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This post, written by Joy Cunningham, originally appeared on the FHI 360 “Degrees” blog and can be accessed here.

Many of us who spend our time in the youth sexual and reproductive health (YSRH) world don’t often cross paths with those in the business of economic empowerment and livelihoods programs for young people. Although both worlds are aware of the converging paths, funding streams generally keep us operating on parallel roads. Therefore, I was pleased to facilitate a panel session this morning at the conference: “Exploring the Intersection of Adolescent Girls’ Reproductive Health and Economic Empowerment.” During a lively session, panelists shared their experiences with both issues for girls. Some of the themes were:

  •  Even though we are aware of the problem, the data on SRH and economic empowerment for girls, taken together for developing countries, is shocking. The rates of HIV, maternal mortality and morbidity, poverty and isolation paint a dismal picture for girls.
  • Programs that target girls and adults in the community, with messages on both SRH and economic empowerment, are showing some successes. There’s more to learn, but results are encouraging.
  • Models that incorporate peer education and work with girls on SRH and economic empowerment show positive results: the Tesfa program led by the International Center for Research on Women, the Siyakha Nentsha program in South Africa led by Population Council, and a program by Restless Development in Northern Uganda all included a peer education component.
  • Reducing social isolation seems key for increasing both SRH and economic outcomes for girls. Girls need access to other girls for many reasons, but importantly, to give them an outlet to talk about themselves: their ideas, dreams and goals.
  • It’s important to work with the adults, not just the girls. Teachers, parents and faith leaders all play roles in girls’ lives, and we need to get them on board with difficult topics. Sex and money are not easy to discuss with young people, and the adults need to build their skills to do it.

Today’s session initiated some vital discussion about next steps. It’s my hope that the two worlds of SRH and economic empowerment for young people will start to cross more often and begin to operate more closely together. This year’s conference is an encouraging step toward that. Look for more information on this topic, including a research brief and e-forum, by visiting the Interagency Youth Working Group website.


Tomorrow, FHI 360 on behalf of the IYWG, will host a panel presentation at 2012 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference on the intersection of adolescent girls’ economic empowerment and sexual and reproductive health. 

Adolescent girls face multiple economic disparities and sexual and reproductive health challenges.  Adolescent girls are more vulnerable to HIV and other STIs than males, and experience high rates of sexual violence, pregnancy, maternal mortality and morbidity and early marriage.  Females make up more than 60% of all young people living with HIV and account for 72% of young people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 16 million girls between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year and childbirth related complications are the number one cause of death among girls ages 15-19. One out of seven girls in developing countries marries before age 15, and approximately 1 in 5 females will be a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

Along with myriad sexual and reproductive health challenges, adolescent girls also face multiple economic disparities. Of all out-of-school youth, 70% are girls. Globally, young women are less likely to be employed than young men and earn lower wages than young men. Furthermore, increased household responsibilities among adolescent girls hinder their ability to find work outside of the home and to attend school.

Economic disparity is both a cause and a consequence of negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes.

Girls with low socioeconomic standing are at an increased risk of marrying early and of engaging in transactional sex or intergenerational relationships. Lower socioeconomic standing also increases young women’s chances of experiencing sexual and intimate partner violence; all increasing adolescent girls’ risk of early pregnancy and HIV infection. Likewise, early and unintended pregnancy as well as HIV infection can hinder young women’s economic opportunities. Girls who become pregnant are more likely to leave school early, bear more children at shorter intervals, and have a lower income throughout their lifetime. Adolescent girls who become infected with HIV may be less able to find work because of stigma surrounding the disease, or less able to keep work because of their illness.

Research suggests that multi-faceted program approaches to adolescent girl’s health and economic empowerment can improve these outcomes. Our panel tomorrow, entitled, “Exploring the Intersection of Adolescent Girls’ Reproductive Health and Economic Empowerment,” will share innovative programs from Population Council, ICRW, and Restless Development all addressing the  intersection of girls’ economic empowerment and sexual and reproductive health.

“Exploring the Intersection of Adolescent Girls’ Reproductive Health and Economic Empowerment” will take place on September 12, 2012 at 9:00 a.m. in room 300 of the Inter-American Development Bank’s Conference Center.


Nike-USAID partnership in Kenya helps struggling female fish sellers attain safety, solidarity and success in alternative industries.

This post, written by Clara Kakai, originally appeared on USAID’s FrontLine blog and can be accessed here.

Two years ago, 21-year-old Beatrice Kasina was a struggling fish seller on the shores of Kenya’s Lake Victoria.

Seventeen-year-old Ruth Otieno was unemployed and fully dependent on the meager income of her fisherman husband.

Credit: Emma Odundo

‘Value Girl’ Betty Anyango, 20, tends to chicks in a demo house. She is now a successful micro-entrepreneur who helps other young women start similar projects.

Twenty-three-year-old Susan Opiyo, a single mother of two, was hawking tiny fish, called omena, by the roadside, desperate for motorists to stop and buy so she could feed her young children.

These three women’s stories echo those of hundreds more in Kenya’s lake region, where dependence on fish as the only economic resource is commonplace. But sadly, the fish industry is in decline. Environmental degradation, illegal fishing and interference with fish breeding sites have depleted fish reserves in the lake waters.

With rising competition for fewer fish, young women are particularly vulnerable. Many resort to risky sexual behavior because they do not own boats and have to rely on the whims of fishermen for supplies. The fish-for-sex trade has been an issue of concern for several years. One analysis published in 2009 reported the rate of HIV prevalence was 30 percent among the people who live and work in fishing communities.

Today, however, life has dramatically improved for the three young women, who hold their own as successful micro-entrepreneurs. Kasina rears chicken; Otieno is a vegetable farmer; Opiyo is involved in raising poultry and vegetable farming. The three have one thing in common: They are all “Value Girls.”

Value Girls is a Global Development Alliance jointly funded by The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Nike Foundation to improve the socio-economic status of young women by giving them alternative sources of income. It works with women between the ages of 14 and 24 who live in the fishing communities of rural Nyanza and Western Kenya.

“Decades of research show that improving the economic status of women improves food security, wealth creation and economic growth,” says Beatrice Wamalwa, a gender specialist at USAID/Kenya.

Studies also show that higher incomes for women result in healthier households because women are more likely to spend their incomes on their children’s nutritional and educational needs. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, rural women are essential actors in reducing hunger, undernutrition and poverty because they make up 43 percent of the agricultural labor force in developing countries.

Credit: Natasha Murigu

Susan Akoth Owindu at Kaswanga farm on the shores of Lake Victoria pumps water to irrigate her vegetable garden. The Value Girls program has helped to improve the lives of over 1,400 Kenyan women.

Value Girls is tapping into young women’s potential and is contributing to the goals of the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative: reducing hunger and poverty through agriculture and improved nutrition.

The Value Girls program works through three local organizations in six districts. In market surveys, poultry and vegetable farming were deemed the most viable alternatives to fishing because of their sustainability and potential to increase women’s incomes.

According to Emma Odundo, a senior program officer with the Value Girls program, these organizations recruit women working on the beaches of Lake Victoria. “The program first mobilizes the women into self-selected groups of five or six, where they begin a savings scheme, elect leaders and decide on an income-generating activity. They are then given technical, business and financial literacy skills as well as demonstrations for either poultry or vegetable farming,” Odundo said.

Participants also receive start-up support. Poultry groups receive in-kind matching grants of the total value of their savings, usually the equivalent
of $20 to $60 per group member, while vegetable-farming groups get
fencing for the farms they lease. The groups can also access loans from
microfinance institutions to expand their businesses or buy equipment such as water pumps for irrigation.

“Poultry Farming Changed My Life”

Value Girls allows young women to have stable incomes and reduces their susceptibility to abuse and sexual exploitation. The women’s successes are also rippling through the region.

In poultry farming, for example, the young women are now the largest buyers in Nyanza and Western provinces of day-old chicks from Kenchic, the largest poultry management firm in Kenya. Between July and September 2011, 250 young women placed orders for a total of 8,000 day-old chicks—which should earn them a combined gross income of around $36,500.

The increased incomes have propelled the women’s value within their households and the community: They are now considered significant contributors to society.

“My husband has a newfound respect for me because I can now ease his financial burden,” says Otieno.

“Poultry farming has changed my life,” says an elated Kasina, who is now making more in a day than she used to make in a week.

Credit: Emma Odundo

Everline Odhaimbo waters her vegetables at Kaugege Beach. USAID’s Value Girls program is helping to reduce hunger and poverty in the country through agriculture and improved nutrition.

For Opiyo, it is the healthy appearance of her children that gives her the most joy. With the added bonus of a woman mentor for each of the business groups, the three are optimistic that they will surpass their current successes.

Their new lifestyles have been replicated by more than 1,400 other young women who joined the program since 2009. Having exceeded last year’s target of 1,000 women, and expanded from eight to 39 beaches, USAID’s $1.9 million Value Girl program may be ending in November—but none of the young women plan to abandon their new livelihoods.

“The metamorphosis is amazing. When hundreds of dependent young women become self-reliant, the effects will be felt for generations,” says Pharesh Ratego, Value Girls project manager at USAID, after visiting several beneficiaries. “By the looks of it, chicken and vegetables may soon replace fish as the local delicacy in the region.”

Learn more about livelihood programs and sexual and reproductive health on our website:

Elizabeth Futrell is an associate technical officer at FHI360, where she works on activities related to community-based family planning and youth sexual and reproductive health.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago

On July 26, ten up-and-coming Chicago fashion designers competed in the Heshima Kenya Fashion Challenge, an innovative event to benefit unaccompanied refugee girls who have arrived in Nairobi from conflict- and famine-ravaged regions of Africa. In 2007, Anne Sweeney and Talyn Good founded Heshima Kenya, a U.S. nonprofit organization based inNairobi, after noticing that most humanitarian relief efforts focus on general aid and overlook the unique and pressing needs of unaccompanied refugee minors.

© 2011 Melissa Hayes Photography

Heshima is the Swahili word for respect, honor, and dignity, and Heshima Kenya was founded on the belief that young people deserve to grow and develop with integrity and thrive in communities where their rights and interests are respected. Heshima Kenya works to carry out its mission by providing a continuum of holistic care to address issues of medical care, shelter, education, legal documentation, and family tracing. The program also promotes self-sufficiency by providing skills-building opportunities, resources, and economic support for a healthy transition to adulthood. Its staff works with partner organizations and local schools, clinics, and religious organizations to identify and protect additional unaccompanied refugee minors and spread awareness of their needs. Finally, the program builds the capacity of the refugee community to effectively care for minors and encourage youth participation as caregivers, volunteers, and mentors.

One initiative that has developed from Heshima Kenya, the Maisha Collective, offers refugee girls and young women from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Burundi economic opportunities with which to rebuild their lives. By managing a business collective that designs and produces a line of unique hand-dyed scarves, participants gain business and marketing skills that prepare them for future independence.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago - The winning design.

The Heshima Kenya Fashion Challenge was a Project Runway-inspired competition, emceed and judged by local celebrities and members of the Chicago fashion community. Competing designers each received one Maisha Collective scarf, chosen at random, and had two weeks to design an original women’s look. The judges critiqued each look and chose the winning design. The audience also voted on one designer to receive the People’s Choice Award. Guests had the opportunity to bid on the designer looks and, of course, purchase scarves.

Many of the designers said that their creations were inspired by the young women who made the scarves; in turn, there is no doubt that the members of the Maisha Collective in Nairobi will be inspired to see how the 10 American designers transformed their scarves into unique and beautiful couture.

© 2011 Onasis Odelmo, Courtesy of NBC Chicago

For a full slideshow of photos from the event, click here.

Elizabeth Futrell is an associate technical officer at FHI, where she works on activities related to community-based family planning and youth sexual and reproductive health.

In recent years, campaigns like the The Girl Effect and publications such as Half the Sky have called attention to the key role of women and girls in combating poverty and its many challenges, including HIV/AIDS. At a recent talk in Chicago titled, “Transmitting Hope for Women in the HIV/AIDS Pandemic,” Geeta Rao Gupta, former president of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), elaborated on why and how the global health community must focus on girls and women.

 Geeta began her focus on HIV prevention among women in sub-Saharan Africa in 1990, when a USAID colleague noticed that although most efforts to prevent HIV among women were targeted at women who sell sex, they were not the only women becoming infected with HIV. A team of researchers embarked on a 15-country research program to learn more about the realities of women’s sexual health and found that three key factors made women and girls disproportionately susceptible to HIV: (1) economic vulnerability, (2) harmful gender norms, and (3) disparities in access to health information and services. Compounding these challenges was the fact that, in many cases, even if women and girls did have access to HIV prevention information and services, unequal power dynamics left them unable to negotiate safer sexual practices with their partners. Further, many women felt unable to leave risky sexual relationships because of economic dependence or threat of violence. For these women, the immediate threats of physical harm and extreme poverty posed far greater risks than the possibility of dying of AIDS 10 years down the road. Public health messages about abstinence, faithfulness, and condom use did no good for the women who lacked power to negotiate these practices.

Therefore, Geeta argues that HIV prevention efforts must address not only individual risk behaviors, but also the societal structures that make women and girls vulnerable to HIV and other health threats. How do we do this? She says we must start with the understanding that broad generalizations about what works do not ring true for every context. While promising, single approaches like microfinance are not a magic bullet but just one of many tools to be used in creating long-term, structural solutions. Central to the wellbeing of women and girls is the creation of an enabling environment in which women and girls can apply their empowerment. The development, implementation, and enforcement of supportive laws and policy regarding education, land and inheritance rights, age of marriage, and gender-based violence are critical to this endeavor. So is legal literacy—women need to know what their rights are and how to obtain them. Educating women and girls on their rights, training judges and law enforcement to uphold and enforce protective laws, and deploying community legal workers to help women and girls navigate the legal system are important strategies for upholding the rights of women and girls.

Effective, evidence-based programming borne from context-specific research is also necessary. In other words, implementing organizations need to get the facts, understand the context, and mobilize resources for each unique setting rather than rushing to quick solutions. These organizations also must focus on building local capacity to sustain and scale up effective programs. Geeta notes that successful scale-up does not mean giving a local organization that has successfully implemented a program more money and telling it to reach an additional 10,000 people, but rather finding other organizations that can effectively replicate the program and asking them to help reach new audiences.

Just before the talk closed, an audience member asked whether any of the Millennium Development Goals are achievable. “Absolutely,” Geeta asserted. Some of these goals, including elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV by 2015 are within reach. We have the tools and the cost is low—all it will take is good partnerships, capacity building, and a critical mass of support to overcome the stigma still associated with HIV, another challenge faced disproportionately by women and girls.

Economic disparities fuel the HIV epidemic and contribute to other negative health outcomes among young people, especially adolescent girls. Sustainable livelihood programs aim to address these inequalities by providing young people with career training, skills development, and access to capital.  The following is the story of one young woman whose life was dramatically changed by a livelihood program.

In the city of Kisumu, Kenya, in the slum district of Nyllenda, there is a small, blue tin building located on a crowded dirt road. On most days, a woman named Mary sits in the back room of this building, quietly working at her sewing machine.

When Mary was 10, her life fell apart. First, she lost both of her parents in an automobile accident. After that, Mary and her six siblings moved in with her grandmother. The cost of feeding seven extra people was too much for the grandmother, and as the oldest sibling, Mary quickly became the primary caretaker. She was forced to leave school to sell small food items by the roadside. One day, Mary was raped by a group of men after stopping to ask for directions. Then, Mary met an older man whom she believed would support her financially, and she became romantically involved with him. At 18, however, she had a baby, and the man left her.

Her story is not uncommon; many adolescent girls in developing countries are faced with sexual violence, unintended pregnancy, lack of education, and pressure to contribute to a family income. However, Mary’s story took a turn for the better. One year ago, Mary enrolled in a sustainable livelihood program that she says has carried her from “nothing to something.” She learned many new skills and now earns enough wages to support herself and her family, and she is no longer dependent on men. She sells school uniforms and purses and hopes to one day own a tailoring business. Mary’s story demonstrates the tremendous effect economic opportunity can have on the life of adolescents.

Read more about livelihood programs.

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This blog is brought to you by the Interagency Youth Working Group (IYWG) with financial assistance from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. The content is managed by FHI, which functions as the secretariat for the IYWG.
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