On October 31, 2011 the global population will reach 7 billion — a milestone illustrating the challenges we all face, especially women. Women are often responsible for securing food, water and fuel for cooking and heat for their families. With the growth in population and devastating effects of climate change, the planet’s food and water resources are being stretched to the limit, as evidenced by recent events like the drought and famine in the horn of Africa.
Last week, I attended a presentation and panel discussion hosted by National Geographic and the United Nations Population Fund on the importance of unleashing the power of women and girls to alleviate poverty and accelerate progress on global development goals. As a young woman, I found the event extremely inspiring, and it left me with a sense of urgency to become more educated and raise awareness of the need for gender equality.
At this event, a panel of advocates — including Monique Coleman, actress and United Nations Youth Champion; Ronan Farrow, special advisor to the Secretary of State for Global Youth Issues; Alexandra Garita, program officer for international policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition; and Natalie Imbruglia, singer, actress and ambassador for Virgin Unite — shared stories and experiences they have had with women and girls around the world.
The story that impacted me the most was told by Kakenya Ntaiya, a young woman from a small village in Kenya who was engaged to be married at the age of five. Education in her village was not a priority; families expect their daughters to get married and have children while still children themselves.
Kakenya negotiated with her father to allow her to finish school before getting married. After secondary school, she miraculously convinced the village elders to let her go to college, promising to use her education to benefit the village. The entire village collected money to send her to the United States; she was the first girl ever given permission to leave.
Years later, Kakenya returned home and kept her promise by creating the Kakenya Center for Excellence, a school specifically for girls. Because of her courage and persistence, she has given young girls in her village the power to use their voice and the opportunity for a brighter future.
The increase in global population directly correlates with women and girls and their lack of education and access to proper care during childbirth. According to the Population Reference Bureau, women with at least some formal education are more likely than uneducated women to use contraception, marry later, have fewer children, and be better informed about the nutritional and other needs of children.
Here are just a few global statistics from UNESCO:
- In Mali, women with no education have an average of seven children, while women with at least a secondary education have an average of three children.
- A 35-year study in Guatemala found that for each additional year a young woman spent in school, the age at which she had her first child was delayed approximately six to 10 months.
- A child born to a mother who can read is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of five than a child born to an illiterate woman.
- In Bangladesh and Indonesia, the odds of having a child who is below-average height decreases by around 5 percent for every additional year of formal education a mother has.
In light of these facts, it is more imperative than ever for international development groups to focus on the future generations and their role in sustaining Earth’s vital resources.
“Women and girls are the engines of change. When women are healthy and educated and can participate fully in society, they trigger progress for themselves as well as for their families, communities and countries,” said Lois Quam, executive director of the U.S. Department of State’s Global Health Initiative.
There are more than 600 million adolescent girls across the globe, making up part of the largest youth generation in history. As we reach the 7-billion mark, it will be even more critical that we address the needs and rights of women and empower girls around the world in order to improve human health and safeguard the planet’s invaluable resources.
Kelsey Rosenbaum is CI’s media coordinator.