The Invisible Girl
June 5, 2013
Fourteen million girls under the age of 18 are married every year – one every three seconds. The rates are highest in South Asia, where 46 percent of girls marry before they reach 18. Child marriage can be one of the most devastating forms of violence and discrimination against women. Young brides are more likely to be beaten by their husbands, forced to have sex, and pulled out of school. Girls who have a child before they reach 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Their children are 60 percent more likely to die before the age of one. As such, many of these girls are essentially invisible in their societies.
Child marriage was one of the urgent, sobering issues discussed at the 3rd Global Conference of Women Deliver, held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, May 28-30, 2013. Featured speakers Melinda Gates, Chelsea Clinton, and UN Women Acting Head Lakshmi Puri, among others, joined 4,500 delegates, representing 2,200 organizations from 150 countries gathered for the largest global event of the decade in support of the health and empowerment of women and girls.
Young girls’ issues figured prominently in the agenda, largely because adolescent girls, aged 9-19, have been conspicuously missing from the global development agenda. As Nike Foundation President and CEO, Maria Eitel, pointed out in a session on Investing in Girls, adolescence is a critical juncture in a girl’s life when things can go right or wrong. For example, the leading cause of death for young women between 15 and 19 in the developing world is pregnancy, while 66 million girls across the world are out of school, and one in seven girls marries before the age of 15.
In one generation this could all change, if more investments are made in girls. Education can be the pivotal force. The World Bank found in a study of 100 countries that every one percent increase in the proportion of women with secondary education boosted a country’s annual per capita income growth rate by about 0.3 percentage points. Girls who have one more year of education than the national average earn 10-20 percent more, on average – even more than the increase for boys. When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries on average four years later. Educating girls and women also fosters democracy and women’s political activity.
Though adolescent girls were not present at the Women Deliver conference, their voices were certainly heard. The Girl Tree on display at the conference tells the story of 250 girls from all over the world, representing the 250 million adolescent girls who live in poverty. Each leaf on the tree reveals a hand written message from one of these girls, articulating what she wants for the world and her future. The messages are powerful and disturbing, yet inspiring.
“I want to become a police woman and stop the atrocities on women,” wrote Ruksar, age 14, from India. “I wish to be very selective in choosing my husband when I get married,” 11-year-old Yani from Indonesia, and “I hope I can run a hairdresser’s when I grow up because I want to make the wishes of those who want to become beautiful come true,” wrote Yan Yan, age 12 from China.
The good news is that it seems these voices are beginning to be heard. Their voices help to inform the Girl Declaration, which will define concise goals, such as improving health systems so they work better for adolescent girls and eradicating child marriage, to be launched on Oct.11, 2013, on the “International Day of the Girl.” On May 30, The High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda released “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate Poverty and Transform Economies through Sustainable Development.” This much-awaited report recommends new development goals and targets toward 2030. One of these goals is to “Empower Girls and Women and Achieve Gender Equality” and includes important targets to: prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against girls and women, end child marriage, ensure equal right of women to own and inherit property, sign a contract, register a business and open a bank account, and eliminate discrimination against women in political, economic, and public life.
Women Deliver, The Girl Declaration, and the outcome of the High Level Panel Report are testimony to the fact that investing in girls is smart development. As the Girl Effect says so well: the end of poverty starts with a girl.
Anthea Mulakala is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Malaysia and senior advisor, International Development Cooperation. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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