Bringing Girls into the Data Revolution

This post originally appeared on Devex.

The phrase “what gets measured gets done” has been bandied about the development field for years, taking on the status of a truism. We’ve heard even more about data recently because of the Sustainable Development Goals.

It’s good news that the international development field finally seems to be pushing past the rhetoric. The indicators that will measure the SDGs are more complex, intersecting and sophisticated than we have ever seen before, and they will help us understand the world better. We will have a clearer picture of the populations we should be reaching and be able to create better policies and programs.

The bad news is that the SDG indicators are not nearly enough. Many of the indicators simply count specific populations: those who were married as children, those who died in pregnancy, those who live beneath the poverty line. These indicators don’t tell us enough about the why or how. This is particularly true for the most consistently unseen and unheard population: girls.

The theme of International Day of the Girl this year is “Girls’ Progress=Goals’ Progress: A Global Girl Data Movement.” There is no argument that a focus on girls is needed to achieve the SDGs, nor that we need a data revolution. There are obvious gaps in what we know about girls’ lives, hampering our efforts to improve their lives.

For example, we don’t have good data on the number of girls who are married between ages 10-14. But the data revolution must go beyond just counting girls. It must go further than the often-cited need for sex-disaggregated data. It must encompass more than official data sources, such as the Demographic and Health Surveys, national statistical commissions, and U.N. agencies.

To supplement these sources, we need to look to the local organizations that work most closely with girls, and we must be willing to ask difficult and complicated questions. For example, the Association to Combat Violence against Women-Extreme North or ALVF-EN, recently conducted a study on the practice of child, early and forced marriage in Cameroon. They confirmed what we already know from counting married girls: Child marriage is epidemic in Cameroon. Nearly 40 percent of girls are married by the age of 18.

But what this simple statistic could not tell us is who these girls are and why they are getting married. So ALVF-EN dug deeper. Through more detailed research, they found that girls ages 13-15 were most affected by child marriage in the northern part of the country. They found that traditional cultural norms are the key driver of marriage (cited more than poverty). They also discovered that marriage and virginity of brides is tightly tied to the honor of whole families, meaning that marriage is not just about the girl herself.

Similarly, in India, Nirantar Trust conducted research on the dynamics of child marriage in the country. They recognized the need to look beyond the numbers. They looked at root causes, such as the centrality of marriage to Indian culture and concerns over girls’ sexuality. They realized that it wasn’t enough to focus on just delaying marriage; if they were going to have any success, they had to address deeply entrenched social norms and empower girls.

Armed with these findings, ALVF-EN, Nirantar and other local groups can create programs that specifically and strategically target girls at an early age. They can work to detangle marriage from familial honor and virginity, and they can address harmful gender norms. This type of detailed, more qualitative information can inform projects that can be life-changing for girls; we shouldn’t underestimate its value.

By not limiting data collection to the official indicators of the SDGs and official sources, some will worry that we are losing control of data or that we could sacrifice the data’s validity or legitimacy. But this assumes that local organizations cannot conduct rigorous research. Experience shows they can, and do.

We must ensure those who have the most to say about the lived experiences of girls around the world have their voices heard. These experiences and this knowledge should be fed into the official SDG processes, at the global and national levels. Girls everywhere are counting on us to make this happen.

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