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By Andrea Andres
7 March 2024

Who runs the world? We wish we could echo Beyonce and say ‘Girls!’ but sadly, it’s far from it.  

Adolescence (the ages of 10-19) is a vital period of development in a young girl’s life, but countless girls worldwide face barriers that block their path to building a better future for themselves. From violence and conflict to social norms, these hurdles often force girls to miss school or quit altogether. It's a harsh reality, but one that demands attention and action. 

With the proper support, protection and opportunity, adolescent girls are the changemakers, leaders and community-builders of today and tomorrow.  

This is why UNICEF is doing all we can to help make this a reality by investing in girls’ rights and accelerating progress. This International Women's Day, hear from our colleagues at UNICEF Australia about their firsthand experiences with the programs investing in a better future for women, girls and gender equality.  

The power of education 

Viv, UNICEF Australia International Programs Manager 

We know that adolescent girls are disproportionately excluded and left behind in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) learning, and therefore careers as they grow up. It can mean a lot to children from diverse or marginalised backgrounds to see themselves reflected in learning materials. It shows them that people that look like them can be successful too and gives them permission to dream bigger about their futures. 

In Papua New Guinea (PNG), girls’ enrolment in education is lower than boys in every grade due, in part, to social and cultural factors like early marriage and additional household demands placed on girls. These challenges in accessing education impact girls throughout their lifetimes, which is why UNICEF and its partners created the Teenpreneurs program. 

A women standing in front of a chalkboard in a classroom
Teenpreneurs is helping adolescents in Papua New Guinea develop their entrepreneur skills.
©UNICEF Australia/Moran/2023

The Teenpreneurs program gives girls the opportunity to learn the skills they need to build their own futures, and leadership skills that will help them thrive in whatever they choose to do. The project design was already grounded in the UNICEF mandate of reaching the most vulnerable children and young people, and the materials created help advance gender equality and disability inclusion in a way that is not only culturally appropriate, but also celebrated the PNG identity. 

One of the students participating in Teenpreneurs in Papua New Guinea is Wendy. With her Year-Six classmates, Wendy has built a market garden at her school grounds, growing and selling vegetables to raise money for their school. She’s also been given the very important role of Chief Executive Officer, leading a small group of boys and girls from her class through 10 modules to learn how to start their own business. 

A girl and two boys looking at a book
Wendy (middle) taking part in Teenpreneurs in Papua New Guinea.
©UNICEF Australia/Moran/2023

The opportunity these roles create is particularly powerful for girls like Wendy, showing them what they could dream of becoming and giving them space to explore their leadership skills in the classroom. 

Gender-transformative education is hugely important for gender equality impacting both girls and boys. And it starts with something as simple as the materials that boys and girls use to learn.  

"I have learnt how to plant crops, how to sell things and how to set up a business… If I pass school, I will set up my own business and control the money."

Teenpreneur Participant

Nurturing new beginnings 

A mother holds her newborn baby
A mother holds her newborn baby.
© UNICEF/UNI464418/UNICEF Sri Lanka

Bethany, UNICEF Australia International Programs Manager

Women and girls, especially during pregnancy and breastfeeding, have unique nutritional needs crucial for their well-being and that of their children.     

However, globally, women's nutritional status is often inadequate, particularly among adolescents and at-risk groups, leading to adverse outcomes like anaemia and low birth weight. Addressing these challenges is vital to ensure optimal health outcomes for mothers and their children worldwide.   

Visiting Sri Lanka in October 2023, I met with mothers striving to provide their children the best nutrition. However, due to the ongoing economic crisis, they struggled to purchase essential foods for themselves and their families.   

I met with mothers at a local preschool who shared that most of their money was going towards purchasing food, and protein foods such as fish and eggs were now too expensive. As a result, they have had to reduce the quality of food they purchase. Before, they would give their child an egg every day, but now they can only afford to give half an egg per day.   

A mother and her children in Sri Lanka.
A mother and her children in Sri Lanka.
©UNICEF Australia/Stirling/2023

With the pressure of feeding their children quality food, they also need to ensure they receive the proper nutrients, especially when pregnant. A lot of the children we met who were severely malnourished had mothers who were stunted or underweight. You could see the effect on generations, from mother to child, and the impact on their health and development. Ensuring sufficient nutrients for women is critical for their survival and quality of life and their growing babies, children and families.    

To tackle these issues, UNICEF is supporting healthcare providers with maternal care training, making it possible for healthcare providers to counsel 280,00 pregnant mothers on essential care for themselves and their little ones.   

UNICEF is also updating the Basic Maternal Care Guide for Health Professionals, a useful maternal resource, to include a stronger focus on maternal nutrition and include all women of reproductive age. This is important because while there are high rates of adolescent pregnancy – around 5% of total pregnancies registered belong to mothers less than 20 years old – it is likely underreported due to it being a very stigmatised issue. Because of this, a lot of health services and facilities are not always adolescent-friendly.   

"It's really exciting that the work in Sri Lanka means that health services and facilities will be better equipped and inclusive to support adolescent mothers who might otherwise slip through the cracks."

UNICEF Australia International Program Manager

Growing a more prosperous future 

Viv, UNICEF Australia International Programs Manager 

Burundi is a small East African country, very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. With dry seasons becoming longer and more severe, and with significant shortages in agricultural land, families are under increased pressure to put food on the table.  

A girl sitting at her desk in a classroom.
Ninette in her classroom in Burundi.
© UNICEF Burundi/2022

That's why UNICEF Australia worked with Australian production company Finch on a program that is focused on young people in Burundi developing creative problem-solving skills. Through our co-designed Creatable project, students like 16-year-old Ninette are learning how to create solutions to problems their communities face and are learning how to build vertical vegetable gardens in hessian bags and banana trunks.   

I visited this project in July 2023 to design its next phase, but it was even more special to be able to see the project firsthand supporting adolescents in Burundi.  

It was inspiring hearing the stories from adolescent boys and girls about how the project had transformed their lives in remarkable ways.  For instance, using rocket stoves not only reduced smoke inhalation and deforestation but also freed up time for girls to focus on their studies instead of gathering firewood as the stoves required less wood. 

Student uses her newly built rocket stove in her home.
Student from the 2021 Creatable program uses her newly built rocket stove in her home.
©UNICEF Burundi/2021

By also building vertical gardens at home, students and their families are growing easy-to-cultivate, nutritious vegetables to feed themselves or sell to their communities. Both girls and boys are involved in this education project, but it really came out of recognising the barriers that adolescent girls face in accessing STEM practical education.  

A man walking past outdoor vegetation on wooden shelves
Vertical gardens in Burundi, utilised by many in the community.
© UNICEF Australia/Harvey-Wong/2023

Now, girls are building skills and becoming seen in their communities as leaders, problem-solvers and entrepreneurs, alongside their male peers, shifting gender norms that have historically held girls back.   

We are now about to start Phase 2 of the Creatable Burundi project, which is aiming even higher to advance gender equality than Phase 1, which focused on improving girls’ access to practical STEM education.   

Phase 2 builds on that and scales up to reach even more adolescents in Burundi. It will include building important life skills such as financial literacy, which will be taught in a way to challenge harmful gender norms for both boys and girls, and continue to build leadership skills so that they can learn how to work together to solve problems they face together. 

By planting the seeds of creativity and innovation, the Creatable Burundi project supports girls like Ninette to grow and thrive. 

"The courses gave us new insights. We are well prepared for life after school because we discover our abilities to create…I will be creative to survive because I have taken these courses."

Creatable Participant

A positive ripple for all 

A woman standing in a field.
Christa-Bella, a Creatable student, at her sustainable agriculture project site in Burundi.
© UNICEF Burundi/2022

When we invest in the health, rights, and wellbeing of adolescent girls, we know that it can create a positive ripple effect that lifts entire countries. 

If the world’s adolescent girls are given the support, access and freedom to fulfill their potential, they can help overcome some of the world’s most pressing global challenges, including climate change, poverty and conflict, and contribute to inclusive, sustainable development.  

But perhaps even more importantly, when we invest in an adolescent girl, it means that her future can go down the path she decides. It means she is more likely to be able to go to school, develop her interests, build skills in those areas and thrive as she transitions into the workforce – and who knows what incredible strides she will make in her field of choice. 

This International Women’s Day, help empower girls to become empowered women. 

These programs are only possible thanks to our everyday supporters, partners and the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP). 

A girl writes and equation on a chalkboard.
©UNICEF/UN0539172/Leul Kinfu

Education for Every Girl

Let’s break down the barriers and help girls to become relentless and empowered.