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International Day of the Girl Child: Step up the fight for education

International Day of the Girl Child: Step up the fight for education
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A 10-year-old girl in Pakistan gave a defiant speech asking, “how dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” Writing under a nom de plume one year later, the young girl began blogging for the BBC about living under the Taliban's threats to deny her an education.

Her brave campaign for the education of girls came at the costly price of a Taliban bullet to the head, but Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai is today a true embodiment of "GirlForce: Unscripted and unstoppable," the theme of this year’s International Day of the Girl Child.

If the awakening wrought by Malala about girl power seemed like a flash in the pan, the scenes of millions of people across the globe taking to the streets to demand urgent action on the escalating environmental emergency, inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, should make all of us, pay attention.

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There is a growing movement of women and girls taking control of the sails. This year’s International Day of the Girl is dedicated to reflecting on the many ways in which girls are breaking barriers, stereotypes and other forms of exclusion. In fields such as academia, business and the military and in sports, girls today can easily see role models who can inspire them to dream about a brighter future.

The world has the means to make that future the reverse of what prevails today: 41,000 girls are married off every day, mainly because they are not seen as potential wage earners; women spend three times as many hours as men each day in unpaid care and domestic work; and women comprise almost 40 percent of the workforce but hold only 27 percent of managerial positions.

They can be saved from the nightmares of a world where one in three women and girls have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, or where many have no say over when to give birth or the number of children to give birth to. It is now accepted that the single most effective pathway toward this dream is education of girls. In virtually all models, education remains the one consistent determinant of progress for practically every development outcome, from mortality declines to economic growth, democracy and equity.

Unfortunately, Africa still lags far behind in education rates for women. Despite the continent’s aspiration of an Africa where development is people-driven, unleashing the potential of women and youth as expressed in Agenda 2063, investments in girl’s empowerment remain far too low. According to the World Bank, the return on one year of secondary education for a girl correlates with as high as a 25 percent increase in wages later in life. The positive feedback loop does not stop at the family but carries from one generation to the next: educated girls have fewer, healthier and better-educated children.

Furthermore, investing in girls’ education also helps delay early marriage and parenthood. Some studies suggest that if all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia, child marriage would fall by 64 percent.

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It is easy to see the vicious cycle: Child marriage reduces girls’ ability to acquire economic resources. They have less bargaining power in their households and face a higher risk of domestic and intimate partner violence. A direct consequence of child marriage is early, multiple childbirths, which contributes to high maternal mortality.

At the national level, this delays the demographic dividend that can come from reduced fertility. Child marriage also disrupts the accumulation of human capital due to its associated school dropouts, withdrawal from labor markets, and adverse effects on the health of young girls. It perpetuates extreme poverty and hinders efforts to achieve economic growth and equity.

There can be no clearer path towards achieving the key Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating poverty than educating girls. The World Bank says that human capital wealth could increase by 21.7 percent globally, and total wealth by 14.0 percent if we get gender equality in earnings.

The world must get behind the girls who are courageously asking us to change the trajectory; we must act on multiple fronts to tackle violation of the rights of a girl child-issues like child marriage, female genital mutilation, education inequality, gender-based violence and denial of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations resident coordinator to Kenya. A decorated Army Special Forces Veteran, he has also served in the United Nations Children's Fund, United Nations Development Program and United Nations Population Fund. Follow him on Twitter @sidchat1