Food For Thought

Empower Girls, Empower Countries

“In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy. With education and with help starting businesses, impoverished women can earn money and support their countries as well as their families. They represent perhaps the best hope for fighting global poverty.’’

— Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, New York Times Magazine


By Donna Shaver

Developing countries have long struggled to find the key to economic growth and societal development.  Increasingly, both research and real world experience are pointing to a surprising indicator of social stability and prosperity:  The health, education, and empowerment of girls.

Our Dining for Women recipient for this month is Girl Determined in Burma, which addresses these very issues.  We will be supporting Colorful Girls Circles, which are carefully designed programs to educate girls on successfully navigating their way through adolescence to realize their full potential.  To quote from their mission statement:


“Because of our belief in girls as potential change-agents in their households, communities and nations, Girl Determined goes beyond risk reduction.  Our program aims to increase girls’ ability to make strategic life-decisions, generate choices and exercise bargaining power. This real empowerment creates opportunities for girls to better cope with their difficulties, envision alternatives and take leadership into their own hands.”


UN Millennium Development Goals


Goal 3:  Gender Equality

Target: Eliminate gender disparity in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005, and in all levels of education no later than 2015


According to the last statistics available (2009), gender parity has been reached in Burma in both primary and secondary education.  The only data available for tertiary education is from 2007, which reports more women than men.


But women hold only 3.5% of the seats in Parliament.  However, the recent change in government and the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi may be a positive force for increasing female representation. To learn more about the turmoil in Burma/Myanmar and its years of military rule–which effectively isolated it from the rest of the world, thereby making it difficult to obtain accurate and timely information on progress toward the UN MDG goals–see this December’s Program Fact Sheet.  Also books recommended in December’s Fair Trade Shopping, Books, Films and Music


 The Challenges for Girls in Developing Countries


When roughly half of society is effectively disenfranchised–economically, educationally, and socially–it is difficult, if not impossible, to compete with countries in which the majority of the adult citizenry are productively engaged.   The challenges and restrictions that girls face perpetuate the cycle of female poverty and the concomitant drag on a country’s economy.


We focus on girls, not because women are unimportant, but because we cannot turn back the clock.  Women who are uneducated, have many children to care for, and live in traditional ways need our support.  But significant change will only come from ensuring that the next generation will be equipped with the skills, the knowledge, and the power to direct their own lives and take an equal place in society.


Education:  Girls in developing countries are the most marginalized members of the population.  While they are at, or near parity with boys in attending primary school in most regions, they falter soon after, with much lower percentages in secondary school, which varies significantly by region (although in many countries, girls are well represented at the tertiary level).  Thirty nine million 11-15 year-old girls are out of school.  When resources are constrained, parents are more likely to invest in education for boys.


Girls have problems in school that boys do not have.  Schools often have inadequate toilet facilities, or none at all.  In most of the developing world, to have it known that you are menstruating is shameful.  When girls have their periods and do not have privacy to take care of their needs at school, they skip school.  Over time, they fall behind, and many eventually drop out.


There is a significant problem in many countries with male teachers pressuring girls for sex in trade for good grades.  Girls who acquiesce may become pregnant.  Those who refuse may find their education limited because the teacher punishes them with poor grades.  (Aljazeera reported in 2010 that Kenya had dismissed more than 1,000 teachers in the previous two years for sexually abusing female students.)


Health and Nutrition:  In many societies, girls are the last to be fed, and less likely to receive medical care than their brothers.   When food is scarce, girls may also suffer both physical and cognitive deficits that contribute to their inability to achieve their potential.


Gender Imbalance:  In some countries, particularly India and China, the very existence of a girl is threatened because of a profound preference for boys.  Sex selective abortion is practiced widely, and female infanticide continues.  Little girls are disproportionately affected by family violence as well.  Under the age of 20 in China, males outnumber females by more than 30 million.  India faces similar rates of gender disparity.  (For more information on gender imbalance, see Food for Thought for October 2012—“Exploitation and Prostitution:  The Impact of Gender Imbalance”.)


Child Marriage:  While there is a major worldwide focus on the elimination of child marriage, it is practiced widely in many developing countries.  More and more countries are outlawing the practice, but it is a deeply held tradition that is not easily stopped.  When girls are married, their education almost invariably ends.  They are soon bearing and caring for children.  The probability of their achieving the skills and knowledge they need to enter the formal economy is low.  The chance that they will be subjected to violence is increased significantly.


Childbirth:  Complications arising from childbirth is the leading cause of death for girls ages 15 to 19.  In addition, young girls are far more susceptible to the devastating childbirth injury of obstetric fistula because their pelvises are not large enough to give birth.  For some girls, the issue of physical capability to give birth is further complicated by inadequate nutrition in childhood.


Violence:  Throughout the developing world, girls are subject to violence both within and outside the home.  The incidence of rape throughout the developing world is a growing concern.  Seldom are the perpetrators brought to justice, and victims are frequently blamed.  Girls are also being assaulted at younger ages—many are pre-adolescent.  Girls are far more likely than boys to be the victim of domestic abuse.  They are also the victims of honor killings, acid attacks, and dowry deaths.


Fundamentalism:  As we have clearly seen in Afghanistan, there are many groups that would deny education—or any rights—to females.  We see it in growing presence of Islamic fundamentalism in Northern Africa— Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia.  The Taliban and similar groups are powerful forces in Pakistan, and there are illegal Sharia committees in Bangladesh. This is not only true of Islam.  Fundamentalism by definition is a return to the ostensibly pure religious practices of the past, which is almost always one in which women have little or no power or autonomy. None of these movements bodes well for girls’ education, women’s participation in the workforce, the elimination of child marriage, or female autonomy.


The Arguments for the Investment in Girls


However fervently we may believe in the equality of males and females, the power of, and preference for, males have been the prevailing attitude for millennia.  Although the world is changing, it is unlikely that old attitudes will change without compelling reasons.  The evidence is now coming to light—evidence that the education, emancipation, and employment of women has a major impact on the health and wealth of whole societies.


The importance of focusing on girls is reflected in the intense interest and investment in girls by such organizations as the World Bank, the United Nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and uncounted additional national, international, and non-profit organizations.  Their research is demonstrating that economic growth and prosperity is inextricably related to the extent to which women are full participants in the formal economy.


Girls can contribute significantly to the economy of a country.  According to the consulting firm Booz & Company, as reported in The Economist, if female employment rates matched male rates, GDP would grow 34% in Egypt by 2020.  In India, the rate would be 25%.


The following data points were compiled by The Girl Effect:

  • Girls completing secondary school in Kenya would add US $27 billion to the economy over their lifetimes.
  • With nearly four million adolescent mothers annually, India loses US $383 billion in potential lifetime income.
  • If young women had the same employment rates as young men, Nigeria would add US $13.9 billion annually.
  • If Ethiopian girls completed secondary school, the contribution over their lifetimes is US $6.8 billion.


In addition to the direct contributions women make to the economy, there are significant benefits to women, their families, and the larger society from additional education for girls:


  • When a girl in a developing country receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.
  • There is a consistent positive relationship between higher levels of schooling for a mother and improved infant and child health.
  • An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent.  An extra year of secondary school–15 to 25 percent.
  • When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for a man.


Implicit in this data is the improvement of status for girls and women, more power within the family with regard to financial decisions, a reduction in child marriage, and more control for a woman over her own reproductive capabilities.  Fewer children, combined with a woman’s potential for employment in the formal economy means healthier babies, better nutrition, and resources for children’s education.


Implicit also is a great benefit for society—a reduction in poverty and ill-health and a reduction in population, thereby allowing improvement of, and access to, education and healthcare for everyone.


Girls and women experience high rates of domestic and sexual violence, which reinforces male dominance in the home and community.  Domestic violence is common, and largely accepted, in the developing world.  It is quite possible that significantly improved education for females–with its concomitant benefits to both families and society as a whole, and with greater participation of women the workplace, in government, and the larger society–may result in reducing gender-based violence (although it must be acknowledged that this is not what is happening in India).  Empowering girls through education and employment will help them avoid the perils of sex trafficking as well.


The World Bank (World Development Report 20102:  Gender Equality and Development) has specific suggestions for how countries can improve the lives of women, from quota systems to changing property laws that give women greater control over household resources.


In summary, ensuring that girls have access to education–and are protected from violence and discrimination–is the best path forward for countries to ensure their economic growth and prosperity and create a more just and peaceful society.