Enabling Aspirations, Realizing Rights: Social Protection for Adolescent Girls

Date: 9 October 2015
Author: Elena Gaia

Enabling Aspirations, Realizing Rights: Social Protection for Adolescent Girls

Adolescent girls’ rights and their power to drive social change and achieve inclusive are crucial to sustainable human development. This recognition comes at a time of increased global interest in understanding and offering solutions to the challenges girls face as they enter the second decade of their lives. Aspirations and struggles frequently associated with being an adolescent girl include making one’s voices heard and counted; participating in community and peer activities; obtaining quality secondary and higher education; avoiding child marriage; receiving information and services related to puberty and reproductive health, which includes protecting themselves against unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and gender-based violence.

Social protection is highly relevant to the agenda of adolescent girls’ empowerment, as it brings a transformative approach, grounded in human rights. Defined by UNICEF as “the set of public and private policies and programmes aimed at preventing, reducing and eliminating economic and social vulnerabilities to poverty and deprivation”, social protection is essential to furthering the realization of the rights of children and their families to an adequate standard of living and essential services – as recently recognized by the inclusion of social protection among the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals. Drawing on Roelen and Sabates-Wheeler (2012), social protection can be assessed by the extent to which it responds to adolescent girls’ practical needs – those which stem from their physical and biological vulnerabilities, and to strategic needs – those that relate to girls’ limited autonomy, relative invisibility and lack of voice.

Research has focused on the impact of cash transfers, highlighting positive effects on school enrolment, attendance, completion and transition for girls in many Latin American and African countries, and mixed results in reducing girls’ labour. Additional research which examined the impact of social protection on HIV/AIDS prevention found that women and girls who receive cash transfers are less likely to resort to harmful coping strategies like having sex with older partners; or having sex in exchange for food, shelter, transport or money. Social protection also strengthens prevention gains by increasing girls’ school enrolment and attendance rates as well as their use of critical health and counselling services.

When we broaden the analysis to the whole social protection toolbox, integrated social protection programmes that combine transfers with social support services and personal intermediation (such as social work and case management) offer great potential for addressing the strategic needs of adolescent girls. For instance, Chile Solidario, an integrated anti-poverty programme aimed at overcoming social and economic exclusion, matches households and individual members within the households with a range of support services from multiple public programmes, including antenatal monitoring and training, birth registration, disability support and rehabilitation, fostering, family, conflict and addiction counselling, among others. The implementation of these integrated social protection programmes involves building links between different sectors in order to maximize the impact of investments; for example by linking cash provision, care and support services, and access to health. It also promotes the outreach towards individuals and communities that might be too disempowered to claim rights and seek support from public services. Similar programmes are emerging in many countries of the world, demonstrating a shift in the priorities of social protection programmes to placing emphasis on intra-household relations and agency as means of overcoming poverty and social exclusion, and increased responsibility on public services to reach out to, and better incorporate, the diversity of circumstances and needs of the people they are there to support.

Social Protection and Girls’ Education

Ensuring that adolescent girls, especially those in poor households, complete primary and secondary education requires not only an inclusive quality educational system but also additional support to cover informal costs associated with schooling and transportation, access adequate food, and ensure their home environments are caring and nurturing. The role of social protection in realizing girls’ right to education will differ based on each individual country context and the factors affecting girls and households decisions around schooling. In some contexts, placing social workers in schools and providing secondary school scholarships or stipends may go a long way to prevent girls from dropping out. For instance, Bangladesh’s Female Secondary School Assistance Programme increased the enrolment of girls in secondary school from 442,000 in 1994 to over one million by 2001, virtually eliminating the gap between girls’ and boys’ enrolment.

Parenting support services and parental advocacy and education can play a significant role in changing gender assumptions, highlighting the return on investment in girls’ education, as well as in managing parental fears for the well-being and security of their girls. In a number of European countries, for instance, Roma school mediators play a critical role in building bridges between adolescent girls, parents and schools, helping to increase gender and cultural sensitivity in schools, and by supporting parents to overcome traditional beliefs and behaviours. For adolescent girls with children who wish to complete their schooling, making quality child care accessible and affordable is essential, as is targeting spaces attended by young mothers, such as clinics, to advocate for and possibly recruit them to participate in school completion initiatives that function outside of formal school environments.

Increased investment in social protection will ultimately pay off. Research has shown that when adolescent girls access and complete primary and secondary education, they have greater opportunities, increased personal well-being, improved access to the labour market and the greater chances of exiting the cycle of poverty in their own lifetimes, hence reducing the need for investments in social protection over the long term.

Social Protection and Preventing Violence Against Girls

High levels of economic stress; compounded by gendered social norms, mental health conditions, depression, and substance abuse; have been recognised as a key driver of domestic violence affecting adolescent girls and women. In situations of domestic violence, women and girls often stay because of economic dependence on their abusers. This dependence compromises their safety, health, well-being and personal agency.

Evaluations of cash transfer programmes have reported reductions in parental stress thanks to the alleviation of households’ budgetary constraints, which can in turn reduce domestic violence and harsh disciplinary practices. Even more importantly, integrated social protection programmes that are able to detect situations of vulnerability and abuse within the household can connect girls and their parents to benefits and services aimed at preventing and responding to violence and abuse, parenting support and education, recreational activities and opportunities for personal and professional growth. Lastly, for girls surviving violence and trauma, as well as very young mothers, access to psychosocial support, peer counselling, health mediation, parenting services and other community-level services can help sustain their participation as active members of their communities.


Social Protection and Girls’ Unpaid Care Work

Even in countries with historically high levels of education parity and labour market access, adolescent girls and women continue to take up larger shares of unpaid household, caregiving and other family duties than boys and men. This can reduce time for childhood leisure, studying and participation in after-school recreation activities that can advance personal development. The gendered assumption and practice that girls should be responsible for assisting their mothers or other women with household activities entrenches gendered roles and influences girls’ ability to complete their schooling.

Most countries worldwide do not yet recognize unpaid household and care work by girls and women as a form of employment with social security entitlements. For girls and women living in poor households, access to tax-funded social assistance benefits and basic health packages that prevent catastrophic expenditures is therefore vital. In addition, the benefits of expanding affordable quality healthcare options for both girls and women and the economy, such as in Mexico’s Programa de Estancias Infantiles, are well known; their impact can be further amplified by encouraging men to participate more actively in household and care work through awareness raising and parental leave. Another example is Rwanda, which is in the process of linking child care services, including mobile crèches, to beneficiaries of the Vision 2020 Umurenge Programme (VUP), its flagship social protection scheme.


Social protection can help create the enabling conditions for adolescent girls to realize their aspirations and rights allowing them to thrive. Integrated social protection approaches in particular, with their focus on individual vulnerabilities within the household, the introduction of human resource-intensive components, coordination and alignment of various forms of social support both in the public and private sphere, and outreach efforts, offer new opportunities to rethink and redesign programmes to maximize the inclusion and empowerment of girls, particularly the most excluded and invisible, such as girls with disabilities or from ethnic and linguistic minorities. As a first step, the views and needs of adolescent girls need to be better incorporated in social protection programmes, by providing meaningful opportunities for girls’ involvement and feedback.


Elena Gaia is a social development professional passionate about human rights and social change. Her areas of interest and expertise are social protection, poverty reduction, social inclusion, child rights, rights of ethnic minorities, gender equality, and migration. She is a social policy specialist at UNICEF since 2010. From 2008-2010, she was a research analyst in social policy and development at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, where she contributed to the flagship report Combating Poverty and Inequality. She also worked with the Italian NGO CISV from 2003 to 2007, most of this period as the organization’s representative in Guatemala where she managed programmes on community development, participation and grass-roots organisations. Elena holds a Master’s degree in comparative social policy from the University of Oxford. Some of her recent publications include Violence Against Girls and Boys in Europe and Central Asia, Realizing the Rights of Roma Children and Women, Keeping Families Together and Preparing for an Uncertain Future: Expanding Social Protection for Children in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.


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Social Protection and Human Rights