During the Young Lives conference we heard many accounts of what shapes young people’s lives; from the ways in which poverty and social convention constrain girls’ options and resources, to their extraordinary resilience and strategies of resistance; from the place of the law in social change, to the contribution of community advocacy efforts. There was a clear recognition of the advances that have been made in gender equality over recent decades and a celebration of the remarkable contribution to this process made by feminist and human rights activists across the globe. The increasingly active and effective role of young people in these arenas was also highlighted. A shared commitment to re-framing adolescence and youth in a more constructive light, as a time of both responsibility and opportunity, was apparent from the outset.
However, at the same time, concerns were expressed about how in development efforts girls and young women are increasingly instrumentalised as a vehicle for economic growth. In this sense, laying the hopes of the Global Goals at the feet of adolescents and youth, and particularly female adolescents and youth, may detract from their inherent right to social justice.
Then again, the emphasis conference participants gave to the many ways in which girls and young women are disadvantaged as compared to boys and young men left me wondering whether we may be underestimating the obstacles faced by males. Take, for example, their often fruitless efforts to continue their education in the face of family expectations that they work to boost household income. In fact the gender story emerging from Young Lives is quite a complicated one and we find that in some places and some respects boys are worse off than girls. This suggests that it is really important to avoid jumping to conclusions about gender.