Understanding and Serving the Needs of Adolescent Girls in Lao, PDR

When I face an injustice, I resolve to speak out about it and work to make sure it doesn’t happen to others. So, when I went to Ethiopia, after experiencing alienation for speaking out about sexual harassment and intimidation, I decided to dive deep into creating a fairer and just world for women and girls.

In Ethiopia my work focused on providing access to education and health services to adolescent girls, who are admittedly the “newest” and most popular target population in the gender and development world. According to the data, “when 10% more girls go to school, on average, a country’s GDP goes up by 3%. A single additional year of primary education increases a girl’s eventual wages by 15% and a year of secondary education increases her wages by 25%.”

Studies also show that to educate a girl is to educate a family, a community, and it significantly increases the likelihood of her children growing up to be happy, healthy and educated. While I am not a big fan of this instrumental approach to development, because it puts the onus of raising the GDP on a country’s most vulnerable population, adolescent girls, I understand why including this data matters. As public servants we rely heavily on donor culture, and donors love numbers.

My work in Ethiopia led me to the School if International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, where I study gender and public policy and focus my research on adolescent girls. At Columbia I applied to the UNA-NY Summer Scholars Fellowship Program and was awarded a fully funded fellowship to intern with UNFPA in Lao, PDR for three months this summer.

As the Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Fellow at UNFPA, I am beginning to understand the complex structure of the UN and participating in strategic meetings with government partners. Most importantly, I'm working on rolling out a girls club initiative to create safe spaces for vulnerable adolescent girls where they can learn life skills, learn about reproductive health, and acquire the necessary tools to negotiate tradeoffs with their families.

My favorite part of the fellowship so far has been meeting wonderful people from all walks of life who are passionate about what they do. Ann Nicol, the Executive Director of UNA-NY, was warm from our first encounter and everyone I met in Lao since I got here has been welcoming, helpful and dedicated to helping me grow as a professional.

Noi, the flagship program of UNFPA in Lao, PDR, literally means small in Lao and is what many people here call their children. As such, Noi became the name of our adolescent girl, who much like Yegna in Ethiopia, is meant to represent all adolescent girls in Lao, PDR.

The stats show that Noi, or adolescent girls in Lao, are at a high risk of child marriage, early pregnancy and school dropout. 1 in 4 adolescent girls ages 15-19 is currently married compared to 1 in 11 boys. As a result, 40% of adolescent girls between the ages of 12 and 18 drop out of school. Lao, PDR also has the highest adolescent pregnancy rate in South East Asia, with 94 out of 1000 girls ages 15-19 being pregnant.

As such, at UNFPA we are dedicated to supporting Noi and helping her grow up safe from violence, with access to healthcare and proper schooling. We are doing that by integrating comprehensive sexual education (CSE) into the primary school curriculum as early as the first grade, which will include teaching girls consent and how to speak up and find support if they're violated. In addition to that, we are working on bringing girls clubs to Lao, PDR, to reach the most vulnerable girls, who are those who have already dropped out of school. This is a project I am heavily invested in given my background creating, facilitating, and supporting girls clubs throughout Ethiopia.

We believe that by investing in Noi, we are investing in our world. The more choices she has, the more agency she has over her life. And so I strive to create a world where every girl, no matter her class, her race, her sexual preferences, or her ability, is able to live safe from harm and has the tools to craft a dignified life, all her own.


Popular posts from this blog

World Population Day

Lao Fashion and Style

A Lotta Bit of New and a Little Bit of Home: Latinos in Laos