It's time to unleash girls' potential

A school girl in Ethiopia. Studies from various organization delving into programs for girls are focusing on how to get them to stay in school and for their families to invest in their education, including increasing the amount of time girls were allowed to study at home. Photo by: European Commission / CC BY-ND

Today, 600 million adolescent girls live around the world, with 250 million of them living on less than $2 a day. Many of these girls are vulnerable from the moment they’re born. They’re vulnerable to discrimination, inequality and violence simply because they are born female.

The statistics are shocking. Young women in sub-Saharan Africa are up to eight times more likely than young men to be living with HIV. One in four girls under 17 reports experiencing sexual abuse worldwide, with rates being much higher in developing countries. And girls are less likely to be in school than their male counterparts, with parents often putting household duties and chores before education and learning.

One of the biggest problems adolescent girls face is early and forced marriage. In many developing countries, girls are forced to marry shortly after puberty, often to much older men. In some cases, child brides are as young as 7 or 8 years old. Girls who marry early are more likely to be socially isolated, have early and high-risk pregnancies, and are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence, all of which make them less equipped to break free from the cycle of poverty.

The problems adolescent girls face are well documented. But what can we do to tackle them? To answer this question, we worked with 2CV and the Nike Foundation to ask more than 500 adolescent girls living in poverty in 14 countries what they need to be able to reach their potential and build a better world.

Their answers served as the foundation for the Girl Declaration, in which girls spoke clearly about their desire for an education that provides them with relevant skills that will allow them to be productive members of their community, access to safe and age-appropriate health and nutrition information, freedom from violence and exploitation, equal access to opportunities and rights, and the ability to be in control of their economic future.

I firmly believe that empowering girls by ending child marriage is one of the most critical steps the global community can take to put girls in the driver’s seat of their own future.

While child marriage is a massive problem, affecting nearly 70 million girls worldwide, it’s not a problem without a solution.

Right now, ICRW is working with several initiatives around the world that are tackling this global problem. One is a conditional cash transfer program in the state of Haryana in India that is presently paying out bonds to girls who were enrolled by their families in the Apni Beti Apna Dhan (“Our Daughter, Our Wealth”) program between 1994 and 1998, and who have remained unmarried at age 18. ICRW’s research shows that girls who participated in the program were more likely to stay in school and families were more likely to invest in girls’ education, including increasing the amount of time girls were allowed to study at home. Education, as we know, gives girls the ability to earn a living that can help increase the family’s resilience when managing external shocks.

Another initiative called TESFA, which is being implemented by CARE in Ethiopia, targets girls who are already married, providing life-changing trainings and educational services  in Ethiopia’s remote Amhara region, where almost half of the girls marry by age 15 and nearly three out of four marry by age 18. These trainings have served as a lifeline for child brides in the region, resulting in adolescent girls returning to school and, in some cases, a newfound ability to negotiate with their husbands about birth spacing, which results in healthier babies and mothers. We have found that when we create opportunities for married adolescent girls to learn critical skills, like financial and legal literacy, these girls can now help improve their — and their family’s — health and economic status moving forward.

Initiatives like these show clearly that when we invest in empowering girls, we see real change in girls’ lives and in the lives of those around them. In fact, the girls we interviewed, as mentioned above, expressed to us an unbridled enthusiasm to provide for themselves and their families and to help tackle problems in their community. Giving girls the agency to make their own decisions and to choose their own path in life is the cornerstone to building healthier communities and stronger economies.

When given the chance, girls have the power to educate communities, the strength to end violence, the drive to create sustainable economic solutions to local problems, and the courage to combat inequality.

Adolescent girls are standing at the doorstep to adulthood, ready to step through the door and to roll up their sleeves to build a better world for us all. It’s up to us to open the door and unleash their potential.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International as well as the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

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About the author

  • Sarah degnan kambou 8 0

    Sarah Degnan Kambou

    As the president of the International Center for Research on Women, Sarah Degnan Kambou leads a global research institute that focuses on women's empowerment and gender equality to alleviate poverty worldwide. Her expertise centers on sexual and reproductive health, HIV/AIDS and adolescent health and livelihoods. Sarah has served as a technical advisor to multilateral agencies and has worked for nearly 30 years in Asia, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, including nearly 12 years at ICRW.