Improve a girl’s life and everyone benefits: her brothers, sisters, parents, future children and grandchildren. As an educated mother, an active, productive citizen and a prepared employee, she can break the cycle of poverty. That is the girl effect.
Yet, despite their potential, the 600 million adolescent girls living in today’s developing countries are the most likely to be uneducated, child brides, exposed to HIV/AIDS.
When a girl reaches puberty, her day turns to fetching water and wood rather than learning to read and write. She takes care of family members rather than herself. For families who have nothing else, she is a commodity, to be married off or sold. If she arrives at adolescence with her body as her only asset, the consequences will be dire, and irreversible.
Today, less than half a cent of every international development dollar is directed to her; the rest of funding goes elsewhere. As long as girls remain invisible, the world misses out on a tremendous opportunity for change.
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But: if she has assets – a social network, skills, knowledge, self-esteem, personal security – before that critical turning point, she has a much greater chance of staying on course. Her life can follow a different path, an ideal one, which takes her from her home into school – primary and secondary – and then gives her decent economic livelihood opportunities. If she has those resources readily available, she can have an impact on her future and the futures of her siblings: she becomes a hugely powerful agent of change.
The bigger picture of adolescent girls’ realities and the broader impact of their states of well-being was largely unclear in the past. However, the increasing base of knowledge within the Girls Count series commissioned has revealed several key facts, ultimately showing how adolescent girls will either accelerate growth or perpetuate poverty. It all depends on where we choose to invest existing resources.
We also need to engage all relevant stakeholders in the process – from international policy makers to local communities. Educators, men and boys, religious and community leaders in fact often control the environment for girls and have a strong influence over what happens. Involving girls themselves is also critical: research has shown how listening to girls’ insights and including them in the program designing process increases impact and effectiveness.
Change is indeed possible:
In Upper Egypt, the Ishraq program initiated a process of social change in the community by engaging parents and boys in support of greater life opportunities for girls. An evaluation of the program found that parents who participated in Ishraq were dramatically less likely to agree that a girl should be beaten if she disobeys her brother than parents who did not participate, and early marriage rates also declined.
The MV Foundation’s Girl Child Programme in Ranga Reddy District of Andhra Pradesh, India, mobilizes communities and governments against bonded and child labor, including domestic labor, with the aim of returning girls to school. The foundation challenges traditional social norms by educating critical stakeholders on girls’ rights to an education. Community mobilization aims to make girl child labor a public issue—rather than a private, family one.
These are just a few of the success stories possible when girls are put at the center. Experts convened by the Coalition for Adolescent Girls have mapped out a platform for action to ignite change and improve the lives of adolescent girls around the world. These include:
- Economically empower adolescent girls by putting assets in girls’ hands.
- Focus HIV prevention on adolescent girls.
- Make health system strengthening and monitoring work for girls
It is up to all of us to foster the conditions that enable adolescent girls to thrive and unleash their full potential. Why girls? Because they are ready to change the world, but they can not do it alone.