A Wave of Change: For Girls

Girls are having their moment in the spotlight. From Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative, to the Always #LikeAGirl Super Bowl ad last year, to celebrity debates about the term “feminist,” it seems that society has caught up with the development world when it comes to understanding the value of girls. Well, at the least the conversation has. I have been working in this space for close to five years leading Girl Up, the United Nations Foundations adolescent girl campaign, and my vantage point has been interesting. As someone with a communications and marketing background who spends most of my time fundraising and working to build the Girl Up movement, I have personally seen an incredible groundswell recently around the issues of adolescent girls in this relatively short period of time.

When Girl Up launched and our partners at the Nike Foundation showcased a video highlighting their Girl Effect campaign at the World Economic Forum five years ago, no one was talking about adolescent girls on a global stage. And certainly no one was imagining marketing strategies featuring girls blowing up their toys in commercials like GoldieBlox so ingeniously did. World leaders were focused on other issues. Corporations gave their dollars to other causes. Celebrities lent their platforms to different issues. However, development workers always knew the power of girls, and girls themselves knew their potential; they just needed someone to pay attention.

Over the course of the past five years, it has been exciting to see the world shift its focus. The First Lady of the United States has made girls’ education her legacy issue through her U.S government initiative with Peace Corps, State Department, and USAID. Melinda Gates has become an ardent and outspoken champion for adolescent girls.  The world has a new hero in Malala Yousafzai. The Elders, global world leaders like Desmond Tutu and Gracá Michel, have taken on ending child marriage. The global media is covering issues of violence against adolescent girls, and there are experienced and brand new organizations popping up with a renewed emphasis on girls. And most recently and importantly, the United Nations prioritized girls in its new development agenda for the world.

This is all great progress. This is great awareness. The girl movement is speeding forward. Now we need action. Girls need resources. Organizations need funding. Governments need to be held accountable and families need to be encouraged, incentivized, and supported. To accomplish this, we still need change.

Girl Up's programs help adolescent girls receive an education, see a doctor, and stay safe from violence. Guatemala, April 18, 2013. (INSIDER IMAGES/Stuart Ramson for UN Foundation)

Girl Up’s programs help adolescent girls receive an education, see a doctor, and stay safe from violence. Guatemala, April 18, 2013. (INSIDER IMAGES/Stuart Ramson for UN Foundation)

The myriad of issues to change for girls to can feel overwhelming. These are big, huge numbers to impact–62 million girls are out of school today, reports USAID. And according to UNICEF, 290 million children are not registered at birth. UNICEF also reports that 39,000 girls under 18 are married… every day. According to a 2009 Center for Global Development study, medical complications from pregnancy and childbirth are one of the leading causes of death among girls ages 15-19 worldwide. And the World Health Organization reports that gender-based violence plagues girls in developing countries at astronomical rates—worldwide, nearly 50 percent of all sexual assaults are against girls 15 years or younger. In addition, in sub-Saharan Africa, 75 percent of HIV-infected youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are girls, according to a report by International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Population Council and Center for Global Development.

These numbers and the vastness of the issue are overwhelming and it is staggering. The good thing is that we know what to do. Our partners at the United Nations and other global and local development agencies have found real solutions for chipping away at these numbers. Education is a key solution to almost every statistic, every girl’s life, and every girl’s future. Girls who receive an education marry later, have fewer children, and are more likely to seek healthcare for themselves and their children.  ICRW’s “Too Young to Wed Report” tells us that girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to be married early than those who have little or no schooling. And according to the World Bank, each additional year of schooling increases a girl’s potential future earnings by 10-20 percent.

UN Foundation Girl Up observation trip to Guatemala, April 17, 2013. (INSIDER IMAGES/Stuart Ramson for UN Foundation)

Director of Girl Up, Melissa Hillebrenner Kilby (leftmost) meets with Guatemalan Girl Up beneficiaries during observation trip in April 2013. (INSIDER IMAGES/Stuart Ramson for UN Foundation)

These 62 million out-of-school girls are passionate, driven girls who want to be in school, learning—girls who will risk their safety and health for this opportunity. The reasons that force girls out of school are complicated and varied. But the facts prove that it is exceedingly valuable to the world to ensure that girls complete their education. It should be simple.

The reality is that it’s not so simple for parents living in poverty who can’t afford to feed their families; for parents who depend on income from their adolescent children; for parents who weren’t educated themselves and are unable to see past the immediate challenges of survival to imagine a different life in the long term. When parents have the opportunity to give their girls to a new family through early marriage, it can reduce a financial burden. And in many cases, they believe their daughters may be better off – even if their daughter is underage (making the marriage illegal), and/or it is against their daughter’s will. This is a common practice in communities where girls are not valued the same as boys and women do not share the same rights as men. For the people who live these lives, educating a girl is anything but a simple solution.

It takes the work of many dedicated local community workers, a lot of awareness building, education, advocacy, norm-changing conversations, and sometimes—tangible incentives—to make change. Organizations and people around the world have been doing this work on the ground community-by-community, family-by-family, girl-by-girl, for decades. The world just caught up.

Girl Up Teen Advisors help to raise awareness and funds for underprivileged girls in developing nations. Guatemala, April 2013. (INSIDER IMAGES/Stuart Ramson for UN Foundation)

Girl Up Teen Advisors help to raise awareness and funds for underprivileged girls in developing nations. Guatemala, April 2013. (INSIDER IMAGES/Stuart Ramson for UN Foundation)

I recently spent time in India with our partners at UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) where Girl Up is supporting their Action for Adolescent Girls program. I met hundreds of girls on that trip. We were in the rural, tribal areas outside of Udaipur. I met mothers, fathers, and girls. Girls in the prime of their adolescence–10, 14, 17 years old. Girls who wanted nothing more than to be in school. Girls who had made it to 4th grade, maybe 6th, and a very few lucky ones continued into secondary or high school. But most of these girls aren’t in school now. These girls are working—in the home, as tailors, in the marble mines. They are working because their families are completely dependent on the US$3 a day they contribute to the household. They don’t know how to give up US$3 a day even if girls can make much more than that with a high school education. Girls in these villages are fighting to not be married, negotiating with their parents for every year they are allowed to postpone marriage and dreaming of a way to get back to school.

Sometimes the value of an education isn’t measured by years in school, grades, or potential income. One of the starkest measures I’ve seen in my travels—from India, to Guatemala and Malawi to refugee camps in Ethiopia—is the strength, agency and sense of self that goes hand in hand with education. When I meet strong confident girls who are resilient and determined, they are typically still in school. When I meet shy, quiet, and sad girls, they are not.

I will never forget my experience visiting UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) camps in Jijiga, Ethiopia on the border of Somalia in March of 2014. Not only was the refugee setting an eye-opening experience, but there were two specific girls who embodied the innate, human value of education. Girl Up funds a girls’ education initiative in these three camps. We met Namda, head of her class for 12th grade. She was radiant with confidence, strong, and determined to bring more girls along with her. She had dreams for her future and hoped to go on to a vocational school in town the following year. The next day we visited a family whose eldest daughters weren’t in school. They were shy, sad, actually crying while we spoke to them. One girl had been married already at 17. She hadn’t been in school for years because she didn’t see the point. Refugees in Ethiopia aren’t allowed to work and she had been living in the camp for more than 7 years—she couldn’t see a life outside her one-room tin house. We urged her to reconsider, that she would grow and enjoy her life through learning, reading, accomplishing. It was a hard conversation. As we left her home, I walked back to the window and she reached up to the screen on her window—we touched hands and I looked her right in her eyes hoping she could see how much hope I had for her, how much I believed in her.

UNF in Liberia (Olympus Digital Camera)

UNF in Liberia (Olympus Digital Camera)

Education and learning make us who we are—yes, we can make a living but without education we don’t even know how big we can dream.  We love asking girls what their dreams are and what they want to do with their lives. There is nothing more heartbreaking than when a girl I meet can’t answer that question; she can’t answer because she doesn’t even know there’s something better out there for her.

These girls remind me of the girls from the United States who accompany me on my trips. Every single girl I have met in five years at Girl Up has had one thing in common—she is powerful. Her power comes from her passion, her compassion, her internal desire to have a better life, or to create a better world for others. The luxury of realizing, or even knowing your dreams, is entirely dependent upon your draw in the cosmic lottery of where you’re born in this world. Girl Up Club members around the country and the world often say to me, “it’s not fair.” And it isn’t. It’s not fair that a girl in rural India and a girl in rural Arkansas don’t have the same rights or the same opportunities. It’s not fair that a girl in Ethiopia has to get married at age 14 and a girl in the U.K. just has to worry about friends and homework. It’s not fair that a girl in Guatemala has to stop her schooling to work on her family’s farm at age 12 while a girl in Australia tries out for a sports team.

The facts are clear. The stories are compelling, heartbreaking, and inspiring. The world is now aware. Companies and individuals and celebrities and world leaders have raised their voice. And yet, the work has barely started. Whether it be Girl Up or one of the many proven and successful NGOs doing this work, I implore the world to invest in girls. Give your time, your networks, your voice, and your money to organizations doing this vital work for girls. Get your companies, your communities, and your children involved. Make this your cause—not just a conversation. If you don’t have money to give, use your voice, your vote, and your role as citizens of your country—the U.S. and many other countries provide billions of dollars in international development aid—make sure that money is reaching girls.

What the girls of the world need now is action, resources, and partnerships. Awareness is the first step and I am impassioned and emboldened by this groundswell of interest. The groundswell needs to become a wave, and this wave needs to wipe out the old norms and the old excuses, bringing resources, dollars, and solutions to wipe the landscape clean and start anew for girls. It will take all the efforts we have, and we need to act now, because 62 million girls are counting on us all.

About Author

Melissa Hillebrenner Kilby

Melissa Hillebrenner Kilby is the Director of Girl Up, a United Nations Foundation campaign, which seeks to mobilize the American public to raise awareness and funds for the world's hardest-to-reach, marginalized adolescent girls. Melissa has previously worked as a National Director for OP3, where she coordinated the fundraising walk series benefitting the Avon Foundation for Women. Melissa graduated from the University of Missouri (Columbia), with a degree in Journalism in Strategic Communication.