‘The Girl Effect knows that girls are the key to ending global poverty. Yet currently, less than 2 cents in every aid dollar goes to adolescent girls.
If every Ethiopian girl finished school, it would add almost $4bn to the country’s economy.
If adolescent pregnancy was delayed in India, it would add $767 billion in potential lifetime income.’
As the year that has seen Gender Fluidity go mainstream, it seems appropriate and hopeful that 2016 also hails a profound sea-change in the face of global politics, as two, soon perhaps three, of the world’s most powerful democracies are led by women.
And yet, beneath such landmarks of change, gender – societal and biological – is still a strait-jacket, wing-clipper, and, too often, death-sentence for 50% of the world’s population. No where is this more profoundly damaging than in our schools. In every nation on earth, from rich to poor, gender biases taint classrooms, choke potential and cheat the human race of its fastest route to a thriving future.
For girls in the developing world – and, scandalously, in pockets of USA’s Mexican community – social stigma, marriage practices and moral panic over ‘female purity’ deny girls basic reproductive empowerment and sexual health knowledge, devastating their educational success.
In South Africa (whose ‘virgin scholarships’ were recently deemed unconstitutional by the Equality Commission) a shocking lack of sex education means teen pregnancy rates remain at 30 per cent. Despite universal primary attendance, a recent study found only 39 per cent of girls complete secondary schooling; forty two per cent of girls in this study cited pregnancy as the cause of drop out. In HIV rates, too, girls are shockingly vulnerable: a key 2012 survey found that HIV prevalence in 15 to 19 year old females was around 8 times that of their male counterparts.
For millions of other girls around the world, a lack of basic menstrual sanitation shames them out of school attendance. In India, where the topic has long been taboo, a landmark study found that sanitary napkins are unaffordable for a staggering 77% of women, causing the majority to seek unsanitised cloth, ashes and husk sand which cause debilitating infections and long-term complications. Accordingly, 23% of Indian girls drop out of school because of menstruation-related issues. This rises to 30% in North India. Those who remain absent themselves for around five days every month – a quarter of each month’s schooling.
As Relebohile Moletsane of The Brookings Institution explains, these basic deprivations lead directly to ‘poor school attendance, low academic performance, high repetition rates, and high rates of dropout’.
In the UK, where such deprivation is unimaginable, we still fall short. The most striking disparity: by A-Level, 78.9% of all physicists are male students. We are failing to stamp out the tenacious, insidious brand of gender bias that sees women continue to make up only 12.8% of the UK STEM workforce and cheats our nation of a vital stream of intellect, perspective and creative energy.
The knock-on effect on innovation and funding into these areas, of course, is also a scandal. As self-taught Indian entrepreneur Mr. Muruganantham demonstrated with his revolutionary sanitary machine that allows women to produce cheap pads and make a profit: that these problems remain entrenched is testament, not to their complexity, but to the shameful lack of attention given to them by the world’s (overwhelmingly male) innovators.
This must change. A gender equal world is a higher performing, more innovative world. Organisations like The Girl Effect – backed by the UN and The Nike Foundation – remind us we are in a race against time to unlock the world’s biggest untapped source of possibility. The clock is ticking.
YOU CAN HELP: Donate to help Build Africa provide their Kiatuni primary school with girl-friendly toilets.