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Women Deliver Conference 2023: What we’ve learned and what we’re doing about it

Gathering over 6,000 global gender equality activists in Kigali, Rwanda from 17-20 July 2023 and over 200,000 people virtually, the Women Deliver 2023 Conference was inspirational, forward-looking, timely, and, at times, controversial. As the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and the global rollback on women and girls’ rights continue to reverse progress on gender equality, the Women Deliver Conference messages rang loudly and passionately – here are our key takeaways, and how we will implement them in the coming months.

1. Step up investment in girl-led programming and girls’ leadership:

Across plenaries, concurrent and side events, in the corridors of exhibition halls and at the lunch queue, one message resonated widely: trust feminist organizations, trust feminist funds, and trust – and fund – the women and girls in communities making tangible change happen across the globe. We heard speaker after speaker call on donors to trust girls to be actors, not beneficiaries. We heard speaker after speaker call on donors to decolonize risk by reframing donor requirements in order to allow girls the time and money to register their organizations, build their capacity for auditing and rent for an office without which many funds are not accessible. We heard speaker after speaker call on donors to understand that value for money might mean accepting a hand-written receipt from a local female fruit vendor in the streets of a refugee camp.

At our concurrent event “Where is the money? Funding adolescent girls and young feminists” in partnership with the Adolescent Girls Investment Plan (AGIP), donors were challenged to step up investments to girls. GAGE framed the event by presenting our recent report Investing in adolescent girls: mapping global and national funding patterns from 2016-2020 highlighting that approximately 5% of donor official development assistance (ODA) has been flowing to adolescent girls’ wellbeing globally, and that in 2021 only 1% of that ODA went to youth-led organizations. Panel speakers and event participants discussed the urgency for more donors to support the feminist funding ecosystem and get money in the hands of girl-led organizations.

To support this, GAGE has initiated a new research workstream in partnership with AGIP investigating the value and challenges of resourcing girls directly. Our study will explore the achievements and impact of investment that is channeled directly to girl-and-youth-led organizations in low-and-middle income (LMIC) contexts in order to generate evidence on 1) the state of funding available to girl-and-youth led groups/organizations; and 2) what works/the impact of that funding on programming. While the WD Conference served to advocate the need to fund girl-and-youth-led organizations, our research will add to its evidence base.

2. The first ever Girls Deliver pre-conference at WD 2023, highlighted the need for multi-sectoral investment and multi-sectoral programming to advance adolescent girls’ wellbeing. Inspirational plenaries from Malala Yousafzai, Stacey Abrams, Vanessa Nakate and adolescent girl activists Condolizzarice Akumawah and Kalpa Garg, as well as sessions throughout the day coalesced around the notion that “girls don’t face single-issue lives as all issues are interconnected and coming at them at once.” It is paramount that we move towards an ecosystem of integrated investment and programming that tackles the complexities of girls’ lives holistically. Importantly, “multi-sectoral” was defined to include investment and programming that cuts across spheres of wellbeing – not operating in silos by bridging the education, bodily autonomy, sexual and reproductive health, mental health and active citizenship domains – but also to mean the increased appreciation and inclusion of the socio-ecological context in which girls exist. Parents remain key to driving gender-transformative change. Boys are the number one ally on the road to gender equality. Whole communities need to promote and encourage the resilience and leadership of girls; and partnerships between large implementers, grassroots organizations, governments, private sector and researchers will enable the reach we need to ensure no girl is left behind. If we fail this piece of the puzzle, we will fail girls.

To this end, GAGE has been evaluating a range of multi-sectoral interventions. We have recently finalized impact evaluation findings (journal article and brief) of the Act With Her (AWH) programme in Ethiopia, implemented by Pathfinder International and Care Ethiopia and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, aiming to support young adolescents acquire a range of life skills, puberty and SRHR knowledge, and critically reflect on discriminatory gender norms in the community.  Our study finds that when interventions are carefully implemented and include strong community-level support and buy-in, there are improvements in girls’ outcomes. Conversely, when implementation is patchy and there is less community support, improvements in outcomes are weaker. We are also finalizing midline evaluation findings the UNICEF Jordan Makani Programme, an integrated empowerment programme that provides adolescents in humanitarian contexts with safe spaces, learning support, life skills courses, referrals to psychosocial and child protection services, as well as offering parent education classes and a labelled cash transfer for education as well as a tablet distribution programme aimed at improving vulnerable students’ access to digital skills. We have also completed midline data collection in Bangladesh exploring World Bank programming to improve secondary school outcomes and offset school drop out – including the risk of child marriage.

This autumn, we will also be launching longitudinal qualitative data collection as part of the Strengthening Adolescent Girls’ Sexual & Reproductive Health “Foundations” project in partnership with Global Affairs Canada, Save the Children Canada and many other partners, whose goal is to enhance the empowerment of adolescent girls to exercise their adolescent sexual and reproductive health (ASRH) and rights in Mali, Niger, and Sierra Leone. By engaging parents, adult caregivers, teachers, community leaders, health providers, civil society organizations (CSOs) including women’s rights organizations (WROs), and government decision-makers, the project aims to generate sustainable, gender-transformative change. Watch this space.

3. Harness the power of useful data and evidence

When launching the World Bank Group’s 2034-2030 Gender Strategy consultations, Hana Brixi, World Bank Global Gender Director, stated, “In the face of rollback on women and girls’ rights, the positive story is that we have data and evidence on what works.” While it is clear that evidence-based decision making drives smart investment and successful programming, the problem is that data does not always reach the people that need to hear it. At the Girl’s Deliver preconference, Caroline Kabiru from the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) explained that the main challenge for expanding the use of evidence is that researchers do not understand policy processes and policy makers do not understand research – and certainly not research timelines! Beyond nurturing partnerships between researchers and policy makers and engaging in mutual capacity building efforts, she also discussed the need for researchers to more effectively and rapidly synthesize volumes of evidence as, ultimately, communicating complex research more simply will increase the uptake of findings.

At GAGE we are increasing evidence communication in audience-tailored ways. We are expanding efforts to harness digital, social and traditional media to reach more diverse audiences – including adolescents and youth – by developing research products in a range of formats. We are expanding our multimedia library, including recent launch of a dedicated podcast in promotion of our book ‘Young people in the Global South: Voice, agency and citizenship’ (forthcoming 2023), and we are expanding partnerships for event planning and research dissemination.

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