Let’s Hear it for the Girls!

The first International Day of the Girl has come and gone and I’m very excited that international agencies, non-governmental organizations, governments, and community leaders are yelling from the rooftops that girls can and are changing the world. As a former girl myself, I totally agree! There’s an old saying ‘when you educate a girl, you educate a family.’ It seems self-explanatory, right? Women are overwhelmingly likely to be the first educators to their own children. And indeed, the empirical evidence shows there is a direct correlation to the educational attainment of women and a nation’s improved gross domestic product (GDP) as well as a host of other improved social and health outcomes. But don't take my word for it. Consider these tangible benefits from girl-child education:
  • Greater participation in the work force and increased family incomes: for each additional year a girl is in school, her wages as an adult rise by approximately 15 percent.
  • Greater chance that their own children will be educated: children whose mothers have no education are more than twice as likely to be out of school as children whose mothers have some education.
  • Girl education is linked to higher productivity; higher returns to investment; higher agricultural yields; and an improved demographic structure. The economic growth that results from higher education supports continued investments in education and extends the gains to human capital and productivity. The impact is felt not only in women's lifetimes, but also in the health, education and productivity of future generations.
  • Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children. In Mozambique, some 60 percent of girls with no education are married by 18, compared to 10 percent of girls with secondary schooling and less than one percent of girls with higher education.
  • Educating adolescent girls has been a critical factor in increasing the age of marriage in a number of developing countries, including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Thailand.
  • Improved family planning.
  • Lower infant mortality: every day over 2,700 children under the age of five will die needlessly because their mothers were denied an education earlier in life.
  • Fewer maternal deaths in childbirth.
  • Lower HIV/AIDS infection rates: rates are doubled among young people who do not finish primary school.
Girls have an inalienable right to education. Education is better for them, and it’s better for our world. Girls’ education contributes to economic growth; educated mothers increase human capital through their influence on the health, education and nutrition of their children; education improves a family’s economic prospects by improving women’s qualifications and skills; and education improves reproductive health. Why then are only 30% of girls worldwide in secondary school? There are many reason, including child marriage, school fees that are too high, and the sexist belief that girls do not need an education in the same way that boys do. Ingrained sexism held up by the columns of tradition and culture will be the hardest to overcome. I’m excited that he Ford Foundation will spend 25 million dollars over the next five years focusing on reducing child marriage rates in Nigeria, Egypt, India and Central America, working with local nonprofits and civic leaders in those countries. But how do we, long term, change the hearts and minds of people about the common humanity of girls and women?  I think one of the reasons that girl-child education is not given the weight it deserves, besides taking on deep-rooted cultural beliefs and traditions, is because girls grow up to be women. And too many societies, including our own, are invested in limiting the voice and power of women. The evidence is clear but the political will is still slow to muster. The path to sustained growth and strong emerging economy is tied directly to the education of girls. Sarah Moore Grimke the 19th century American abolitionist and women’s right’s activist famously wrote, “All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God destined us to occupy.” It’s well past time to lift the burdens of tradition and culture off of girls so they can help us be the change we need.   Photo credit DFID-UK for International Development via the Creative Commons License.  

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