October 11th was the first International Day of the Girl, recognized by NGOs around the world via a series of awareness strategies and marked by the United Nations by the passing of resolutions and sharing of statistics. It was also the day that 14 year-old Malala Yousafzai was in a Pakistani hospital fighting for her life after being shot in the head by a Taliban militant because she used her voice and intellect to advocate for access to education for girls. The latter incident is a shocking reminder of how far girls still have to go and how much they risk in imagining a world where they have equal opportunity. Still, set aside days like October 11th do serve a purpose even if they only sharpen the focus and make painfully clear the issue at hand.
If you are a girl and are not born or raised in a prosperous country with equal education access these are the shocking truths:
- You may be one of the 1 billion people who live in extreme poverty because 70% are women or girls
- You may be among 1 in 7 or 60 million girls that will become a child bride, many prior to the age of 12, with little or no say in the matter.
- You could be one of the 150 million girls that will be the victim of sexual violence or exploitation and make up two-thirds of the world’s new HIV infections
- 43% of the boys that live in your community believe there are times when a woman deserves to be beaten.
For years, activists have been trying to gain a foothold by arguing that educating and empowering girls is the right thing to do, it’s a matter of humanity and social consciousness. That hasn’t gained the type of traction it should, perhaps because the people who need to be convinced are not women and girls, they are men that hold the power in their families, communities, and countries. Making an emotional plea to the heart or the moral code is typically not how the dominant male operates. Today, the argument for girls is being made on economic grounds. Educating and empowering girls is good economics. Forget about the child rape, female genital mutilation, violence and silencing, that’s nothing if we can turn girl and woman power into dollars and cents. And I know a lot of men whose eyes light up and will think about the issue differently when it comes down to good business or putting money into the coffers. When girls are offered access to education and the opportunity to use that education, a world is transformed.
- For every year of primary education, women experience a 10 to 20% increase in earnings, and every additional year of secondary education women increase their future earning potential by 15 to 25%.
- On a macro-economic level, for every 1% increase in women completing a secondary education, a nation’s annual per capita growth rises by .3%.
- Educated women marry later, have fewer children, and are healthier. That is less of a social burden on a region or nation.
My own experience has been that having both males and females around the table results in diversity of thought and develops a much broader scope of solutions and possibilities. Conversations include not only what are the numbers but also what is the impact. It seems to me, in my role as both a woman and a mother with a daughter, I have an obligation to make sure that type of gender diversity exists not only at home but in every community where men and women come together. I also think that men who have sisters, mothers, wives, and daughters also have an equal obligation. The overwhelming part is in the knowing where to start and how you can help. Here is what I plan to do:
- Talk about it and/or write about it. The fastest way to have a global conversation is to use the power of mouth or pen. I’m going to start with my family and close friends. The outrage over what happened to Malala Yousafzai is a good starting point.
- Educate myself. There are plenty of resources including PlanUSA’s website called, “Because I am a Girl” and PBS just recently featured the documentary called Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, based on the widely acclaimed book by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.
- Take action. This week an initiative called 10X10 was launched that encourages individuals to take action. A feature film will be released in 2013 where 10 writers follow 10 girls in 10 countries as they attempt to achieve access to education. The website brings together the various agencies that are championing this work, let’s you follow their progress and gives you concrete ways to share the word and make a difference.
I invite you to join this important cause regardless of your gender. This is not about dividing the sexes or setting up a competition, but rather the act of empowering girls creates a robust and creative playing field where everyone benefits. And human nature being what it is, I haven’t met a man, woman, boy or girl doesn’t relish the feeling of an out-and-out win.
© Kelly Tweeddale 2012