Unlocking the economic potential of hundreds of millions of girls and young women in the developing world through education and investment will make a major dent in global poverty, according to a new report released today on the global status of young females.
"It doesn't matter whether we're talking about Pakistan or the U.S. or Afghanistan. This is just smart economics," said Rosemary McCarney, President of Plan International Canada, the anti-poverty development group that produced the report. "An investment in girls is just the right thing to do. The earlier you make that investment, the better your return on the investment over time."
The report, titled Because I am a Girl: The State of the World's Girls 2009, is aimed at encouraging both nations and non-governmental groups to create a global action plan for girls that will propel development.
Based on global data, the crux of its 154 pages aims to show that sending girls to school and helping them engage in economic activity later adds up to more than just good politics or humanitarianism. It would create a chain reaction that would delay marriage, postpone childbirth and create "economic change - increased per capita income, higher levels of savings and more rapid growth," the report says.
"This report adds evidence to the importance of investing in girls in the developing world," Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, managing director of the World Bank, noted in the document. "Investing in women is smart economics. … Investing in girls is even smarter economics because investing in girls is at the centre of development."
That's something many successful aid groups working in developing and conflict-riddled countries have already figured out.
"All the empirical studies we have that look at gender and international development show that when women are empowered to earn money for their families and themselves, it impacts development all around," said Lauryn Oates, a B.C.-based aid consultant who manages Afghan projects funded by the organization Canadian Women for Women.
Over the course of at least a dozen visits, Ms. Oates has repeatedly witnessed the impact that educating and employing women can have, most recently on a small library project in a village outside Kabul where Pashtun elders refused the opening of a girls' high school, but consented to women's literacy classes.
"Once they saw adult women from families had gone into literacy classes and weren't getting ideas about leaving their husbands or dressing in the Western style, they just opened up to the idea about educating the young girls," Ms. Oates recounted. "We see that all the time."
In another project - a rural agricultural development where men and women were taught farming skills - retrained residents saw their village income rise 50 per cent, Ms. Oates recalled. With it, feelings on gender norms shifted. "It changed the way men thought about women being able to do something like that, their role in public life," she said. "Men had the evidence. They were convinced by the money coming into the village."
"If you do purposely target women, you have a very direct and immediate impact on the health of the family, viability of the family," said Kevin McCort, head of CARE Canada, which is focused on training women in Afghanistan, among other countries.
"If it's done in a respectful way and with full inclusion of men, then the benefits to them are obvious. It makes life better all the way around," he said, adding a caution: "If you exclude men, you're asking for trouble."
Done right, some female-centred CARE projects have actually decreased domestic violence in some communities, Mr. McCort said. "Women and men get along better because there's more money around," he explained.
Business Council for Peace (or BPeace) is a New York-based non-profit network of business professionals that mentor and consult with businesswomen in countries emerging from war. They've been operating in Afghanistan since 2004, where, under Taliban rule, "basically half the work force was unavailable," said co-founder Toni Maloney, who applauds researchers for "jumping on the girl and woman bandwagon."
"There's a lot of focus on if girls can stay in school longer, you're delaying the years they'll have children … but the question I would raise is, as these girls go through school, where are the role models for them?"
BPeace is working to provide the role models through three-year relationships with female entrepreneurs who pass the tough entry requirements the program requires. Choosing the best women, Ms. Maloney said, furthers the chances they'll stay afloat on their own and keep the economic cycle growing.
"Women are more likely to invest any business income or profits back into the community through education for children, vocational training for their workers, … providing literacy training for the women," Ms. Maloney said.
"They pay it forward to a greater extend than men."