Ariana Childs Graham is the coordinator of The Coalition for Adolescent Girls, a partnership of nearly 40 international organizations that seeks to influence standards of practice across diverse sectors of programming in development and humanitarian contexts in order to ensure that the needs of adolescent girls are met.
ACG: I was a bit of a dreamer with a strong sense of social justice. My mom helped me temper my tendency toward indignation and self-righteousness and learn how to channel that outrage into taking action. But sometimes that cost me. In junior high, for instance, I started a recycling campaign at my school. Since my peers were slow to catch on, I spent my free time hauling Styrofoam trays out of the trash. Needless to say, my social standing took a bit of a nosedive.
When I wasn’t crushing cans and proselytizing to my friends, I was soaking in the world around me. I was fascinated by the countries, cultures and languages of our vast world. I studied Chinese, Spanish and Russian. When the opportunity came up to do a month-long exchange with Moscow School 45, I grabbed it and was transformed by it. I got to connect with others across language and cultural boundaries. I got to see with my own eyes what I had been reading about in newspapers about the political upheavals of the formerSoviet Union. And I got to have fun, too.
IYWG: How did you first learn about sex? What were you told? Who gave you this information? What else do you wish you had been told?
ACG: In my house, thanks to my supportive parents, sexuality was regarded as just another part of life. From a fairly young age, they gave me age-appropriate books, they talked with me and they let me ask questions, or at least let me know that I could. Of course, there were times when I was uncomfortable, but I always knew I was safe.
My church was also very progressive. In seventh grade, the religious education curriculum focused on sexuality and relationships, a precursor to what is now the Our Whole Lives curriculum. Chris, the husband of the associate minister, and Bonnie, a parent and member of the congregation, taught the class. They had the grace, patience and strength of character to help a bunch of self-conscious tweens navigate the ins and outs of sexuality. There, I learned to trust myself. With all the influences of my ever-expanding adolescent world, that was no small feat. That is where some abstinence-only approaches miss the mark, imposing a single path when there are so many to take.
IYWG: We have a few questions for you about the state of the world’s youth today.
First, what do you think is the biggest issue young people face today?
ACG: To boil it down to a single issue is an impossible feat, but climate change and environmental degradation are emerging as critical issues that young people face. As the environment shifts, previous livelihoods are no longer viable and young people are forced to migrate from rural areas to urban centers to support themselves and their families. This even heightens the risk of being trafficked, especially, but not only for adolescent girls. Climate change also has significant implications for food security, as we saw in the drought-driven crisis in the Horn of Africa. Drought-related shocks that used to happen every 6-10 years now occur every 3-5 years and the effect is devastating.
IYWG: Why is it so important to focus on adolescent girls as a specific youth population?
ACG: Adolescence is a time when a girl must cross a series of thresholds, thresholds that determine the direction of her life. Yet, adolescent girls are often invisible. Program implementers, donors and policymakers assume that the needs of adolescent girls are being met under the youth umbrella. In reality, girls are being overlooked and can’t access services. Household duties prevent them from participating. Travel to a program site may be too dangerous. Their husbands or parents may not give them permission. The obstacles girls face are too many to count.
IYWG: What is one thing about adolescent girls that you wish you better understood?
ACG: The situation for adolescent girls is dire, and so, as advocates and program implementers, we often match that severity with stark sobriety, rightfully focusing on safety, health and education. But what puts a smile on a girl’s face? What brings her joy? What makes her laugh? These questions, while seemingly frivolous at first glance, need to be asked in order to serve the whole girl.
IYWG: How did you get started in the field of YSRH? Why is the health and well-being of young people especially important to you?
ACG: With a background in international human rights law, I have always been interested in how international human rights mechanisms can articulate protections and responsibilities. I believe it is everyone’s right to live full, healthy lives, and realize their full potential. In turn, I believe that we have a responsibility to create the conditions that support this.
IYWG: What inspired you to begin your work with The Coalition for Adolescent Girls?
ACG: Coalitions have the power to move an agenda forward and have an impact. The Coalition for Adolescent Girls, in bringing together program implementers, technical experts and advocates is able to frame the issues and reach targets that can affect the lives of adolescent girls.
It is remarkable to be a part of a group where partners check their organizational priorities at the door in order to speak with one voice. Working with the keen minds and dedicated hearts of adolescent girl champions and experts is just the icing on the cake.
IYWG: Finally, what do you think is the most important thing that could be done to improve the health and well-being of adolescent girls today?
ACG:We must engage in a more holistic approach to adolescent girls’ needs instead of reinforcing programmatic silos. Health and well-being is connected to economic livelihoods and security which is connected to education which is connected to leadership opportunities and so on. We must understand the unique constellation of identities, experiences and characteristics that each girl embodies instead of assuming that one size fits all.