The Case for Girls
• Worldwide, of the more than 130 million primary school age children not enrolled in school, nearly 60% are
• Dropping out of school give a girl 90 percent chance of living in poverty as an adult.
• At least one in three girls and women worldwide has been beaten or sexually abused in her lifetime.
• Two million girls and women are subjected to female genital mutilation every year.
• 75% of all new HIV infections (ages 15-24) in Southern Africa are girls.
• 36% of all global marriages are girl child marriages (under 18).
• 70, 000 maternal deaths a year are adolescent girls.
• Households headed by women and girls are the fastest growing segment of the world poor.
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There are millions of mind-boggling statistics, which clearly indicate that the benefits of investing in girls far exceed the
cost of not doing so. Cascading cost of intergenerational death of girls, illiterate families that translate into vicious
cycles of family and community poverty, endless conditions that make women and girls vulnerable are reasons enough
for taking an urgent action. I am a strong proponent of the theory that empowerment of children is intrinsically linked
to empowerment of their mothers. The connection is more than umbilical. Empowered women often transfer their
empowerment to their children, families and whole communities and they begin a virtuous cycle of empowerment.
The women’s movement has made these connections for a very long time. It a relief to see the children’s movement
and specifically UNICEF begin to do the same.
In the YWCA, we know that empowerment is a complex system configured to different degrees by economics, class,
race, caste, gender, geography, ethnicity, religion, age, culture, and many other micro and macro factors.
Empowerment cannot be perceived as a project for a given period, say one or ten years. It is a life long process. It is a
strategy and a goal at the same time. Empowerment can never be one-dimensional. There are several levels and layers
that lead to empowerment. Yet we know that when a person’s self-consciousness translates into self-confidence and
self-respect that is the beginning of her own empowerment. Empowerment begins with self. There are no forests
without individual trees. Empowerment begins with an individual and that girl/woman must be named and given flesh
and blood and a face. When an individual is empowered, they know what is happening to them and they use their
knowledge for their good and for the good of others.
Education and Economic Security
Girl’s education is key and must be a priority. Educating one girl is an investment in a family. War, extreme poverty,
the AIDS pandemic and other deprivations endanger girls. They may be raped, forced to work in dangerous
environments, sold or trafficked. Many girls are forced to stay home and take care of children, the sick and the elderly.
Girls are vulnerable when faced with lack of economic opportunities. The more girls that are empowered the more
communities will be reached through them. This is not just about the girl child but also about society. An educated
mother will have the potential of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty and illiteracy and ignorance.
The content of education must impart both academic knowledge and practical skills. Girls will find learning interesting
when it includes their experience and life cycles. Support through things like suitable toilets and attention to girls’ body
changes do a lot to support self-confidence in girls. Positive self-image is the core for success.
The fact that many girls drop out of school due to personal, familial and financial constraints requires that more
investment be made in providing the right conditions including free education and support to poor families. (The case
for Brazil). Non-formal education channeled through social or religious institutions including youth clubs is essential as
an extra space, which includes girls who are not in school. Even those girls who take on early employment can be
educated to understand their human rights including fare wages and sexual rights.
Peer education supported through non-formal education institutions has proved to be a successful strategy for youth
empowerment. The involvement of community in supporting youth is important. Civic leaders, village elders, religious
figures, police, government administrators and other adults are vital but they can also be a problem to girls’
empowerment if their behavior towards girls is inappropriate in perpetuating discrimination, harassment, sexual
exploitation and stigmatization.
Girls should be exposed to other cultures so that they widen their knowledge and experience beyond their own
Governments and their partners must scale up effective programmes and mainstream girls’ empowerment as an issue
Budgets and Participation
Decision makers must commit to providing resources for the empowerment of girls. This is not about fixing problems
of girls but investing in scaleable solutions.
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If you listen and look around activities of governments and civil society, you cannot miss to see great visions and plans
for programmes that have the potential to empower women and girls. They aim to improve the conditions so that
women and girls can be empowered in their personal as well as public lives. They address education, economics,
social and cultural issues, legal and political issues as well as contexts which shape the realities in which women and
girls live. Yet there is a big gap between the spelt out visions for empowerment of women and girls and the budgets
assigned to them. I would like to suggest that parliaments everywhere examine budgets for women and girls
programmes. How much money is specifically devoted to improving the lives of women and girls?
To get even a rough picture, governments should undertake a close look at their own gender budgeting, but also look
at private funding of non-profit programmes for women and girls. It would also be interesting to look at foundations
and corporate giving programmes and examine their attitudes and practice towards gender and generational giving.
Based on the YWCA experience we recommend:
That governments, donors and civil society take a hard look at themselves and their institutions and reinvent
themselves as organizations that seek out opportunities to benefit women and girls.
Participation is Power. Girls must be included in finding solutions for their issues. This requires having girl’s budgets,
seats at the tables and capacity building for effective participation. Leadership development of girls is absolutely
Governments must reinforce collaboration and cooperation with many players including civil society organizations,
businesses, religious groups and individuals. All of these actors should be encouraged to invest their resources in the
The Challenge and Opportunity
I believe that the world is made up of two classes of people: the privileged and underprivileged. Those of us in this
room must first acknowledge our privilege and power. We must decide today and now if we accept the challenge and
opportunity to use our power and privilege to empower our daughters and our sisters and our grandchildren. It is we,
the women of the world who can lead girls’ empowerment. We qualify and we are equipped to be change agents.
Every woman was once a girl child. We can understand, feel, and know what is needed to empower a girl. Our own
experience, power and privilege call us to insurmountable accountability. Whether you grew up in a privileged or
struggling family/society, it does not matter. What matters is what you can do today and now to affect girls’
empowerment. To make girls’ education a reality for every girl in every place requires not only our resources and
policies, but also our voices and actions. Advocacy for girls should fill the halls of every parliament. But more than
that, love, respect and support for girls must be the reality of all our homes, schools and communities. Take time to
remember an experience in your own life and the person/people who helped shape your life.
I grew up in an African village and I cannot forget my mother’s commitment to waking up every morning and sending
us to school well fed and carrying bananas, oranges and sweet potatoes for lunch and snacks. I remember with deep
appreciation the woman schoolteacher who championed for us to be excused from hard physical exercises during our
menstruation times. I remember those women volunteer leaders from the Kenya Girl Guides and Kenya YWCA who
gave up their Saturdays to spend time with us in Brownie and Y teen’s clubs respectively. I was unaware of the impact
this loving and caring women would have on my consciousness. Yet it is their involvement with me as a girl that gives
me understanding and appreciation for my work today with girls and women. A mother, a teacher, a volunteer and
the community that supported these events empowered the girl that became this woman, me. You have named your
mentors and developers. It is now our turn, you and I and the empowerment of the girl child depends on our
collective power and leadership.