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Beijing+25: why we should work with families to upskill adolescent girls

Girls in extra-curricular computer class. Photo: NISER

Discrimination in labour markets remains a significant roadblock to achieving gender equality and empowerment of women and girls.

Earning an income is of profound importance for women and girls’ wellbeing. In Central and South Asia,  the number of women in the labour force has  decreased by 2% (from 36 to 34). While girls are slowly overtaking boys in secondary education, women and girls continue to be left behind in the labour force. Even when employed, women’s employment is increasingly concentrated in low-paying, service-sector occupations.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has revealed – more than ever – why it is important to ensure women and girls (of working age) need to earn an income. In Nepal, financial dependency on men is the main cause of exacerbated rates of gender-based violence and women taking risky jobs during  the pandemic. It’s also why UNGA and Beijing +25  must adjust the world of work equitably to the unique needs of women and girls but also empower them to fare better in it.

In Nepal, GAGE has found critical evidence as to why girls are not equipped for dignified and safe work:

  • parental discrimination in educational and upskilling;
  • drop-out from education for care work or marriage;
  • restrictions on mobility.

These factors stymie any chance of girls developing their economic capabilities, and demonstrate how interventions are most significant during adolescent years.

Families are contradictory spaces for the empowerment of women and girls. Conservative gender norms often make it challenging for  individual women and girls’  to enjoy their fair share and rights and families rarely work as shock absorbers for women and girls as they do for men and boys.  Understanding how and why this happens, and how we can work around it is important.

Parents face normative and practical barriers in making families equitable for girls.  Marriage is largely understood to be the ultimate success for girls.  Social norms prescribe that the duty of parents towards a daughter is to marry her off to a good home as soon as she comes of marriageable age, to ensure she has a secure “home” of her own for the rest of her life. Parents who allow girls to opt for higher education or careers are stigmatised for neglecting their duty.  Girls who are not married beyond a certain age are seen as failures even if they have successful careers. In Nepali society, where preferences for young brides  makes marriageable age very low ( 19-25 years on average),  parents have a hard time finding a groom if girls are older and the marriage usually requires the girl to compromise as a return for her age.

Furthermore, parents are stigmatised for using girls’ incomes for household expenses, whereas boys of the same age are expected to earn for the family. There is no direct incentive for families to invest in girls’ skills or education over early marriage. Growing up in this environment, girls usually have limited career aspirations and succumb to early marriages arranged by their parents. They fear the consequences of late marriage, and rarely think of negotiating investment in their education.

It is critical that Beijing +25 invest in families and girls to help them work towards upskilling adolescent girls. It should work to create pathways from education to earning an income, and highlight the importance of investing in adolescent girls for better job outcomes later.

Here are four priorities for Beijing +25 and investment in adolescent girls:

  1. Stimulate career orientation in schools for girls, including opportunities to interact with employers, and educate parents on the importance of investing in the upskilling of girls.
  2. Leverage vocational and technical education, digital access and digital skills in school curriculums.
  3. Work with families and girls to push for greater and more practical commitment in advancing adolescence girls’ career pathways.
  4. Build agency through adolescent groups and clubs to help them negotiate their career aspirations with their families.