If you want to change the world, invest in a girl.
Today marks the second anniversary of International Day of the Girl, instituted by the United Nations General Assembly to promote the rights of girls, highlight the unique challenges they face around the world, and reaffirm a global commitment to protect and empower them. Given worldwide violence, extremism, poverty, and injustice, we cannot afford to cast aside the contributions that 850 million girls can make to build a safer, more prosperous, and equitable world.
Studies show that if a girl stays in school, receives health care, gains skills, and is safe from sexual and other physical abuse, she will very likely marry later, have fewer but healthier children, earn a higher income, invest in her family, and break the cycle of poverty at home and in her community. She will be more likely to use her education to increase agricultural production, improve health conditions for her family, and serve as a leader to resolve conflicts.
But in many societies, girls remain second-class citizens, unable to access basic rights like education and health, and are excluded from decisions affecting their own lives. One of the most serious challenges is the prevalence of child marriage and human trafficking. Millions of girls are married before they turn 18, many against their will and in violation of international laws and conventions. In the developing world, some brides are as young as 8 or 9. Young brides have limited education and economic opportunities, and are vulnerable to health complications from giving birth before their bodies are fully developed.
Most egregious is when child marriage intersects with human trafficking. Children are trafficked for forced marriage, as the demand for child brides interacts with poverty and tradition to fuel a lucrative trade in girls in many countries, including the United States. At any given time, 5.5 million children are victims of trafficking.
All too often politicians think of child marriage, human trafficking, and gender equality as “soft issues.” There is nothing “soft” about preventing armed thugs from abusing girls in refugee camps, or holding warlords accountable for actions against girls, or insisting that girls’ health, education, and safety are addressed in peace negotiations and postconflict reconstruction and reconciliation.
The international community is addressing these problems through holistic approaches that engage girls and boys, women and men, families and communities, and religious and traditional leaders. Married teenagers are getting better access to maternal health and other services from Bangladesh to Congo, Nepal to Ethiopia, Yemen to Benin. In Guatemala, officials are addressing gender inequality and domestic violence through expanded rural education and one-stop programs for women and girls with legal and medical care.
Ending child marriage and trafficking can help nations meet goals related to girls’ empowerment and health. In Africa, where most young girls are likely to become farmers, the World Bank has shown that if girls and women have access to the same level of education, credit, entrepreneurship, and other benefits that men have, agricultural production can increase by as much as 30 percent.
Similarly, one of the most hopeful signs coming out of Afghanistan is the presence of close to 3 million girls in school today – compared with none when the Taliban ruled.
Now is the time to recommit to empowering girls and ending child marriage and human trafficking, not just because it is morally right but because it is the smartest, most effective way to build a more peaceful and prosperous world.
Donald Steinberg is president and chief executive officer of World Learning, which works in 60 countries to empower a new generation of global leaders.
Tara Sonenshine is the former US undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.