Invisible and alone: social isolation blocks girls’ chances

9 MAY 2017

Social isolation forms a key, unrecognised barrier to gender equality and reduces many girls’ life chances, suggests new research from Plan International.

The social isolation of adolescent girls, caused by restricted freedoms, domestic duties and early marriage, emerges as a major, unrecognised barrier to equality in new research from Plan International.

Ask adolescent girls in marginalised communities what they hope for in life and the answer for many is education and freedom. The sad reality is that many girls achieve neither. What prevents them is a combination of prejudice and disadvantage that socially isolates them, often within their own communities.

The new research by Plan International shines a light on the lonely realities for many adolescent girls in marginalised communities. Three linked reports on Nicaragua, Pakistan and Zimbabwe: Counting the Invisible, offer a snapshot of how easily girls can become socially isolated, and how hard it is to break out of that isolation.

This isolation represents a significant barrier to wider aspirations of ending gender inequality by 2030, as set out in the Global Goals. Already millions of girls are “invisible” to governments and policy makers, let down by the huge lack of data about their lives and needs.

In Plan International’s reports, girls described the pressure to conform from an early age to roles imposed by family and community. In all 3 locations these roles were overwhelmingly domestic and housebound. But girls’ comments revealed that conforming to social expectations did not stop them from feeling cut off, if anything, it further compounded their isolation.

Unfair burden

In Pakistan, girls told of being kept at home to perform domestic duties and to obey community elders’ views on girls’ freedoms. “People in our society don’t like girls going out of the house … which affects their mobility and education”. One adolescent girl in a small hamlet outside Thatta City said. “Girls become fed up because of their restricted life and do not live happily,” another added. Of the Pakistani girls interviewed, 70% wanted more autonomy over their lives.   

Many girls felt that they bore an unfair burden of domestic and care work compared to boys. In Zimbabwe, 68% of girls agreed, while more than a third of Nicaraguan girls said they had less time for socialising than boys. Boys in focus groups concurred: “boys work but have more freedom than girls,” they said; “boys have more opportunities to play and study when they want”.

As well as less time for friends or school, 62% of girls interviewed in Pakistan said they also had less access to the internet and social media than boys.

Community restrictions

Community beliefs that girls’ movements should be restricted for their own good underline girls’ low social status and lack of autonomy. “Community authorities don’t take us into account and exclude us from community meetings,” a Nicaraguan girl from an indigenous Miskito community said. Girls from Zimbabwe’s KweKwe area echoed this “Our culture does not encourage girls to speak out in public gatherings.”

People in our society don’t like girls going out of the house

Unsurprisingly, few girls viewed their communities as supportive. Half of Pakistani girls said their concerns were not heard or addressed by their communities, but 75% said that they should be. Families, particularly female relatives, were cited as the main source of support for overcoming problems by a majority of girls in all 3 locations.

Girls without family support or who lived with various types of vulnerability; early motherhood, as 24 hour carers, or disabilities, spoke in sometimes desperate terms of their isolation. “I am deaf and dumb and pregnant and I am failing to really fit and be accepted in the community,” one adolescent mother in Zimbabwe told researchers.

Loneliness in marriage

One way many girls assume that they can win higher social status is through marriage, described as “a valuable achievement” by a girl from the Ndebele ethnic community in Silobela, Zimbabwe. Nicaraguan girls explained how they hoped early marriage would help them to escape lonely or violent home lives. Among Pakistani girls, 72% said their communities placed greater value on girls who marry before 18.

However, married girls interviewed revealed a picture of greater isolation. In various ways, all the communities studied viewed marriage as a means to control girls, resulting often in cutting girls off from education or work, family and friends.

In Pakistan, 84% said married girls must ask permission from husbands or in-laws to leave the house, travel on transport (72%) or visit a health clinic (79%). Among Nicaraguan girls, 64% said early marriage impedes a girl’s education.

Girls in Zimbabwe told of husbands keeping wives at home for fear that education or work would make them attractive to other men. “My husband’s parents say that your wife is too clever so she should stay at home,” one adolescent mother said.

Plan International’s reports reveal the barriers blocking the life chances of girls like these. Our reports are part of a wider drive for more gender-sensitive data. Without better data about adolescent girls, any efforts to improve their lives as pledged by the Global Goals will be impossible to track.