The Beijing Platform for Action, developed at a 1995 United Nations conference, set an agenda for women’s empowerment and identified 12 critical areas of concern. Twenty years after Beijing, ShareAmerica assesses global progress in each critical area. This article focuses on the rights of the girl child.

There are sound economic reasons for a country to invest in its girls. USAID estimates that GDP increases an average of 3 percent when 10 percent more girls go to school. Each year of secondary school boosts a girl’s future earning power by roughly 20 percent. According to entrepreneur Daniel Epstein, co-founder of the Girl Effect Accelerator, educated girls reinvest 90 percent of their future income in their families compared with boys’ 35 percent. As economist Lawrence Summers says, “Investment in girls’ education may well be the highest return investment available in the developing world.”

One schoolgirl amid six boys in a Hyderabad, India, classroom reflects the skewed sex ratio in some parts of the world resulting from sex-selective abortion and female infanticide. (© AP Images)

Harmful cultural traditions

Despite potential benefits girls bring, in many societies gender can be a death sentence. In cultures that prefer sons, female fetuses sometimes are intentionally aborted or female infants killed. Significant sex-ratio imbalances exist in societies where these practices are common. According to the United Nations Population Fund, more than 117 million females are “missing” across Asia, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus.

As girls reach marriageable age in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, they may be subjected to genital mutilation (FGM), a traditional practice that causes serious, long-term health consequences and can be fatal. Even before girls reach marriageable age they may be forced into child marriage. In Africa, South and Central Asia and the Middle East, child brides may be as young as 7 years old. Government programs to end harmful practices through education, financial incentives and laws have not stopped early female mortality, FGM or child marriages.

These women in Senegal improve basic literacy skills through a Tostan program that uses mobile phones. (Courtesy of Tostan Jokko)

Education is the key

The low status of girls in some countries results in lifelong discrimination. They receive inferior nutrition, health care and education. In fact, a 2015 UNICEF report on out-of-school children estimates that 3 million more girls than boys worldwide lack a primary school education. Some of the world’s largest educational gender gaps are found in sub-Saharan Africa.

A former Peace Corps volunteer founded Tostan in 1991 to teach West African village women and girls about human rights, health and basic literacy. At the government level, five female African education ministers established the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) in 1992 to achieve gender equity by promoting girls’ and women’s education. Working with policymakers and nongovernmental agencies, FAWE has helped 12 million girls and women in 33 sub-Saharan African countries attend school. Tostan and FAWE are among 10 Innovative NGOs in Education lauded by American University’s School of International Service.