Adolescent girls: ‘The key to all solutions’

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Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

As the global community celebrates International Day of the Girl, we should recognize that the event — only the second in history — marks a critical juncture for the future of adolescent girls around the world.

They are great in number, these girls; they belong to an exploding population of youth worldwide — the largest in history. And these girls are bubbling with untapped potential that will continue to be squashed unless we put them at the center of global development efforts in the coming decade.

Around the globe, particularly in emerging nations, many adolescent girls face tremendous obstacles that hinder them from growing into healthy, educated, self-confident women. At the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), we’ve seen girls in remote Tanzania who run the risk of unwanted advances and even sexual violence on the way to a neighbor’s house, to the store, to the water well. This is the norm for many young girls in sub-Saharan African communities, where their precarity is fueled by several intersecting factors, including poverty and harmful social norms that devalue girls as members of society.

We’ve met girls in Egypt who have never been to school or dropped out after one or two years, worn down by demeaning and disrespectful treatment by teachers. Many parents don’t place great value on educating girls either; they see their daughter’s role ultimately as a wife and mother. Without school and peers, girls’ days are defined by household chores. They are disconnected from the larger world, at times unable to aspire to a life beyond the confines of their family compound.

And in all too many communities worldwide, from Brazil to Bangladesh, to Ethiopia and India, we’ve seen countless girls forced to marry older men who are strangers to them. The practice of child marriage is perhaps one of the most brutal blows to a girl’s potential — and a tradition that is especially detrimental to effectively addressing so many of our global ills: Child marriage perpetuates the cycle of poverty in communities. It ensures a greater population of uneducated girls, who will grow into women unable to fully participate in the workforce. That in turn stunts economic growth in developing countries. Early marriage also contributes to maternal and child mortality, which we are still working to remedy globally.

Child marriage, lack of schooling, violence — these are the realities for many of our girls around the globe. These truths continue to slow efforts to improve all lives and communities. This is why it is critical — mission critical — that we make addressing the needs of adolescent girls a top priority in the next generation of Millennium Development Goals. After all, today’s girls are tomorrow’s mothers, wives and professionals who will ensure that their children go to school and stay healthy, who will strengthen the labor force with innovative ideas, and who will reinvest their income in their families and communities. Most important, by bolstering opportunities for adolescent girls to thrive we will accelerate goals to eradiate poverty, improve access to education, reduce HIV and improve maternal and child health.

These girls need us to commit the proper resources and energy to better not only their lives, but the lives of all people, a critical message of a new report released today by ICRW and the Nike Foundation called “I Know. I Want. I Dream”: Girls Insights to Building a Better World. To ultimately end poverty — and the consequences of it — as hundreds of girls have proclaimed in The Girl Declaration. “This is the moment when the world sees that I am held back by every problem and I am key to all solutions,” the declaration says.

Indeed, this second annual International Day of the Girl marks an unprecedented moment where adolescent girls’ voices and plight are increasingly being recognized. Now is the time for us to engage them in our global dialogue on economic and social development. And in doing so, everyone around the globe whose opportunities are paralyzed by poverty, inequality, poor health and violence, will benefit.

A version of this blog was published on Huffington Post Impact on October 11, 2013.