Q+A: How we help girls fulfill their potential

October 6, 2014

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Being a girl comes with a steep set of challenges, especially for girls growing up in some of the world’s toughest places. Gender inequality is apparent right from the start, and many girls never have the opportunity to go to school, earn an income or have a voice in their own lives or their communities.

All over the world, Mercy Corps is working to change that by supporting girls’ education, providing vocational training and working with communities as a whole to help them understand the value that women and girls bring to society.

"We know that they've been marginalized invisible historically,” said Amy Spindler, Mercy Corps’ Adolescent Girl & Youth Advisor. “Or seen as something to own or control or trade."

But Spindler says that attitudes are starting to change. “From parents, to villages, and to the international community, girls are starting to be seen as valuable agents of change.”

Here, Spindler explains why working with girls is so important and what we’re doing to help them reach their full potential.

Q: Why is it important for Mercy Corps to work with adolescent girls?

Amy Spindler: It’s a great question. Social and cultural norms have historically marginalized girls and treated them as part of the problem of poverty. But when we deny girls equal access to resources like schooling, healthcare and employment, we deny them the opportunity to become agents of change.

But we’re starting to see a global shift in the perception of girls and the power they hold. There is a quiet revolution…it’s happening now. The evidence is building that investing in girls is the key to fighting poverty.

This is because you get a multiplier effect when you work with girls — an educated girl marries later, has fewer children and is more likely to seek health care for herself and her children. Studies show that women and girls who earn income will invest 90% of it back into their families. When you invest in girls, everybody wins.

Q: What kind of imbalances do girls face in developing countries?

It’s tough to be a girl in this world. We see gender inequity right from the start — the preference for boys means that girls remain marginalized and have less access to resources like education.

They are the first ones to come out of school, because they are responsible for household chores, such as collecting water and caring for younger siblings. Sometimes girls are kept from school because it’s unsafe for them to walk to school or even be in school. Globally, one in five girls is not in school. And in the world’s poorest countries, less than half of girls finish primary school.

Every year, about 14 million girls under the age of 18 are married, usually without their consent. Once married, these girls are often isolated from their social networks and lose the opportunity to go to school.

They are at higher risk for violence and abuse, with one in five girls under the age of 15 experiencing sexual abuse. Early marriage and childbirth also come with risks — complications from pregnancy and childbirth is the second leading cause of death for girls between the ages of 15 and 19.

This is devastating because it is so preventable. We have an obligation to balance these imbalances so girls can reach their full potential as women, as partners, as wives and mothers.

Q: What happens to girls during a crisis?

In places of extreme poverty or conflict, those imbalances become intensified.

For example, a girl in South Sudan is more likely to die in childbirth than finish primary school. Women and girls in the Central African Republic face extreme threat of violence and sexual assault. Syrian girls are at higher risk of trafficking and child marriage is increasing among refugees.

Stop and imagine that reality for your own daughter — the girls in these countries are no different than our own daughters.

Q: How can we overcome these imbalances and risks?

First, we focus on the incredible potential that these girls have. Again and again we hear that they want opportunity.

Working in collaboration with girls and their communities, Mercy Corps strives to address their practical and long-term needs. Practical needs are those more immediate necessities like water and healthcare, while long-term needs are more complex and advance gender equality, like the legal right to land.

It’s important to give girls a voice and let them drive their own agenda. It’s equally important to collaborate with gatekeepers, such as husbands and fathers, who often control a girl’s access to resources, as well as community leaders who can influence change.

Q: Why is education so important?
One of the biggest things that we can do for girls is to give them access to education, which has all sorts of amazing outcomes. A girl who finishes secondary school is less likely to experience violence, and more likely to access health care and earn an income. For every year of school completed, a girl’s income can increase by up to 25 percent.

One of the most important things that education can do is help girls delay marriage. Girls who attend secondary school are less likely to marry as children compared to those with little or no education.

By delaying marriage, a girl can also delay the age at which she gives birth — this is so important. In developing countries, giving birth remains one of the most dangerous things a young woman can do and it is especially dangerous for girls whose bodies aren’t ready.

Q: What do girls need to succeed?
Simply put, girls need access to resources and opportunities alongside supportive families and social networks. We know that when we involve girls in their own development, they have the answers and they know what they need.

They need to be empowered, and when that happens, we have more equitable communities and families, healthier children and higher economic gains.

Mercy Corps’ adolescent girl programming focuses on helping girls stay in school and giving them the skills they need to earn an income so they can be competent caretakers and providers for their future families and children.

Q: What are some specific examples of Mercy Corps programs that help adolescent girls?

While our youth programs work with both boys and girls, we also have programs that address the specific needs of adolescent girls. In northern Nigeria and the city of Lagos, we’re working with 18,000 in-school and out-of-school girls to equip them with the skills needed to finish school and earn an income.

In Niger, where 60 percent of teenage girls are married, we are working to teach communities about the advantages of delaying marriage, providing safe spaces for girls to discuss and learn more about health and nutrition and training adolescent girls in poultry production.

In Far Western Nepal, we are supporting education for the most marginalized girls by teaching their families and communities about the value of education. After-school girls clubs offer tutoring and mentorship while older adolescents can access vocational training, apprenticeship opportunities and small business start-up support.

In rural Pakistan, we are supporting the enrollment of nearly 10,000 girls in schools and providing critical life and livelihood skills, as well as career guidance services and access to community support systems and resources.

Q: How does our work with girls promote gender equality?

Girls are one piece of the gender equality puzzle, which demands commitment from men and women, boys and girls. Empowering and educating girls can translate into women who become agents of change and have a voice. This benefits everybody.

Gender equality is about the equal distribution of resources and power between men and women. We know that if we start listening to girls, we're going to make great strides towards ending poverty, not just for girls, but for everybody. The inverse is that if women continue to be marginalized, they remain an untapped resource.

What have we learned from our work with girls?

Most of us know the story of Malala, the girl from Pakistan whose life was threatened when she campaigned for the right to attend school. Her strength, her courage, her determination — we see these qualities in many of the girls we work with.

These girls want opportunity. They want to be heard. They want to be involved in their communities. They want a voice. So let’s start listening.