Boosting Adolescent Girls' Agency Through Life Skills Training

Last Updated:
Last Updated:

Historically, women’s ability to exercise choice-–such as when to have children or whether to engage in income generating activities—has been constrained and remains severely limited, especially in low and middle-income countries. Barriers to women’s agency limit their capacity to advocate for investments in themselves, resulting in fewer years of education, more limited labor force participation, and earlier marriages than their male counterparts. Providing girls access to life skills training enhances their abilities to make choices to invest in their human capital accumulation.

While acknowledging that life skills are not a panacea to improve low human capital accumulation for women, there is growing evidence that life skills programmes may serve as a particularly effective avenue for addressing internal constraints to women's agency by strengthening women’s "power within." "Power within" can boost girls’ sense of self-worth and self-confidence, shape their attitudes to gender norms and improve their aspirations, leading them to invest in their own human capital accumulation.

J-PAL Africa’s Life Skills Policy Brief aims to serve as a resource for adolescent girls’ programming  leaders, policymakers, and funders working to design and improve life skills programmes, boost girls agency and improve life outcomes for girls and women.

This policy brief reviews 16 randomized evaluations of life skills programmes from low and middle income countries to provide a consolidated overview of the evidence landscape on life skills programming ; draw out key mechanisms leading to impact ; and highlight implications of the evidence for design.

Key findings from the meta-analysis include:

  • Life skills programmes work by delivering soft/psychological skills to girls, providing girls access to the mental and practical resources to make them feel that they can and are practically able to invest in their own human capital. This boosts girls’ agency which they exercise by making decisions to improve their lives, resulting in improved outcomes in education, labor, reproductive health, and gender based violence. 
  • Life skills programmes had a consistently positive impact on outcomes related to "power within" and education,  with more mixed impacts on outcomes related to labour, child marriage and pregnancy, as well as gender-based violence. 
  • There are at least four key ‘behavioral mechanisms' leading life skills programmes to be impactful including: 
    • Improving girls’ "power within" (confidence, aspirations and gender attitudes), allowing them to envision different alternatives for their lives;
    • Providing girls with additional information that changes the cost-benefit calculations of investing in human capital development;
    • Giving girls tools to negotiate for what they want; and
    • Helping girls build stronger social networks to support their decision-making process. 

The evidence has practical implications for designing life skills programmes, including: 

  • The need to identify the objectives of the life skills programme, as a start;
  • Assessing the extent to which internal factors are a binding constraint to achieving these objectives;
  • Constructing an appropriate theory of change for the programme including the mechanisms that can be appropriately leveraged within a given context;
  • Targeting the right group at the right age; and
  • The need to evaluate programmes to further answer critical questions about life skills and their impact.
  • More in-depth guidance on the practical application of life skills evidence insights can be found in our design guide co-developed with the Girls Education Challenge (GEC).