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Investing in teenage girls for a more just, stable and peaceful world in Myanmar

Janet E. Jackson, UNFPA representative for Myanmar


Teenage years for some girls are a time of exploration, learning, discovery and increasing autonomy. But for many girls, these are a time of increasing vulnerability and exclusion from rights and opportunities.

Teenage years for boys and girls are also phase of intense physical, emotional, social and intellectual change and adaptation. This period has its excitements and its risks. The line between what is safe or dangerous, helpful or harmful, is often thin and hard to decipher. Logic may get thrown to the wind in the interest of the moment.

Yet it is in these impressionable years that guidance and life skills education, through a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health care information and services, could be so critical.

In Myanmar, as in many other parts of Asia and the world, girls in their teens still are drawn into relationships and get pregnant against their will and with little preparation, understanding and ability to assert or defend themselves. They are more often than not, ill equipped when it comes to protecting themselves from situations that could lead to unprotected sex and violence, with all its consequences – emotionally, physically and socially. An estimated 14.6% of pregnancies occur among teenagers. This affects their potential for relationships and other opportunities. It turns curiosity into fear. Teenage girls thrive when the environment is just, stable and peaceful. I have heard terrifying accounts from young girls who found themselves in difficult and threatening situations. I have heard from distraught mothers on the effects that these experiences have on their daughters and their family, especially when this means girls leaving home in search of work. Girls need to be safe if they are to reach their full potential. Fear is a major stifler of potential. Society, school and home need to be places where teenagers feel safe, empowered and encouraged to thrive.

When a teenage girl has the power, the means and the information to make her own decisions in life, she is more likely to overcome obstacles that stand between her and a healthy, prospective and productive future. This will benefit her, as well as her family and her community.

And programmes to this effect exist and can be provided. Given through a variety of modalities in school and out of school, these help guide teenagers to understand themselves, their bodies and their emotions and values, as they take decisions, make choices, and forge friendships and relationships. It also teaches tolerance and respect, which are so fundamental for a more just, stable and peaceful world. It creates within young people a desire to act responsibly and live in peace along-side those from different cultures, beliefs, backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities. It builds understanding and cohesion between different groups and with minority groups. So many teenagers have grown up affected by recurring natural disasters and emergencies, conflict and inter-communal strife. Teenagers can cross barriers that have been created as a result of this – building on what is shared and learning to respect differences and pushing back on the cultural and social traps that are too easy to fall into. Teenagers need to be involved in political and economic changes so that they are able to influence as much as being influenced by the transition process.

Girls more so than boys, have been socialized to hold back and accept being held back from pursuing their ambitions. The teenage years are a time when girls should be in school and imagining the possibilities ahead. While a boy’s options and opportunities tend to expand when he becomes an adolescent, those of a girl too often shrink. Myanmar experiences the same. Soon a number of census thematic reports will be ready and will provide more in-depth understanding of teenage years, learning, working and responsibility.

Living with a disability but empowered: Teenager Ms. Thazin Thiri Khit sings, with the Future Music Child Band at World Population Day 

In Myanmar, fewer girls than boys attend high school. Yet, indications are that those who do stay in school between ages 16-19, can match their male counterparts, or even excel over the boys when they are given equal chances.

Worldwide, half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls aged 15 or younger. Being young and female makes girls especially vulnerable.

When she has no say in decisions about her education, health, work or even marital status, she may never realize her full potential or become a positive force for transformation in home, community and society.

Myanmar is a country in political transition, and it is also a country in demographic transition. Over the next 8 to 10 years, the country will have its largest ever number of teenagers. This is an opportunity to boost the productivity and economy of the country. And it is an opportunity to invest in order to get equal numbers of girls as boys trained and fit for the workforce. Today only 50% of women are employed, while over 80% of men are working. Myanmar has a unique opportunity to reap a double dividend in both its youth and in gender. This can add to the country being just, stable and more peaceful, therefore increasing its prospects of becoming more prosperous.

However, this double dividend can only be realized if investments are made by both the Government and civil society organizations in teenage girls and youth more generally. Why teenage girls in particular? The answer is complex, but also clear and compelling. Visualize these two scenarios:

When an teenage girl leaves school because of an unintended pregnancy, when she is not free to decide when to marry or how many children to have and when to have them, when she suffers illness and injury from a childbirth that her body is not ready for, when she does not have decent employment, when she is unable to earn, save and accrue wealth that will enable her to invest in her children, and live with security in old-age – she is powerless. Her ability to contribute to her community and her country remains untapped.

On the other hand, when a teenage girl can stay in school, remain healthy through childbearing and adulthood, and be protected from discrimination, sex work and displacement – she becomes an asset to society and fulfilled in herself as a person. She is well placed to negotiate on an equal footing with boys.

The ability of teenage girls to reach their full potential depends on three simple words: Empower! Educate! Employ!

Empowerment comes from policies that advance gender equality. It comes from investments in family planning and counselling services so that women, including teenage girls, can have the choices that protect them from unwanted pregnancies (11% of abortion related deaths occur to 15-19 year old girls). Empowerment comes from a functioning health system that is well equipped with skilled midwives for safe childbirth.

Education is equal access for boys and girls to education, providing equal opportunities to good jobs and employment security. It is comprehensive sexual education, teaching girls and boys how to respect their bodies and dignity.
Education is giving teenage girls access to information, helping them to avoid unintended pregnancy, thus allowing them to stay in school.

Employment means decent jobs, including for young women. It means equal pay for equal work. It means to engage teenage girls when developing national labour policies and strategies.

The window for a double dividend is opening for Myanmar. But it’s not a free bonus or an automatic process. Decisions made now will seal the future and fate of Myanmar’s young people, and will determine if today’s teenage girls will become an asset or a missed opportunity for Myanmar.

Myanmar needs to seize this window of opportunity by investing in teenage girls in ways that empower them to make important life decisions, to stay healthy, and to equip them to one day earn a living, engage in the affairs of their communities, and be on an equal footing with their male counterparts.

On this World Population Day, I urge Myanmar’s Government, businesses and civil society to support and invest in teenage girls. Everyone deserves the benefits of economic growth and social progress. Let us work together to ensure a life of security, dignity and opportunity for all.

UNFPA’s works to empower and educate teenage girls so that they can reach their full potential 


Janet E. Jackson, UNFPA country representative, Myanmar, emphasizes that teenage girls are an asset for the future of the country