When Opportunity Knocks, Where are Our Girls?

Ed note: This week UN Dispatch and RH Realty Check are pleased to host a special series of blog posts on empowering adolescent girls in the developing world. We are calling the series “Girls Count,” which is the name of a series of reports from the Coalition for Adolescent Girls which seeks to elevate the profile of adolescent girls on the international development agenda and within strategies to fulfill the Millennium Development Goals”

By Anju Malhotra, vice president of research, innovation and impact at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW).

There are more than 60 million child brides in the world today. For girls in the poorest communities, adolescence merges indistinguishably into adulthood. They are forced to marry and bear children while still children themselves. They bear the burden of chores to cook, clean, fetch water and firewood. They work in fields and care for family members. Their labor is the backbone upon which many poor families survive.

Forced child marriage is common in poor and particularly rural communities. In fact, countries with high child marriage rates also have high rates of maternal and child mortality, as well as extreme and persistent poverty. Often because there are few economic alternatives for girls to earn an income and where education cost money, marrying them helps to relieve an economic burden.

However, there are high opportunity costs to child marriage: this practice has deleterious effects on health for girls and economic ramifications for their communities. For example, when girls are taken out of school to get married they lose an opportunity to gain knowledge and confidence. When such a large proportion of the potential work force in a country is married and removed from mainstream society how can economies grow and political systems flourish?

Severe health consequences also abound. Child brides are at far greater risk of contracting HIV. Often they are married to older, more sexually-experienced men with whom it is difficult to negotiate safe sexual behaviors, especially when under pressure to bear children. The risks of pregnancy are much higher for younger girls. Those under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties and pregnancy is also a leading cause of death worldwide for women ages 15 to 19. Child brides are also more susceptible to domestic violence.

Listening to girls and their aspirations is an obvious but overlooked starting point for addressing the challenges they face. Few policies and programs are directed to adolescent girls or account for the environment in which they live. As a result, many efforts fail.

Fortunately, we can solve this problem and girls themselves hold the solutions as seen in the recent Girls Speak publication by the International Center for Research on Women released today. The publication which draws together girls’ voices provides policymakers and program managers with access to girls’ needs as defined by girls themselves. They understand acutely the obstacles that bar them from opportunities. And they have clear ideas about what needs to change in their lives for them to succeed.

Girls have spoken eloquently about what they want – and now the world should listen and act. They tell us about the best methods to get rid of the barriers that stand in the way of accomplishing their dreams. They have the self-determination required to better their lives.

Girls’ voices echo a growing body of research that shows that positive long-term changes for girls and their families can only be brought about through delay of marriage and childbearing and investment in education, health and creating economic opportunities. When opportunity knocks for the largest generation of girls in history let them heed the call.

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