Hopes and dreams for adolescent girls in West and Central Africa

West and Central Africa today is the home of the forgotten girl. She may be Fatima in Western Cameroon, who at 12 years old can be found hiding behind her mother, about to be forcibly married to a 22-year-old man. Or 15-year-old Umu, hiding her pregnancy so she can finish high school in Sierra Leone. Or 10-year-old Sanya in Northern Nigeria, waking with nightmares of her school being burned down by violent extremists.

In the region, over 61 million adolescent girls continue to face unimaginable challenges to access their rights to safety, learning, health and well-being, which prevent them from developing their capabilities, accessing resources or unlocking skills and capacities that enable them to exercise strategic forms of agency and ultimately allow them to transition into improved livelihoods.

Today, in celebration of the International Day of the Girl, UNICEF’s West and Central Africa Regional office releases the Adolescent Girls Data Brief, produced in collaboration with UNICEF’s Data and Analytics Section.


The staggering statistics featured in the brief are sounding a loud cry.

  • Twenty-eight per cent of young women aged 20-24 have given birth before the age of 18. Adolescent birth rates are greatest among the poorest households and adolescent pregnancy is a major cause of death among 15-19-year-old girls.
  • Twenty-eight per cent of young women aged 20-24 have given birth before the age of 18. Adolescent birth rates are greatest among the poorest households and adolescent pregnancy is a major cause of death among 15-19-year-old girls.
  • With four in ten girls married before age 18, child marriage is one of the biggest challenges in the region. Evidence shows that adolescent girls from the poorest households, residing in remote or rural parts of the country, and with low education attainment, are more likely to be married.
  • One in four ever-married adolescent girls in WCA has experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence by a husband or partner in the last year. Across the region, nearly one in ten girls have reported forced sex. Emergencies often exacerbate sexual violence against girls.
  • Exposure to violence increases risks of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Girls account for seventy-six percent of new HIV infections among adolescents aged 10-19 in WCAR.
  • With the widest gender gap in education, the region is home to nearly 18 million out-of-school adolescent girls of lower and upper secondary school age. While primary education is essential for children, secondary education is critical for the empowerment of women, as it lays the foundation for a healthy and productive life, and access to decent work.
  • In a third of countries in the region with available data, children born to adolescent mothers are more likely to be stunted which could be the result of insufficient maternal decision-making power, lesser ability to cover health care costs and negative perceptions of healthcare providers attitudes.


Adolescent girls – particularly those from poor households, minority groups, or living in rural areas – are amongst the most marginalized. If the region is to achieve the SDGs, adolescent girls require our urgent attention.


The future doesn’t have to be one of crushed hopes

The acceleration of gender-responsive and transformative interventions during adolescence can achieve more equitable outcomes that can persist into adulthood.[1]

Adolescence provides a second window of opportunity – a chance to catch up and redress earlier negative experiences, as well as to ensure that previous investments are not lost during a time when children enter adolescence and face new risks and vulnerabilities.[2] Investing in adolescent girls’ education and health today can also contribute to decreasing the transmission of intergenerational inequality and lead to better outcomes for future children.




Investment in adolescent girls benefits all of us – by reducing early childbearing, laying a good foundation for young mothers’ and children’s health throughout their lives, and improving learning outcomes and future wages. This in turn reduces health costs and future welfare spending, and a better educated labor force can contribute to economic growth which benefits society at large.


Reaping the benefits for nations, societies and crucially, for girls themselves

According to projections, the adolescent girl population in West and Central Africa will grow to almost 81 million by 2030.[3] Investments through these six evidence-informed strategies will transform the lives of adolescent girls and allow nations, societies and crucially girls themselves to reap the benefits.


  • Scale up integrated programming that appreciates the holistic and multi-dimensional aspects of adolescent girls’ lives. Multi-sectoral programme packages that recognize these inter-connected vulnerabilities and risks can enhance results and improve effectiveness and sustainability.
  • Address the politics that foster regressive environments for girls. National governments must keep their commitments to gender equality and ensure these commitments have an impact on the everyday lives of adolescent girls.
  • Engage boys and men as part of the gender norm transformation. Cooperatives model for transforming gender relations through gender synchronized programming [4] – addressing gender norms across all members of the community – can be further expanded in the region.
  • Harness the power of evidence. More information is needed to determine ‘’what works under what conditions’’ for adolescent girls – especially in contexts as diverse as in the West and Central Africa region. Implementation research to strengthen delivery is one option to advance stocktaking and finding solutions at the same time. At a minimum, country-level data reporting needs to be age and sex disaggregated.
  • All parts of society have a role to play. In Africa, the private sector is increasingly stepping up and offers many opportunities for investments that benefit adolescent girls: e.g. in the form of providing decent jobs, expanding skills and training programs, or addressing gender inequalities in marketing.
  • Enabling participation and voice is key. Listening to adolescent girls and understanding their perspectives and challenges is key to finding solutions on issues that matter most to them. It is our responsibility to create opportunities for them to speak and be listened to – for their empowerment and everyone’s benefit.


Prerna Banati is the Regional Advisor for Adolescent Development and Catherine Müller is the Regional Gender and Development Specialist. Both are based in UNICEF’s West and Central Africa Regional Office.


For more on the topic, visit the UNICEF Data & Analytics Gender Equality page.

A French version of this blog post is found here.



[1] Kabeer, N. (2018), Gender, livelihood capabilities and women’s economic empowerment. Reviewing evidence over the life course, GAGE, Oversees Development Institute, London, UK

[2] Banati P and Camilletti E. (2018) https://blogs.unicef.org/evidence-for-action/three-windows-of-opportunity-for-adolescents/

[3] United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2019). World Population Prospects 2019, Online Edition.

[4] Gender-synchronized programs “view all actors in society in relation to each other, and seek to identify or create shared values among women and men, within the range of roles they play (i.e., mothers-in-law, fathers, wives, brothers, caregivers, and so on)— values that promote human rights, mutual support for health, non-violence, equality, and gender justice” (Greene, M. E., & Levack, A. (2010). Synchronizing gender strategies: A cooperative model for improving reproductive health and transforming gender relations).