are three times more likely to marry or enter into union before age 18 as those with a secondary or higher education.”

Adah is very fortunate to have completed primary school. Because of her country’s improving commitment to early and lifelong learning for every adolescent regardless of their circumstances, soon there will be as many young girls as boys in both primary and secondary school in her community, so everyone will be able to read, write and count.

Better education allows more members of the community to utilize creative problem-solving skills and to responsibly exercise freedoms. As more girls join boys at the secondary level, their opportunities expand. Adah and other girls like her are provided with the chance to gain new skills and knowledge. As developments in education increase, the government will need to ensure that there are more opportunities for vocational education and training, and create work-directed learning to benefit girls and contribute to a growing economy. These investments clearly pay off, since girls who don't attend secondary school are three times as likely to become child brides and experience adolescent pregnancy, which compromises their health and safety, and limits their potential and opportunities.

“Growing female literacy correlates with healthier families and stronger economic growth.”

Many governments in Sub-Saharan Africa have started campaigns to teach and prepare young people for their sexual lives. By providing adequate, gender-sensitive and comprehensive sexuality education, they are empowering youth to make responsible and autonomous decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. In addition to secondary school, this will help Adah and girls like her to achieve their full potential.

To Enjoy a Childhood

Right now Adah is free to be a young girl. This means she can focus more on developing herself, her dreams and her aspirations. Adah has long been accused of having a wild imagination by the elders in her community. Depending on how it’s told to her, she knows this is both a compliment and a criticism. At Adah's new school, she is learning geography and discovering faraway places like Australia, Italy, Japan, Mexico and the United States. These places fill her dreams. One day, she would like to visit the islands of Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Why? Because she loves reggae music and Bob Marley! (Adah and her sisters also love dancing to reggaeton star Sean Paul, but Bob Marley is their favorite.) Adah is very creative and often sketches herself and her sisters in the places that she learns about. She draws them based on how she envisions them in her mind.

“Safeguarding the rights of young people and investing in their quality education, decent employment opportunities, effective livelihood skills, and access to sexual and reproductive health and comprehensive sexuality education strengthen young people’s individual resilience and create the conditions under which they can achieve their full potential.”

Throughout Adah’s adolescence, however, she and her siblings, parents and extended family experience the incredible difficulties of staggering inequalities. Despite new opportunities, the family continues to live below the poverty level. They don’t have equal access to opportunities or services that would allow them to fully enjoy their own individual capability, dignity and freedom in order to thrive. These economic inequalities have become both the cause and consequence of other social inequalities involving gender, race, disabilities, age, and other dimensions of identity and circumstance. With education, Adah’s future life stands a chance of improvement; otherwise, Adah likely will experience, just as her older siblings, mother and the generations before her, longstanding vulnerability to stigma and discrimination.

“Early, child and forced marriage and female genital mutilation/cutting remain prevalent harmful practices despite advances in legislation in many countries.”

Safety and Security: Investing in Young People

“In certain regions, women’s agency may be further compromised by early or forced marriage, unintended pregnancy and early childbearing (particularly without adequate support from the health system), lack of education, lower wages than men and gender-based violence.”

There are challenges that sometimes interfere with Adah’s education. There is a lot of stress at home felt by all family members. One of her married older sisters, Khadijah, is once again pregnant and frequently comes home in the middle of the night to stay with the family. She comes to escape the violent outbursts of her middle-aged husband, to whom she always returns. “I have to,” is what she says, and what Adah’s father and mother say. When she comes in the middle of the night, she brings her two children. The extra crowding causes tensions to rise, and there are fewer resources to go around. Because Adah’s attendance at school isn’t mandatory, and given so many pressures, there is no guarantee she will continue for the full duration of her secondary education.

“Women and children bear a disproportionate burden as a consequence of poverty.”

Health and Well-Being: Ensuring Reproductive Rights

Learning and working hard within the school system is a big job that Adah is excited about and committed to continuing. There are hurdles, however, that are often beyond her control. In addition to her studies, Adah needs to stay healthy. Young people frequently struggle with bouts of extreme diarrhoea. This leaves them prone to dehydration and other related ailments that when left untreated can become deadly. The older generations experience their own health concerns—many battling constant, chronic illnesses like pneumonia. Malaria is an ongoing threat, with inconsistent access to prevention and treatment.

“The objectives in primary health care and the health-care sector are to increase the accessibility, availability, acceptability and affordability of health-care services and facilities to all people; to increase healthy lifespans and improve the quality of life of all people; and to reduce disparities in life expectancy between and within countries.”

All of these medical conditions are treatable with stable health care systems in place. When health facilities and other basic services aren’t easy to reach and don’t maintain consistent quality, Adah’s family and families like hers suffer greatly, losing opportunities to learn, work and enjoy a greater sense of well-being.

Adah’s mother, Fatima, is personally invested in Adah’s future being bright and fully realized. Motherhood hasn’t been easy on Fatima, and she’s very lucky to still be alive. Two of Adah’s siblings died during childbirth, probably because they were not born in a hospital. It wasn’t easy for Fatima and Adah’s father, Joseph, to get to a medical facility because of the lack of reliable access. When they did make it to the hospital, the care wasn’t safe. Fatima’s most recent pregnancy left her with a fistula, which caused great suffering until UNFPA provided her with fistula repair surgery. Overall, maternal and infant mortality still cause much anguish to Adah’s community.

“Adolescent birth rates declined from 1990 to 2010 across countries in all income groups and regions. Worldwide, more than 15 million girls aged 15-19 still give birth each year.”

And this is why secretly Fatima is very happy that Adah’s school has started offering programmes that teach students about sexuality. Comprehensive sexuality education focuses on teaching adolescents about their sexual health and reproductive rights. Joseph isn’t happy about this, however. “Why would a young girl need to have sexuality education? What are people going to think?” he asks. Joseph struggles with what is customary and traditional within his community, and with what he wants for his daughter and the women in his family. Indeed the topic of sex is taboo in their community. Civil society and community organizations have carefully navigated these sensitive issues with educational programming. This is how Fatima came to an empowering place where she is determined to do whatever she can to ensure Adah does not have to endure much of the agony that she barely survived. It is simple: Fatima wants Adah to live a longer, happier and healthier life.

This may be the case as their community is transitioning and further accepting that life can improve for everyone when all people are empowered—from the educated girl, to the mother who makes choices for her own body and fertility, to the grandmother who can grow old with all the services she needs to age comfortably. Right now, learning within a secondary school has set the foundation for a promising future for Adah.

“Early parenthood can increase the risk of poverty.”

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