Catherine Bertini, the former head of the World Food Programme is beating a drum for teenage girls, especially those girls who live in rural areas of developing countries. “These girls have incredible potential, she says, “to spur agricultural growth and economic growth, if only they are part of policy, if only they are part of decision-making, if only they are part of the priorities that governments and donors set in their work.”
Bertini has led a team from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in writing a policy document called Girls Grow: a Vital Force in Rural Economies, which urges far more attention to the needs of these adolescents, not just because of justice or fairness, but also because it is crucial for the world’s food supply.
She points out that the world is going to need an estimated 70 percent more food by 2050; Africa and Asia are going to have to become much more productive. And since in many developing countries it is the women who are the farmers, the girls of today will have to make this happen. Unless they grow up educated, healthy and confident, the world will face a hungry future. “So if this is a priority,” she says, “we must make the people doing it a priority as well.”
Alongside her at the launch of the report was Nafis Sadik, former executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), who spoke with passion about the girls and young women she had known in her long career as a gynaecologist, especially in her own country, Pakistan. What pains her most is the girls’ low status and their powerlessness, even in the decisions that most affect their own lives - whom to marry, when to marry, when to have children. “Religious and cultural attitudes to girls mean that decisions must be dictated by men, or by the whole family. Only she herself is excluded.”
Nearly half of rural women in developing countries are married before they are 18. Sadik recalled exchanges with pregnant young women among her patients. “You can tell them how to protect their health, but then you realize they are not in a position to make those choices. If you advise them to eat better, they look at you as if you are on the moon.”
|You can tell them how to protect their health, but then you realize they are not in a position to make those choices|
The newly published report has plenty of concrete suggestions about ways to help these adolescent girls fulfil their potential. It may be straightforward practical issues which are keeping girls out of school - lack of decent toilet facilities, parents’ fears about a long and risky journey, or their reluctance to entrust her to male teachers.
All these things can be fixed. A simple change in teaching hours can allow girls to walk to and from school in daylight. Wells in school compounds can mean girls don’t have to choose between going to school and fetching water; they can attend school, and still go home with water for the family.
The authors suggest “second chance” programmes for girls who were never able to finish formal education, and childcare facilities for girls who have to look after their own babies, or their younger brothers and sisters. It all adds up to schools which fit in with the girls’ lives, not the other way around.
In health terms the report suggests a “12-year check”, the kind of developmental milestone check which is now routine for babies. This can establish whether a girl is healthy, well nourished and developing properly before she embarks on the demanding adolescent years, and allow health workers to offer advice to both the girls and their families.
The report also emphasizes the need for registration of children, since without accurate knowledge of age, it is impossible to enforce existing laws on school leaving age or child marriage.
Much of the wider importance of these rural adolescents lies in their potential as farmers, and the publication urges the inclusion of teenagers in agricultural extension work, making training, small loans, seed and fertilizers available to them as well as to older members of the communities. But it also wants them to raise their sights higher than just farming, perhaps to become junior extension workers themselves, learning and then spreading good practice among their peers; or processing their produce, and building up businesses as budding entrepreneurs.
In the West Bengal village of Bholakhali one project is trying to encourage some of these aspirations. “Adopt a Mangrove” enlists girls to plant and maintain barriers against erosion in the Sunderbans and protect the vulnerable islands where they live, giving them useful expertise, and also a small cash income for their families and communities.
The driving force behind the project is not much older than the tree planters herself - Rishika Das Roy, a 21-year-old political science student from Kolkata. As well as doing important work, she and the girls also clearly have a lot of fun.
Even in a short time Roy can see a rise in the girls’ confidence and in their standing in their families and community. She told IRIN: “There is an increase in status. Everyone takes notice of them, because they are the ones protecting the community. When that storm comes, the trees planted by them take most of the brunt. Last time there was a storm, the men asked the women for help, which is completely against their macho nature in this area, being the protector, being the more dominant one in the family.
“I know it’s a cliché to talk about dignity, but it’s really important. If you work with these girls, you see how they feel they are inferior… I have a huge premium on dignity, and anything that accords them dignity, changes the pattern of society.”
So have the girls started to change? “They are more confident, yes,” says Roy, “but it’s usually restricted to when they are in their peer group. When they are with boys, in a group of 10 perhaps three girls will speak out; the others will stay silent. But a more assertive girl is more receptive to education because she knows she can do something with it. There is no point teaching a girl to grade six and then saying, `OK now let’s just get married.’ You need to make her believe that what she is studying is going to bring her something in life.”