While the past few decades have seen great strides in “getting kids in school,” we are still lagging far behind in ensuring that being in school is meaningful, that learning is relevant, and that young people themselves are engaged as active participants and decisionmakers in their own learning pathways.

Efforts focused on expanding educational opportunities for young people often overlook the importance of supporting the development and exercise of agency. A fundamental component of full and equal participation and key to educational achievement, agency refers to the power, capacity, and ability to recognize and voice one’s hopes, make decisions about one’s life, and take action in body, speech, and mind.1 Agency sits at the nexus of the individual and her community. At the personal level, agency implies the development of a diverse set of skills, knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors. Yet the ability to act upon these beliefs and behaviors is often “culturally constrained” by external forces that influence young people’s lived experiences. Feminist authors, for example, center their definitions of agency not only individually, but in community with others, recognizing that agency must be situated within larger social structures and necessarily involves an analysis of power relations impacted by class, religion, race, and gender, among other factors.

For adolescent girls around the world, agency is a practical issue rather than a theoretical concept. Every day these girls make conscious decisions about their lives and futures, in their families, schools, and communities, while they navigate larger social structures, norms, and systems. Accounting for this daily struggle is vital to improving learning opportunities and life outcomes for youth and their communities. Yet the agency of young people, especially that of girls and young women living in the most marginalized contexts, is often misunderstood, unrecognized, underdeveloped, and/or actively stifled.

Since May of 2022, the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at Brookings has worked to explore agency through the Learning and Action Alliance for Girls’ Agency (LAAGA), a community of practice comprised of 23 leaders in gender equality in and through education from 18 countries across Africa, America, Asia, and the Middle East. All LAAGA members are alumni of the Echidna Global Scholars Program, and the LAAGA initiative grew out of their desire to engage more deeply with their peers from across the globe as well as CUE’s commitment to catalyzing opportunities for collaborative learning and action.

Read the full article about centering women and girls by Jennifer L. O’Donoghue, Atenea Rosado-Viurques, and Claudia Hui at Brookings.