The Empowerment of Young Adolescents

At the 11th World Congress on Adolescent Health in October 2017, Robert Blum presented some of the findings of the Global Early Adolescents Study (GEAS) that looked specifically at ’empowerment’ in early adolescence (10-14).

This work on adolescent empowerment is so important to our work that we are summarising it here for our community. You can find his full presentation here.

Professor Blum reminded us of the World Bank’s definition of empowerment:

“The process of enhancing an individual or group’s capacity to make effective choices.”

An adolescent girl in Sierra Leone makes a poster in which she is expressing her rights
An activity where adolescents were defining what rights mean to them

The research established scales to test adolescent empowerment in three dimensions. They found these scales on adolescent empowerment worked in each country:

  1. Voice
  2. Behavioural Control and Decision-Making; and
  3. Freedom of Movement.

The scales tested are as follows.

  1. Voice

1a. My parents or guardians ask for my opinion on things
1b. My parents or guardians listen when I share my opinion
1c. My friends ask my advice when they have a problem
1d. If I see something wrong in school or the neighbourhood I feel I can tell someone and they will listen
1e. I can speak up in class when I have a comment or question
1f. I can speak up when I see someone else being hurt
1g. I can ask adults for help when I need it

  1. Behavioural Control and Decision-making

2a. What clothes to wear when you are not in school/working
2b. What to do in your free time
2c. What to eat when you are not at home
2d. How much education you will get (e.g. (Baltimore -high school, university, graduate school), (Nairobi -Complete secondary school, Go to tertiary college, Go to university))
2e. Who you can have as friends
2f. Decide when to marry on your own
2g. Decide who you will marry on your own

  1. Freedom of Movement

3a. Go to after-school activities (like sports clubs)
3b. Go to a party with boys and girls
3c. Meet with friends after school
3d. Go to community centre/movies/youth centre
3e. Go to church/mosque/temple or religious centre
3f. Visit a friend of the opposite sex (e.g. visit a girl if you are a boy or visit a boy if you are a girl)

Blum made the vital point that these investigations tell us most about CAPACITY and reflected that the investments in youth empowerment tend to focus on the capacity element but  little on what he called “the opportunity structure”. By this we think he means , the opportunity to transform those choices they have the capacity into desired actions.

It’s problematic when an individual HAS the capacity but lacks the ability to exercise that capacity as this does not advance an individual’s or a group’s development.

As those of us in the ’empowerment business’ know all to well, it needs to be grounded in the lives and the context of which young people live.

Empowerment is about pushing the boundaries but unless you know the boundaries you neither know where to push them how to push them or how far to push them. We need to understand the contexts and also need to understand that Empowerment is a pathway to development not a pathway to personal happiness! To be empowerment in an environment that does not support that is to be at the margin of your community or environment. Push the boundaries and support the people. It matters and requires opportunity as well as capacity.

Robert Blum, IAAH2017

Young adolescents play a vital role in the care of young children

Note about the GEAS

This note is an extract from the abstract, Why We Must Invest in Early Adolescence: Early Intervention, Lasting Impact

The GEAS study is designed in two phases. Phase 1 focused on identifying common themes related to young adolescents’ norms and attitudes and sought to develop tools to measure changes in these norms and health behaviours for subsequent implementation in the second phase of research. Phase 2 will follow cohorts of young adolescents over 3 years in a smaller set of countries to understand how gender norms and attitudes evolve, while applying these new developed standardized, validated measurement tools. In select sites, the longitudinal study will be paired with intervention research for 10- to 14-year-olds. The data generated will help us to better understand how gender norms and attitudes are formed, and how they influence adolescent health behaviours and subsequent health outcomes.

The GEA and Further Reading

Saewyc, E.. (2017). A Global Perspective on Gender Roles and Identity. Journal of Adolescent Health. 61(4) S1-S54.

Blum RW, Mmari K, Moreau C.. (2017). It Begins at 10: How Gender Expectations Shape Early Adolescence Around the World. Journal of Adolescent Health. 61(4S):S3-S4.

Chandra-Mouli V, Plesons M, Adebayo E, Amin A, Avni M, Kraft JM, Lane C, Brundage CL, Kreinin T, Bosworth E, Garcia-Moreno C, Malarcher S. (2017). Implications of the Global Early Adolescent Study’s Formative Research Findings for Action and for Research. Journal of Adolescent Health. 61(4S):S5-S9.

Lane C, Brundage CL, Kreinin T. (2017). Why We Must Invest in Early Adolescence: Early Intervention, Lasting Impact. Journal of Adolescent Health. 61(4S):S10-S11.