Sugar and Spice and Everything Necessary for Driving Economic Growth: Rural Adolescent Girls

"If you want to change the world, invest in an adolescent girl." -- Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies, 2011

A key to solving the world's food crisis and driving economic growth in the developing world lies in the investment in adolescent girls living in rural areas, says a new report by the Chicago Council of Global Affairs.

"Women and girls living in rural areas of the developing world play a vital yet unrecognized role as agricultural producers and hold the potential to be agents of food and nutritional security and economic growth," writes Marshall M. Bouton, the president of the Chicago Council, one of the oldest independent nonpartisan international affairs organizations in the United States. But rural adolescent girls face a "triple challenge" of location, age and gender that "restricts their development into the vital agents of change that they have the potential to become."


Bouton notes that while rural women and girls comprise almost half of the agricultural workforce in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa -- two regions where agriculture is a major portion of GDP -- "less than 10 percent of total official development assistance for agriculture explicitly addresses gender issues, and only 33 percent of girls in rural areas of the developing world attend primary school."

The report finds that if female farmers had the same access to resources that their male counterpart currently do, women's agricultural yields could increase up to 30 percent, national agricultural output could increase up to 4 percent and the number of undernourished people could be reduced up to 17 percent.


In their Regional Economic Outlook report on sub-Saharan Africa released in April, the International Monetary Foundation (IMF) said, "Given its potential for expanding exports and reducing poverty, agriculture would likely offer the greatest payoff."

However, turning girls into the world's future farmers is only part of the whole solution. Girls are also the world's future mothers, and having an education is critical to breaking the cycle of poverty that keeps almost half of the world's human population -- more than 3 billion people -- living on less than USD 2.50 a day.

"In order to achieve Education for All (EFA) and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the gender dimension of teaching must receive particular attention, beginning with girls' access to schools," according to joint statement issued by UNESCO, UNDP, UNICEF, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and Education International on the occasion of World Teachers' Day on October 5. "Educating girls and women has cascading benefits for human development: fewer deaths in childbirth; more healthy babies; more children in school; better protection for children and women from HIV and AIDS, trafficking and sexual exploitation; and the economic and political empowerment of women, leading to stronger and more inclusive development."


And girls are much more than the world's future farmers and future mothers -- they are also the world's future business leaders. If barriers to female economic participation were removed, all countries, even in the developed world, would experience a rise in GDP. The Chicago Council report points out a girl's education even provides a better ROI than a boy's education, noting that "returns to female secondary education are estimated to be in the 15 to 25 percent range, a higher rate of return than for men."

The United Kingdom agrees. Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced the Girls Education Challenge, a new competitive initiative that calls on the private sector, charities and NGOs to "find better ways of getting girls into school in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia" with a goal to provide six years of primary education to 650,000 girls and a junior secondary education for three years for up to 1 million girls. The British government will back the best of the submitted ideas with up to GBP 355 million (USD 552 million) from the existing aid budget. Transforming aid money into an international challenge fund that involves both the private and public sectors is an innovative way to maximize resources while also engendering cross-border and public-private partnerships -- the kind of global, collaborative dialogue that is necessary to solve humanity's most intractable problems.

As the international community shifts its focus to the importance of sustainability in the global economic recovery in the run up to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the role that rural adolescent girls can play in the overall solution must be a central theme.


Ibid., 1.

image: Young girl carrying infant. Nigeria, 2008 (World Bank Photo Collection, Flickr Creative Commons)