Reducing adolescent girls’ vulnerability to sexual violence in sub-Saharan Africa

Population Briefs Volume 21, number 1.pdf

A Population Council study in Uganda has demonstrated that addressing girls’ financial needs - such as giving them access to savings accounts - without simultaneously addressing their social and health needs could increase their chances of experiencing sexual harassment.

The Population Council’s asset-building framework posits that adolescent girls need a combination of social, health, cognitive and economic assets in order to make a safe and healthy transition from childhood to adulthood. Weak social assets - including a lack of friends, mentors and self-esteem - and lack of economic independence can be significant obstacles to girls taking control of their lives, especially decisions regarding their sexual health and relationships.

With our study, we were able to dig a bit deeper. What happens when girls are given access only to a savings account without access to other assets that may have a protective effect?”

Karen Austrian, Population Council researcher and lead investigator on the study.

Intervention

Between 2009 and 2010, researchers implemented a four-component intervention that involved:

  1. meetings with other girls in a safe, public location
  2. reproductive health information
  3. financial education
  4. savings accounts

More than 1,000 adolescent girls aged 10-19 living in low income areas of Kampala participated in the study. Girls were offered savings accounts at two local banks. The banks also offered quarterly meetings to the girls’ parents, where they provided them with information about money management and the banks’ other services. When girls signed up for bank accounts, they were invited to join weekly girl-group meetings.

Findings

  • Girls who received only a savings account were significantly more likely than they had been at the start of the intervention to have experienced sexual harassment.
  • For girls who only had savings accounts, the proportion who experienced indecent touching increased from 9% to 15% and the proportion who were teased by males increased from 19% to 25%.
  • Risk of sexual harassment did not increase significantly for girls who received social support along with health and financial education and savings or for girls in the comparison group.

When designing and implementing programmes, researchers must recognise that building economic assets alone may increase girls’ risks. Therefore, economic strengthening programmes should be situated within more comprehensive asset-building interventions. To improve outcomes, programmes must address and empower the whole girl, not simply one element of her life.

Read Population Briefs Volume 21, Number 1.  

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