2014: The Year for Girls

2014 is already off to a great start. There are some excellent films hitting the box office, we’ve got the Sochi Winter Olympics to look forward to, the US and UK will withdraw all troops from Afghanistan and Kanye West has made a groundbreaking New Year’s resolution (see the 27min clip here). It’s bound to be a big year.

Looking towards international policy, this is set to be the year of gender equality.

The fight to empower girls around the globe is an increasingly popular campaign. Major celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, John Legend and Amy Poehler are doing their bit to promote women’s rights and educate girls locally, nationally and internationally. In the Western world, we see videos on YouTube and articles in newspapers and magazines of these famous activists speaking at press conferences and promoting their projects and generally doing good works in the name of female empowerment.

The reality is that in communities like those where I spent my placement there is no television, no internet and no newsprint to speak of. Many households do own radios but that is pretty much the only large-scale media on offer. Girls at the local primary school may not grow up watching Leighton Meester on live television discussing the infinite wrongs of violence against women or see the gender-equality-facing adverts at bus stops and on billboards. They may, however, walk into a local market shop and pick up a bar of ‘Virginity Soap’ (pictured below), a product that implies the dirtiness of their sex and brings to mind a whole slew of unpleasant images.

Virginity soapVirginity soap (back)

Despite the ongoing involvement of charities such as Restless Development and their lessons on girls’ rights, gender equality and youth empowerment, it seems that many young girls in communities such as this still expect – or are expected to – marry young, have lots of children and serve their husbands, their fathers and their family before themselves for the rest of their lives. Having grown up in very different circumstances, I have been programmed to expect – or perhaps it is expected of me – to complete my tertiary education, to enter into a career and to better myself before committing myself to a family.

‘Programming’ aside, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that marrying early and procreating ASAP certainly opposes economic sense.

Imagine this:
A young girl of 14 becomes pregnant and her family, to avoid further humiliation, marry her off to the 15-year-old father. The girl is not only at greater risk of complications during childbirth than she would be if she were a few years older, but she must also leave full-time education to care for the child. Meanwhile, her husband feels pressure to provide for his new family and also leaves school to start work.

The facts are these…

  • Medical complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15-19 worldwide

  • An extra year of primary school education boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10-20%; an extra year of secondary school adds 15-25%.

  • Giving women the same access to non-land resources and services as men could increase yields on women’s land by up to 30%, raise total agricultural output in developing countries by up to 4% and reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 100-150 million.

(Girl Effect)

In essence, “educated women are less likely to marry early and against their will; less likely to die in childbirth; more likely to have healthy babies; and are more likely to send their children to school” (UNICEF, 2014). UNICEF has also released an infographic in support of their increased attention to educating girls.

The information is all there and the case for girls is gathering momentum. Parliament is set to vote on a bill requiring gender considerations to be embedded into every aspect of Britain’s aid spending. Angelina Jolie, along with Education Partnerships for Children of Conflicts (which she co-founded), has opened a girls’ school outside Kabul with the proceeds from her eponymous jewellery line, garnering interest in the fashion and development industries. There are plenty of large-scale projects in the works and those in the political spotlight are increasingly taking responsibility for the girls that they speak for.

The word that crops up increasingly in these conversations is “investment”. The United Nations among other organizations are amping up their encouragement for governments to invest in girls, return on investment being estimated at 0.5-1% rise in GDP (in Sub-Saharan Africa, World Bank). Research shows that improving education for girls in developing nations will lead to lower birth rates, decreased child mortality, increased literacy, etc., which positively impacts the economy and eases pressure on national healthcare and education systems.

“As the old adage goes, you can teach a man to fish to feed himself for a lifetime. But if you invest in a girl, she feeds herself, educates future children, lifts up her community and propels her nation forward – charting a path that offers dignity for all in the process.”
(Erna Soldberg and Hannah Godefa, 2014)

I am hardly an expert on the various issues surrounding the education and empowerment of women in the developing world. Ten weeks of passive experience of the lives led by young girls and women in a relatively small community in rural Zambia hardly qualifies me to speak with any authority about the variables involved and the forces at play on a global/international scale. However, I can point you in the direction of some ‘suggested reading/viewing’ to get you started…

Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
When I left High School, I was given this book as a graduation gift by a very thoughtful friend. It gives a general scope of gender issues in different countries around the world as well as case studies of the experiences and work of certain individuals. It is a compelling and moving read and I strongly recommend it.

It’s a Girl (documentary)
Filmed in China and India and released last year, It’s a Girl discusses the idea of gendercide and its social, economic and cultural roots and implications.

In the light of the World Economic Forum in Davos this week, Ban Ki-Moon posted an article on LinkedIn about the why and how of investing in girls. Jeni Klugman, Director of Gender and Development at the World Bank Group, also published a blog post about the relationship between empowering women and girls and AIDs rates and poverty.

Should it interest you, do complete the UN’s MY World survey.

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