The impact of skills development on adolescent girls in Uganda and Liberia


Published 07.12.17
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Neil Thomas/Corbis via Getty Images

Gender-sensitive youth employment programmes combining income generation and life skills training can be effective in helping adolescent girls succeed

We often hear about a looming youth employment crisis in low-income countries. The ‘youth bulge’ means that millions are entering the workforce each year — 12.6 million young people over the next four years in sub-Saharan Africa alone — while job growth remains low (International Labour Organisation (ILO) 2017). The 2013 World Development Report on jobs predicted that the global economy must create 600 million new jobs from 2005–2020 just to keep up with rapid population expansion. Not only is there an insufficient number of jobs for large youth populations, but beyond wage employment, many youths are underemployed, working in informal self-employment.

Labour constraints facing women and girls

The situation is worse for adolescent girls, because they face constraints to working outside the home that their male counterparts do not: in sub-Saharan Africa, 14.9% of young women (aged 15-24) are unemployed, compared to 11.4% of young men (World Bank World Development Indicators, modeled ILO estimates).

Moreover, in sub-Saharan Africa young women tend to have lower levels of education than men, so they are less equipped for work; they do not have as much time available for work because of their expected domestic duties; and they often do not pursue work in high-paying fields because they are not considered suitable for women. Young women’s career development is also often derailed by early childbearing. However, most youth employment programmes do not consider the specific constraints that women face.

Both hard and soft skills are required to succeed in the labour market

Two sets of skills contribute to success in the labour market: life skills and income generation skills. Life skills, including work place readiness, emotional regulation and interpersonal skills, are strongly correlated with labour market outcomes (Heckman and Kautz 2012). Income-generation skills are also critical as these are the technical and business skills needed to earn a living. The 2018 World Development Report on education notes the need for formal education to equip students with the skills they need to live productive lives.

In sub-Saharan Africa, we observe many countries are not successfully teaching the necessary skills. Adolescence is a critical juncture in women’s lives and offers a window of opportunity for acquiring life skills and income generation skills, especially as some of these are much harder to develop at later stages of life. For example, evidence suggests that interventions that target women during adolescence are particularly effective at addressing a range of outcomes related to human capital development, labour market opportunities, early marriage, and risky sexual behaviour (Borghans et al. 2008).

Traditional approaches, such as technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programmes, tend to focus only on income-generation skills and have shown a mixed record of securing employment for graduates and an even worse record of cost effectiveness (Blattman and Ralston 2015). Vocational training programmes often do not include childcare as part of the programme, which may lead to lower female take-up.

There is little evidence to support the effectiveness of business skills training, with very few programmes leading to increased sales or business profits (Cho et al. 2014, McKenzie and Woodruff 2012), and even when they do, results tend to be restricted to male participants. Factors such as limited mobility and decision-making power seem to confine women to certain types of businesses that tend to generate low profits, limiting the ability of business skills training to enable the expansion of their enterprises beyond subsistence level.

Training that imparts multiple skills simultaneously can help adolescent girls succeed

Evidence from an impact evaluation led by my team, the World Bank's Africa Region Gender Innovation Lab (GIL), suggests that programmes combining income generation skills and life skills training can be especially effective.

Working with co-authors, I evaluated the Empowerment and Livelihood for Adolescents (ELA) programme, implemented in Uganda by the non-governmental organisation (NGO), BRAC. This programme uses girl-only clubs to deliver vocational training for self-employment and life skills training. The club sessions are led by young women who are slightly older than the participants and are held outside of regular school hours, so that both school drop-outs and currently-enrolled girls can attend.

Findings: Impact on income and decision-making

Our evaluation demonstrated that the programme had major impacts on business income, and on girl’s decision-making power over childbearing, marriage and sex (Bandiera et al. 2017).

Girls in the Ugandan ELA programme were:

  • 72% more likely to be engaged in income generating activities,
  • 26% less likely to have a child,
  • 58% less likely to be married or cohabiting,
  • 25% more likely to report always using a condom during sexual intercourse,
  • 44% less likely to have had sex against their will over the previous 12 months,
  • more likely to view earning income as an activity that both men and women should do, and
  • reported self-employment earnings three times greater compared to the baseline mean.  

Our team also found positive impacts in an evaluation of a similar programme in Liberia – the Economic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls and Young Women (EPAG). Relative to the Uganda ELA, the Liberia programme had more intensive vocational skills training and less life skills training.

The project split the participants into two groups: one group received business skills training, and the other received job skills training (with both groups receiving some life skills training). Overall, participants were 47% more likely to find employment and increase their earnings by 80% (Adoho et al. 2014). The impact was greater for the business skills training participants, highlighting the importance of focusing on business skills in places where wage employment is often very limited.

While EPAG brought a greater absolute increase in income than ELA, it had mixed impacts on fertility. Overall, the evidence from the Uganda and Liberia programmes demonstrates just how much can be achieved when we simultaneously address a range of constraints faced by women during adolescence.

Creating gender-sensitive youth employment programmes

The results of our impact evaluations in Uganda and Liberia, along with other similar research, provide several key lessons for the design of gender-sensitive youth employment programmes.

1. Target young women with programme design features that work for them.

“Gender-blind” programmes will have fewer female participants. Programmes must specifically address constraints to young women’s participation by:

  • providing childcare,
  • holding trainings in accessible and safe locations, and
  • making transportation easy and safe.

The Liberia EPAG pilot allowed young women to choose the timing of their classes and saw a sizable increase in participation as a result. The Uganda ELA programme offered trainings in participants’ own neighborhoods for easy and safe access (World Bank 2017).

2. For long-lasting social and economic effects, target pre-adolescent girls.

Youth employment programmes often target out-of-school women who may already have children and face other family and social constraints. Programmes are most effective in impacting girls’ behaviour before marriage or engagement in sexual activity. Building on lessons from EPAG, the International Rescue Committee’s Sister of Success (SOS) programme in Monrovia, Liberia targeted girls aged 12 to 15. BRAC also reduced the lower age limit for its ELA programme from 14 to 11 when it replicated it in Tanzania. Both new projects are also being evaluated by Gender Innovation Lab teams.

3. Engage partners, parents and communities to create an environment where girls’ education and labour market entry is supported.

Non-experimental evidence from a number of African countries suggests that engaging men and boys is key in creating enabling environments for girls (Erulkar and Tamrat 2014, IPPF 2010). However, virtually all programmes to date have targeted older, married couples and focused on reproductive health. To fill the knowledge gap and generate evidence on what works to empower adolescent girls, GIL is currently testing whether implementing boys’ clubs in the same communities as girls’ clubs helps shift gender norms in Cote d’Ivoire.

Scaling up what works

The lessons discussed here are now being used to inform the design of projects focused on skills development for girls around the world. The Tejaswini Socioeconomic Empowerment of Adolescent Girls and Young Women project in India scaled up the lessons learned in Uganda and Liberia to offer a comprehensive package of activities for approximately 400,000 adolescent girls aged 14-24, including community-based social support, life skills education, business skills and vocational training.

The Sahel Women’s Empowerment and Demographic Dividend (SWEDD) Project is establishing safe space clubs to delivers services to adolescent girls, including life skills and sexual and reproductive health training and mentorship in six countries, and reaching around 300,000 girls and women. These are large scale government programmes that will reach hundreds of thousands of young girls and generate further evidence on the effectiveness of a variety of skills development programme components.


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