Weekly Insights and Analysis

A Skilled Global Girls Workforce

October 10, 2018

By Pratyusha Sibal

October 11 marks the eighth annual celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child, established by the United Nations to address the challenges that continue to confront girls around the world. This year’s theme, With Her: A Skilled Girl Force, begins a year-long commitment by the global community to increase learning opportunities and build the skills of a new generation of girls preparing to enter adulthood and the global workforce.

On September 24, at the United Nations in New York, Secretary-General António Guterres unveiled Youth 2030: Working with and for Young People, the UN’s strategy for youth under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. There are 1.8 billion young people in the world today, the strategy document notes, close to 90 percent of them in developing countries, where they constitute a large proportion of the population and “a tremendous and essential asset worth investing in.”

At the same time, young people are also facing incredible challenges and even life-threatening risks, disproportionately carried by girls and young women in many parts of the world.

Historically and globally, this disproportionate risk reflects the continuing effects of gender inequality. Women and girls are too often subjected to violence and discrimination and denied fundamental rights such as access to adequate health care, quality education, and decent work.

Education itself is the single most important key to overcoming gender inequality. The higher a woman’s educational attainment, the more autonomy she has over her personal and professional decisions, even when gender norms are restrictive. In South Asia, where this author was born and raised, years-long efforts to achieve gender equality in basic education—efforts ranging from grants and scholarship programs to recruiting more qualified female teachers—have shown decisive results. A 2017 UNESCO study found that female literacy in South Asia has increased threefold in the last 50 years, from 27 percent to 86 percent, while the the UNDP reports that primary-school enrollment increased from 74 girls for every 100 boys in 1990 to parity in 2012.

Despite this encouraging progress, however, there are still many roadblocks for girls in education. In school, girls often face subtle discouragement from factors such as lack of female teachers, lack of appropriate sanitary facilities, and vulnerability to harassment and violence that society continues to subtly condone. This contributes to the fact that boys still complete primary school at higher rates than girls, and girls’ secondary-school enrollment and completion rates remain lower than boys in South Asia. Prevailing social norms devalue girl children, while sons are looked upon as providers and protectors of the family, leading parents to prioritize a son’s education over a daughter’s when resources are limited.

It is essential to recognize that educating girls and boys stops the intergenerational cycle of poverty, and that girls’ education especially leads to healthier and better-educated families. Closing the gender gap in education also fuels economic growth, in turn reducing poverty, as young girls who receive an education go on to more gainful employment and a higher standard of living.

Children at Sri Rahula vidyala. Rahula vidyalaya is a recipient of books from The Asia Foundation’s Book For Asia project. Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe

In an era of rapid economic growth and rising aspirations, South Asia cannot afford to consign half its population to discrimination, ignorance, and dependency. Girls and women in South Asia must have the resources and tools to challenge stereotypes, realize the power of their voices, and achieve their highest social and personal potential. Women have their own experiences and unique perspectives to contribute to a thriving society. In the words of Meghan Markle, the duchess of Sussex, to the United Nations, “Girls with dreams become women with vision.”

As an only child in India, I was fortunate to have parents who dismissed outdated stereotypes and valued a girl’s potential. Education for young girls should be not a choice, but an inherent human right. Empowering them is not just an end, but a means to a better future for all of society. On this day, as we address the challenges and celebrate the successes of young girls, this awareness must be translated into collective action giving girls the opportunity to thrive and grow.

Pratyusha Sibal is an intern with The Asia Foundation’s Women’s Empowerment Program in Washington, DC. She can be reached at The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related programs: Empower Women
Related topics: Women's Rights and Personal Security


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InAsia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia\’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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