Exactly one year ago this week, I delivered a letter to Regina Blay. As a 15-year old girl growing up in Liberia, she faces tremendous challenges every day, including accessing health services, safe spaces, and basic education. The letter was written from a girl in the U.S. through the U.N. Foundation’s Girl Up campaign, and talked about her hopes and dreams for girls around the world. I was traveling through Liberia with Michele Bachelet, executive director of U.N. Women, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day on March 8. Now, on the 101st anniversary, I find myself reflecting on my own hopes and dreams for girls around the world.
Girls have the powerful potential to be innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders in their communities, if given the chance and environment to thrive. Investing in girls is smart economics: if a girl stays in school, remains healthy, and gains skills, she will marry later, have fewer and healthier children, and earn an income that she’ll invest back into her family. That is why the U.N. Foundation has invested over $46 million in adolescent girls programming to date.
But there is a population of girls that the development community has largely overlooked: the 283 million adolescent girls living in rural areas today. Investing in these girls today will pay powerful dividends in the future. Consider this: more than 80 percent of rural households in the developing world rely on farming to some degree. With a world population of more than seven billion and a growing food crisis, the outputs of these farms are vital for global development. Women farmers are often not given the same access to productive resources as men. Changing that reality, we could reduce the number of undernourished people by 12 to 17 percent.
The best way to empower rural women is to start with rural girls.
In these rural environments, perhaps more than anywhere else, the uncompensated contributions and work of adolescent girls are integral to her family’s survival. Girls in rural areas spend up to 15 hours a day fetching water and firewood, and doing household chores, instead of learning to read and write. They are less likely to be registered at birth, have knowledge of HIV/AIDS, use contraception, or have a skilled health provider to assist with childbirth. They suffer from malnutrition, and are two times more likely to be underweight than their urban counterparts. They are particularly vulnerable to violence, early marriage, and death due to pregnancy and childbirth.
Despite — or perhaps because of — these challenges, the potential of rural girls to become partners and leaders in rural economic transformation is undeniable. To unlock that potential, programs need to implement practices for girls, but that also requires political agendas supporting such programs.
I am delighted to introduce a series of blogs that will let us hear directly from young women who are advocating for political agendas that work for girls as part of the Adolescent Girls Advocacy and Leadership Initiative (AGALI), funded by the U.N. Foundation and run by the Public Health Institute. This inspiring series will give us an opportunity to hear directly from girls engaging in advocacy for themselves, so that rural girls are no longer overlooked.