For some time now, the global development community has known that investing in the health and education of marginalized girls creates a ripple effect. An educated girl is more likely to be healthy, find work, and reinvest her income in her family than a boy (90 percent of her future income vs. 35 percent for a boy). 

We have made major progress in improving girls’ outcomes—the number of girls out of primary school today in developing countries is half what it was in 1990—but we have a long way to go. There are still 250 million girls in poverty and more than 30 million who don’t have access to education. India provides a prime example: Despite its status as one of the fastest-growing economies, nearly 65 percent of India’s girls still don’t complete their elementary education due to early marriage, child labor, trafficking, or discrimination.

How can we improve girls’ health and education faster and more effectively, and accelerate and amplify the progress we’ve made? By addressing a critical missing link in nearly all development efforts to improve girls’ outcomes: attention to a girl’s ability to bounce back and thrive—her resilience

Research shows that resilience is not an innate talent or quality; it’s the result of a set of internal and social skills and supports that we can learn, cultivate, and harness. In at-risk youth, assets such as self-confidence, self-efficacy, optimism, persistence, assertive communication, and problem-solving skills are some of the most important factors in overcoming obstacles. Of three important features of childhood development—academic, emotional, behavioral—emotional well-being is the primary predictor of whether a child will become a satisfied and happy adult; academic achievement is the least important.

Intrinsically motivated, hopeful, emotionally and socially resilient girls respond to adversity and challenges in ways that are constructive, productive, and meaningful. They advocate for their rights. They are more altruistic, engaging in activities that benefit the greater good. And yet, we’ve applied surprisingly little rigorous, evidence-based resilience interventions in the developing world to improve well-being and reduce poverty among marginalized adolescent girls, despite more than 50 years of research in higher-income countries.

Since 2009, our US-based nonprofit, CorStone, has been working to build resilience among high-poverty, low-caste, minority girls in India’s urban slums and rural villages. In a major research effort funded by the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, our flagship resilience program, Girls First, was just tested in a first-of-its-kind randomized controlled trial (RCT). We tested a resilience-only curriculum, an adolescent health-only curriculum, and a combination of the two, versus a school-as-usual control. More than 3,400 girls in 76 schools in Bihar, India, participated in the study. To lead the program, we trained 70-plus women from local communities in facilitation skills and curriculum delivery.

Girl First participants work together during resilience training at Jivrakhan Tola school in Bihar India. (Photo by Nivedita Singh)

Using internationally validated assessments, the RCT confirmed that resilience training not only had significant impact on girls’ emotional and physical well-being, but also amplified the impacts of our adolescent health-only curriculum. For instance, for girls involved in the program:

  • Emotional resilience improved 33 percent. Girls significantly improved their coping skills, self-confidence, courage, persistence, and ability to handle negative emotions relative to controls. Girls involved in only the traditional adolescent health program increased their resilience by just 4 percent.

  • Health knowledge increased 99 percent. Girls significantly improved their physical health knowledge of HIV/AIDS, pregnancy, menstruation, anemia, malaria, clean water, and health consequences of early marriage, relative to controls. Health knowledge among girls receiving only a traditional adolescent health program increased just 78 percent. Both groups received the same amount of instruction about health issues.

  • Attitudes about gender equality improved 18 percent. Girls significantly improved their belief in gender equality, including beliefs that it is equally important for boys and girls to attend school, and that a woman never “deserves to be beaten.” Attitudes among girls receiving only the traditional adolescent health program improved just 8 percent. Both groups received the same amount of instruction about gender differences and women’s rights.

  • Clean-water behaviors improved 96 percent. Girls significantly improved the behaviors they use to keep water clean, including filtering, boiling, and chlorinating. Clean-water behaviors for girls receiving only a traditional adolescent health program improved just 37 percent. Both groups received the same amount of instruction about how to keep water clean.

We also saw clear indications of the program’s impact on stopping early marriage. For instance, 15-year-old Sandhya used assertive communication skills she learned in our program to prevent four child marriages: her own, her brother’s, another girl’s in her Girls First group, and her cousin’s (who was living 1,200 miles away at the time). What’s more, she has just entered high school, an unlikely achievement in her village.

Sandhya wasn’t the only one to put her new skills into practice. Many girls united for increased safety in the face of sexual harassment when walking to school, applied problem-solving skills to ensure access to clean water, and developed strategies to stand up to gender discrimination.

Policymakers are beginning to take notice. The government of Bihar is now partnering with us on scale-up trials that train government teachers to deliver resilience programs to more than 35,000 youth in 350 schools. Such trials are essential to implementation in places like Bihar—a vast state of 100 million people, where schools often have few resources and student-teacher ratios can be as high as 200 students to 1 teacher.

The truth is, many youth in poverty are experts at surviving in circumstances that would knock most of us flat instantly. But surviving is very different than thriving. In many cases, such as that of a poor girl born into a low-caste family in India, intergenerational cycles of poverty have lasted hundreds—sometimes thousands—of years. Poverty is scripted into her emotional DNA, how she perceives herself, and her prospects. If the global community seeks to make deep, lasting impact on girls’ wellbeing, we must begin tackling oft-neglected issues of identity, self-belief, and emotional and social strengths and supports—in other words, the tools for resilience. And when we do, we will in turn amplify and accelerate positive changes in the health and education of girls worldwide, creating a generation of girls who know how to thrive.