On October 11th we celebrated the International Day of the Girl. It was adopted in 2011 by the United Nations as a day to celebrate girls and recognize the unique struggle that millions of them around the world face.
Girls in developing countries are confronted by all kinds of barriers that keep them from reaching their full potential. Early and forced marriage, extreme poverty, lack of clean water, and denial of education stunts their ability to survive and thrive. And it’s a cyclical thing – a girl who grows up in extreme poverty with little to no education is stuck. Likely to marry young and without the tools to beat the odds, her children will be faced with the same future. They will face a lifetime of limitations that affect their health, status, earning power, and relationships with everyone around them.
In many societies, educating a girl just isn’t as important as educating a boy. We can help overcome this bias if we simply educate our communities that are often not addressed.. Domestic responsibilities – such as the daily burden of getting water – keep girls from attending class. Facing a long, unprotected walk to school puts girls at risk of being harassed or attacked. Not having girls-only bathrooms prevents them from going to school altogether because they aren’t afforded the safety of privacy.
When communities invest in girls, and start actively solving these problems, the cycle of poverty starts to break down. Girls-only latrines improve girls’ school enrollment rates by more than 15%. For every extra year a girl stays in school, her income can increase by 15 to 25%. A girl who completes basic education is three times less likely to contract HIV. Or perhaps most startlingly, a child born to a literate mother is 50% more likely to survive past the age of five. And every extra year of education reduces the probability of infant mortality by 5-10%.
This is not just a girl thing. It’s an everyone thing. I believe that we all should be equal. And that comes from everyone having the same access to basic human rights like food, safety, clean water, health care, and opportunity. There is a role we all can play in this – men, boys, women, and girls. Supporting the healthy development of girls around the world is our collective moral imperative. But if you need further convincing, expanding opportunities for girls and amplifying their voices is not zero-sum equation. Gender equality bears broad development dividends for men and boys, too. Families are strengthened because girls and women spend 90% of their earned income on their families, while men spend only 30–40%. And countries are strengthened because when 10% more girls go to school, a country’s GDP increases by an average of 3%.
Everyone wins when we invest in girls.
The prospect of changing something this big is daunting, but let’s start with making sure that girls have equal access to education. There are 65 million girls missing from classrooms worldwide, and because of this, tremendous opportunities are lost. True equality can never truly be achieved until we make sure girls have the skills and competencies they need to choose their own path, escape a life of poverty, have healthy relationships, and make positive decisions about their lives.