Two girls at their desks with their new education kits given by Save the Children at their school in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
It might be hard to believe, but we still live in a world where girls everywhere are having to fight to have their voices heard, for their opinions to matter and for decision-makers to make choices which consider the reality that girls face every day. And it doesn’t stop when girls become women.
Today, one of the toughest place in the world to be a girl is in West and Central Africa. The region is home to 534 million people, half of whom are children. But this is also a region where girls are not seen as equals to boys. Their needs are not prioritized by parents, leaders and society as a whole. Girls are often classified as wives, child bearers or unpaid house workers, and are expected to follow a role that society has identified for them with no say in the matter.
This means that today – even when 70% of girls enter primary school – only 36% end up finishing lower secondary school. Many are forced to leave school to be pushed into early marriage. Across the region, on average, this is the reality for 41% of children. In some of the hardest hit countries like Niger, the average across the country is an astonishing 76.3%.
I remember visiting Joanna, a young adolescent girl in Freetown, Sierra Leone, before the COVID-19 virus. She was enrolled in a life skills program when we met. She had become pregnant as a teenager and was banned from returning to school at that time. As I spoke to her and others in the group, they explained to me how many adolescent girls often have their first sexual encounter with a man 10 years senior, and it is often tied to a transaction for supplies, like food or transport to school. Many families turn a blind eye to this, and even encourage it when struggling with poverty. This results in a high number of pregnant girls. These girls are too young to have children. They suffer from the poverty they were born into, the sexual violence they suffer, the inability to access education and the shame and blame which society inflicts on them.
But more and more, we’ve seen the power of investing in girls and giving them an equal chance. And for decision makers, harmful practices like child marriage cost countries millions in loss earnings and productivity, with Nigeria losing $7.6 billion every year (according to the World Bank). Today it is girls, like Mariam from Mali, Kadiatu from Sierra Leone and Maryam from Nigeria who are growing up campaigning for the rights of all girls, so that every girl has the chance to become like Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the impressive two time Minister of Finance of Nigeria and former Managing Director Operations of World Bank.
For me, one of the most inspiring women I met was Maria, a woman living in a remote community in Maradi, Niger, where the average rate of early child marriage is 89%. She, like most girls in the area, had been pulled out of education to get married. She mentioned how she had been performing really well in school and was sure that her ‘expulsion’ was organized by her parents. They had been insistent on her marriage when she turned 18. Eventually, with the permission of her husband, she was allowed to join a literacy program which taught her to write and calculate. Through this program, she’s been able to grow her own business, be a leader in a group of women who support each other in micro credit loans and facilitate the literacy program. When we asked the children in the program who their role model was, they looked to Maria.
With COVID-19, we risk reversing all the progress we have made, as civic spaces become more restricted and political attention and investment is focused primarily on COVID-19 prevention. This will be detrimental to key essential priorities like girl’s access to sexual and reproductive health services, education, social protection services and the space for their voices to be heard and for girls to reach their full potential. The longer we keep girls out of school, the less chance many girls will have of ever returning. Supporting these girls in taking control of their own decision making, having access to education and training to help them build their own business is critical to improving the society we live in. We must advocate with them for change.