Adolescent girls can play an enormous role in bringing about sustainable development. But for too long their rights and potential have been overlooked by world leaders, and this has held back development and equality. At last international momentum is building to address this gap.
The story of Zeinabou, from the Zinder Region of Niger, exemplifies the importance of empowering girls. When she was 15, her parents forced her to drop out of school and marry an older man. In the marriage, she suffered repeated and escalating violence. If she had not been able to escape and divorce her husband, her life trajectory would likely have been limited to repeating the vicious cycle of poverty and inequality experienced by far too many girls before her.
Zeinabou is now part of UNFPA’s Action for Adolescent Girls programme. This collaborative initiative with the Niger Ministry of Population, Promotion of Women and Child Protection has an ambitious goal—to provide holistic, non-formal education to a quarter of a million girls aged 10-19 by 2018, reaching one-eighth of the nation’s adolescent girls. The effort is designed to boost the social and economic development of Niger, which has the world’s highest fertility rate and is ranked at the bottom of the UN’s 2014 Human Development Index.
The programme is also underway in Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zambia, where it shares the same vision. By reaching thousands of girls and community members with services and information about their human rights and sexual and reproductive health, the levels of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy should decline.
When girls can take charge of their own destinies, they contribute more fully to their communities’ and their countries’ growth and development.
In Guatemala, more girls are avoiding pregnancy and being supported to stay in school. We see a similar phenomenon in Ethiopia, where 10-14 year-old girls in our programmes are less likely to get married as child brides. And in India, participating young women are on average getting married 2.6 years later than their peers.
The UK government – and Department for International Development in particular – has been instrumental in supporting and publicising this vital cause. Last year at the Girl Summit, the UK, UNFPA and other international actors pledged to end child marriage and female genital mutilation, which threaten the well-being of girls and humanity.
With the UK government’s support and partners such as UNICEF, our work will spread even further. UNFPA and UNICEF are currently establishing a global programme to accelerate action to end child marriage, extending beyond the reach of our Action for Adolescent Girls Programme, to Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Nepal, Uganda and Yemen.
We have no time to waste. Today more than 13 million girls are married each year. At the current rate, 146 million girls will be married before age 18 in the coming decade. We can and must do more.
UNFPA is fully committed to supporting adolescent girls to take their rightful place in society, and at the heart of international development. Our efforts are backed by an advocacy campaign calling on young people and supporters to make their voices heard by taking a selfie and sharing it on Instagram or Twitter with the hashtag #showyourselfie.
It is time to let Zeinabou and all adolescent girls lead the way to a brighter future for themselves and the world.
Please note, this is a guest blog. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of DFID or have the support of the British government.
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