WASHINGTON, DC – Last month, as I watched dozens of students at the Kakuma refugee camp in northwest Kenya learn computer skills, I was impressed by their enthusiasm – especially that of the handful of girls in the room. Despite being in the minority, the girls were not discouraged. They recognized that education was their passport to a future of opportunity.
The sad reality is that the inequality at the Kakuma camp is mirrored in many communities worldwide. As it stands, millions of girls are often forced to forego education for reasons ranging from poverty to household responsibilities to child marriage. They are also subject to violence, deprived of the authority to plan their own families, and denied an equal voice in their homes and communities. But, when given the opportunity to learn and thrive, girls seize it, eager to pursue their dreams and lift up their communities – and that benefits everyone.
UNESCO estimates that that improvements in girls’ education from 1990 to 2009 have saved the lives of 2.1 million children under the age of five. And a World Bank study found that enabling girls to be as economically active as boys would boost annual GDP growth in India by 4.4 percentage points, and by 3.5 percentage points in Nigeria. In short, when girls are educated, safe, healthy, and empowered, they raise healthier and more productive families, earn higher wages to invest in their children’s futures, and contribute to economic growth in their countries.
Yet girls continue to be overlooked and underrepresented. For example, one report concluded that, from 2005 to 2006, less than two cents of every dollar in official development assistance was targeted toward gender equality for girls.
Unsurprisingly, the most powerful force for change comes from girls themselves, as they raise their voices to demand action from world leaders. Last year, more than 500 adolescent girls living in poverty in 14 countries helped create the Girl Declaration, which presents principles and objectives that should guide investment in their lives and potential.
The declaration calls for girls to be given access to quality education and age-appropriate health services and information; be counted as equal citizens; have meaningful economic opportunities; and benefit from laws that protect them, rather than discriminate against them. Moreover, the declaration highlights two issues that receive little attention: the need to include girls in the planning and implementation of programs and services, and the need to collect and analyze more data on girls and women, to gain a deeper understanding of their experiences and needs.
The declaration serves as a powerful call to action to world leaders to include girls in the post-2015 global development agenda. Of course, that is necessary. But waiting to get started is not. With less than 700 days to go until the current development agenda – centered on the Millennium Development Goals – expires, empowering girls is one of the best ways to accelerate progress toward the targets.
Strengthening sexual and reproductive health and rights is fundamental to any such effort. Girls and women are entitled to quality reproductive health information and care. But 222 million girls and women worldwide who want to delay or avoid pregnancy are not using modern contraception. As history’s largest youth generation enters its reproductive years, this unmet need will likely rise.
Sexual and reproductive health is especially critical for the millions of girls who are married off as children every year. The UN Population Fund estimates that 90% of adolescent girls who give birth are married. When children have children, they face significant health risks; indeed, complications from pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death for girls aged 15-19 in low- and middle-income countries.
The world has a choice: either accept the status quo, which deprives millions of girls of their basic rights, or support a girl revolution, enabling girls pursue their dreams, while helping to end poverty, fuel prosperity, and drive progress. This is more than a women’s issue. It is a human-rights issue, and it should matter to all of us.
On International Women’s Day, the world must stop ignoring girls’ voices – and start listening.