The Population Council GIRL Center’s mission has always been data-driven. The programs we’ve built and the policies we’ve helped craft are guided by advanced demographic analyses that allow decision-makers to target specific issues and ensure that resources are used effectively. Our latest innovation in using data for change is the Adolescent Atlas for Action (A3), a set of free online tools for exploring gaps in adolescent education, health, and well-being around the world.
For more insights on the launch of the A3, we asked Dr. Karen Austrian, Director of the GIRL Center, about her experience and perspectives on adolescent research and what the A3 can contribute. With 15 years of research experience with the Population Council focusing on empowering adolescents, Karen has been a champion of evidence-based policy action, especially in Africa.
GIRL Center (GC): Congratulations on the launch of the A3! In your first year of stepping into the role as Director of the GIRL Center, this seems like a major milestone for your first set of accomplishments.
Dr. Karen Austrian (KA): It’s has been a very exciting first year! The GIRL Center is working hard to champion evidence-based solutions for the challenges facing adolescents around the world today, and the A3 is an important step in our work of being a leading knowledge partner in this area of work.
GC: We heard from Thoai about the initial motivation behind the A3. In your role as the GIRL Center Director, you led the process of bringing the idea to life. What makes the A3 unique compared to other data-based resources?
KA: First is that many of the interactive databases out there are based on descriptive, single indicators. The A3 has analytical work already done behind the scenes to reflect our thinking on how vulnerabilities facing adolescents are interlinked. We know from experience in working with adolescent girls that thinking one indicator at a time limits our ability to effectively support girls. Because in real life, the wide range of indicators constantly interact. For instance, gender norms in a girl’s community impacts her education, which in turn affects her employment. Or another example is how a girl’s economic situation often shapes the decisions she makes about her sexual health, relationships, etc. The A3 aims to paint a more realistic, holistic picture of adolescent lives, by presenting the interlinkages of indicators.
Secondly, the data in the A3 goes beyond national level data and dives into subnational level data. National level data masks where pockets of extreme marginalization and vulnerabilities exist. Relying on national averages alone may also overlook geographic disparities within a country. There are still limits to subnational data that is available but this will continue to be a critical area of work in progress.
GC: Before taking on the role as Director of the GIRL Center, you worked at the Population Council for 15 years as a researcher focusing on adolescent girls. From a researcher’s perspective, how can A3 strengthen or contribute to ensuring that data drives policies and actions for adolescents?
KA: From my experience, the key to getting policy makers to utilize research at the country or local level is to build a relationship with them and act as a knowledge partner. Being available to share key information more broadly – rather than focusing on sharing specific research studies or journal articles – with the data that exists has been important. Furthermore, presenting evidence that is relevant to the context in a country or region is central to connecting research to policy in a holistic way. Population Council Kenya researchers, for example, have participated in the adolescent health strategy meetings of the Presidential Policy and Strategy Unit (PASU) to advise on indicators for the strategy.
The A3 makes our role as a knowledge partner easier and aids decision makers. Before, we had to undertake additional studies to apply our core research to specific contexts to connect the dots. Now with the A3, contextualized evidence at the national and subnational levels and a snapshot of how prominent factors in a community are interrelated are all available online. For policy makers and government officials, the A3 can make evidence-informed decision-making less daunting. At the same time, the A3 will be a tool that can be utilized to not only extend the partnership between research and policy, but also to strengthen capacity building.
GC: What is your vision for the A3 over the next five years? How does this fit into your vision for the GIRL Center’s next five years?
KA: I hope the A3 will be a living resource that continues to grow and be responsive to the evolving needs of users. I envision the A3 to put data and evidence into the hands of drivers of change and innovations, ranging from policy makers to program designers and to adolescents themselves.
Similarly, my vision for the Center is to become the go-to place for data and evidence-informed insights on adolescent girls. Having the A3 is key for the Center’s belief that adolescent girls are at the nexus of the world’s pressing issues, as the platform can help bring together people from different countries, sectors, and roles in helping adolescent girls through evidence-based solutions. The A3 can be a helpful resource, guide, or even a conversation starter that draws on the GIRL Center and Population Council’s multi-decade history of knowledge and expertise in this field.
GC: Thank you for sharing your perspectives, Karen!
We encourage all our readers to visit the new Adolescent Atlas for Action (A3), and share it with colleagues working on adolescent wellbeing. Reach out to the GIRL Center at email@example.com to follow up or ask additional questions.
This spring, the Population Council’s GIRL Center launched the Evidence for Gender and Education Resource (EGER), a searchable, easy-to-use, interactive database to drive better education results for girls, boys, and communities around the world. It includes information on current practice (who is doing what, where?), current evidence (what has worked in some settings?) and current needs (where do challenges remain?) in global girls’ education. Based on insights from EGER, we will be launching a 2021 Roadmap for Girls’ Education in the coming months.
Before COVID-19 we were also seeing important—and persistent—gender-related barriers to school in many countries. To inform EGER, we conducted a systematic review of the evidence on what works to address gender-related barriers to schooling, and we developed a framework of perceived barriers. It shows gender-related barriers to education for girls at the community, school, and household levels. Underlying these barriers are two powerful forces: social norms and poverty.
Barriers at the school level are familiar—gender-insensitive school environments, lack of teaching materials and supplies, and school violence. But also important are barriers at the community and household levels, including child marriage, school access, and financial constraints.
Image credit: Evidence for Gender and Education Resource
While the full educational repercussions of COVID-19 have not yet unfolded, the pandemic is layering unprecedented pressures on top of existing challenges. But an important question for us to consider is this: In what ways have these barriers fundamentally changed due to COVID-19? And in what ways has COVID-19 simply exacerbated existing barriers?
WHAT, IF ANYTHING, HAS FUNDAMENTALLY CHANGED IN OUR WORK?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Population Council team in Kenya has partnered with the Executive Office of the President’s Policy and Strategy Unit to interview nearly 4,000 adolescent girls and boys by phone in four locations: Kisumu, Wajir, Kilifi, and the informal settlements in Nairobi.
For context—at least based on available data—after a peak in new cases in Kenya in November, new cases of COVID-19 are now declining, with about 200 per day at the end of December. So now the focus is on indirect effects of the pandemic—the effects of school closures, increasing economic strain, and challenges in accessing health care.
Connecting these two pieces of work—our current understanding of gender-related barriers to school, and a snapshot of what’s happening now in Kenya— how does COVID-19 change what we know?
1. Economic distress. Evidence from before COVID-19 tells us that addressing financial barriers to school can be effective not only to get young people into school, but potentially to close gender gaps, as well. Undoubtedly this remains true, even as the severity of economic barriers changes.
In Kenya, while most young people say they plan to go back to school upon reopening in January, we also see indicators of severe economic distress and a fear that inability to meet the costs of education will prevent reenrollment. For example, the majority of young people in three of the four settings in our study reported experiencing increased food insecurity due to COVID-19. This type of economic insecurity may well play out in terms of school access in the coming months and years.
2. Challenges in accessing education. We also know that expanding access to school—especially in settings where access is still a challenge—can be a very effective way to increase enrollment and close gender gaps. For example, school construction programs in countries like Burkina Faso or buying bicycles for girls in India, have been effective. But what does “access” mean now? How has that changed?
In Kenya, the majority of adolescents say they are doing some kind of schoolwork or learning at home during the pandemic, with the exception of Wajir, where fewer than 20 percent of 10- to 14-year-old girls, compared to 30 percent of 10- to 14-year-old boys indicated this was the case. When asked why they were not doing schoolwork at home, the most common reasons were that the school hasn’t provided lessons, and/or they needed to help with chores at home.
3. Importance of pedagogy. We have also seen over and over again that improving pedagogy, such as helping teachers adapt the curriculum to students’ different learning levels, is effective. What does this look like during and post-COVID-19? What models can we build on? (Hint: There are promising models out there already!)
In places like Wajir, where many young people have spent nearly a year without doing schoolwork or reading at home, ensuring school access is only the first step. Teachers will be faced with new challenges in helping students catch up and get back on track, with perhaps a broader range of skills in their classrooms than ever before.
Although it has been 10 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we’re only starting to see its effects—both direct and indirect—on school-age children and their families. As we think about what comes next, let’s not forget the fundamentals—what we already know about gender-related barriers to schooling, and what has worked to improve education for girls before. What we need to understand is how COVID-19 changes those fundamentals, and how we must change our plans in response.
This blog was first published on the Education Plus Development Blog on the Brookings Institution website.