Written by Swan Paik Thursday, June 16 2011
Adolescent girls in developing countries face some of the biggest challenges in the world today. They also have the unique potential to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and advance entire economies.
The barriers facing girls are immense. They are personal, social, cultural, economic, and they are prevalent. Adolescent girls in developing countries face the likelihood of getting pulled out of school, being infected with AIDS, sold as commodities, or married off by their families who have nothing else to resort to. Girls account for 70 percent of the 130 million children in developing countries who are not in school. These girls face a world where one in seven girls is married before age 15 and where medical complications arising from pregnancy are the leading cause of death in 15- to 19-year-old girls.
Adolescent girls living this reality are often undervalued and are not adequately supported through government, nonprofit, or nongovernmental organization programs. Only two cents of every aid dollar is spent on girls. Despite the dire circumstances girls face, they are the most powerful force for change – not just for themselves but for their families, communities, countries, and even at a global level. This is called the girl effect: the unique potential of adolescent girls to end poverty for themselves and for the world.
The story of the girl effect is one of promise and potential. Girls reach a crossroads at age 12. It’s a turning point in the life of a girl, so we need to catch them and invest in them early. We must ensure that girls are counted, invested in, and given access to basic human rights, education, and opportunity. Whether it is urban safe spaces, health information, savings and microloan programs, or support networks to connect girls in remote towns and villages, we must focus specifically on girls or else they will continue to be overlooked and undervalued.
The girl effect makes a difference, and the statistics speak for themselves. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children. An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 percent to 20 percent, and an extra year of secondary school increases it 15 percent to 25 percent.
And the best part of it all? It’s not just the girls who benefit. Studies show that when women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, compared with only 30 percent to 40 percent for men. The girl effect is not just about girls. It’s about their unique potential to bring about change for themselves as well as for their brothers, sisters, families, communities, and countries.
Girls all over the world are unleashing the girl effect and are overcoming barriers to make a difference. One of these girls is Anita Kumari, who lives in the Muzaffarpur district of India. As a 12 year old, Anita had to beg her parents to keep her in school. Their family was very poor, and her parents didn’t see value in paying to further educate their daughter. Anita proposed the idea of tutoring other children with what she learned in school in order to help her family afford her education. They agreed.
At age 15, Anita’s parents said it was time to get married. She went on a hunger strike – a fake one actually, but her parents didn’t know that. Despite the fact that none of the girls her age in the village were still in school, Anita fought for the chance to continue her education. She devised a bigger plan to pay for her schooling. She saw men in her village beekeeping and decided to give it a try. With the money she earned tutoring, she bought two queen bees, started her business, and was able to continue her studies.
Today, Anita has more than 100 boxes of bees. The money she makes selling honey at the market is enough to pay her college tuition – as well as her family’s medical bills and house repairs. She has formed a Women’s Farmers Club and has hired and trained more than 20 young women in beekeeping who have now started businesses of their own. Her determination and success have paved the way for other girls in her village to attend school during their adolescent years as well.
There are many inspiring stories like Anita’s, where girls around the world are putting the girl effect into motion when they are given the tools to do so. We won’t even realize the full potential of the girl effect – the ripple effect of its influence – until we give it the attention, investment, and priority it deserves.
For now, we can start by not assuming that we already have girls covered. In order to know what is happening with girls and to be able to track their progress and challenges, we must seek and create disaggregated data that accurately and specifically tells us about adolescent girls. We need to specifically address them and ensure that they are explicitly accounted for and benefiting from our programs.
We need to be able to demonstrate to families, villages, corporations, and governments the need and opportunity surrounding girls; that when we bring girls into the center of our discussions, programs, and investments, we are investing in significant change for all. When we give girls opportunities today, we are building the future for the reduction in poverty, AIDS, and child marriage, and building more sustainable economies and stronger communities of tomorrow.
Swan Paik is portfolio director for the Nike Foundation. The Girl Effect is a movement driven by girl champions around the globe. The Nike Foundation created the Girl Effect with critical financial and intellectual contributions by the NoVo Foundation and Nike Inc. and in collaboration with key partners such as the United Nations Foundation and the Coalition for Adolescent Girls.
To learn more about the Girl Effect please visit www.girleffect.org.