Targeting Girls to Change the World
Perspectives from Toby Israel
September 9, 2012
Girl power may sound cute, but empowering girls is a serious new focus in international development. Approximately twenty-five percent of girls in the developing world are not in school. One in seven will marry before the age of fifteen, and thirty-eight percent will marry before eighteen. Fourteen million girls age fifteen to nineteen will give birth in developing countries in the next year, and medical complications from these pregnancies will prove a leading cause of death. Girls in countries like Nepal, faced with child marriage, low social status, and health risks, too often become women with less education and less income than their husbands. These women exercise little to no political influence in the national or international arena, and development projects have frequently overlooked them.
When Polish native, Ola Perczynska, who has spent the last four years working in international development in Nepal and the West Bank, first shared these numbers with me, these challenges seemed nearly insurmountable. The solution, however, as it so often does, condenses to one word: education. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has on average 2.2 fewer children. Furthermore, Ola explained, “international research consistently confirms that better educated girls grow up to be less vulnerable to various forms of violence, have fewer, healthier and better educated children, earn more money, and make more informed decisions regarding their reproductive rights.
Target girls in development programs, make their education a priority, and significant change will follow. Working with local people and applying this formula to a specific town or region requires innovation, cultural sensitivity, and dedication. In 2011, after months of research and needs assessment, Ola founded Her Turn, a girls’ education and empowerment program in Helambu, Sindhupalchok District, Nepal. In four-week-long workshops, local female trainers teach about girl and region specific health and safety issues like menstruation, sexual violence and sex-trafficking, lead confidence and leadership building activities, and help the girls undertake a small project of their choice in their community or school. They also form a Girl Committee, which can direct at-risk girls to the appropriate resources, and work to raise awareness about girls’ education.
Moving forward, Ola hopes to reach many more rural communities with Her Turn, adjusting the curriculum to address regional issues. She would also like to organize Girls’ Conferences that would bring together girls from various districts in Nepal to discuss the issues they face and possible solutions, resulting in policy recommendations to state authorities. “Traditionally, girls form one of the most marginalized groups in many cultures,” Ola explained. “They are female and children, both factors placing them at the periphery of important decisions and processes. We don’t think about [harnessing] their strengths, intelligence, creativity or ability to transform their communities.” The innovation of targeting girls, Ola believes, lies in shifting the bias against them, recognizing their strengths, and utilizing this key tool in international development.
Many girls, upon completion of the program, remark that they no longer feel afraid to speak. As a woman who learned from a young age to always speak her mind, I believe such confidence is invaluable. The potential social, political and economic implications of empowering girls warrant widespread recognition and discussion. On October 11th, while I was celebrating my birthday, the United Nations Population Fund marked the first International Day of the Girl Child by releasing the report, Marrying Too Young. I am honored that this day will be associated with such a cause in the future.
For more information on these issues, check out: