For much of human history and in many places, girls were considered property. Or, at best, subordinate people, required to obey their fathers until the day they had to start obeying their husbands. Few people thought it worthwhile to educate them. Even fewer imagined that a girl could grow up to govern Germany, run the IMF or invent a vaccine.
In most of the world that vision of girlhood now seems not merely old-fashioned but unimaginably remote. In most OECD countries, parents now treat their daughters as well as they do their sons, and invest as much in their future. In field after field girls have caught up with boys. Globally, young women now outnumber young men at university.
The speed of change has been blistering. Fifty years ago only 49 percent of primary school-age girls in lower-middle-income countries were in school, compared with 71 percent of boys; today the share of both is about 90 percent. In 1998, only half the world’s secondary school-age girls were enrolled; today 66 percent. Over the same period rates of illiteracy fell from one in five young women aged 15-24 to one in ten, bringing them roughly on a par with young men.
When societies handle girlhood well, the knock-on effects are astounding. A girl who finishes secondary school is less likely to become a child bride or a teenage mother. Education boosts earning power and widens choices, so she is less likely to be poor or to suffer domestic abuse. She will earn almost twice as much as a girl without schooling. A recent study by Citigroup and Plan International estimates that, if a group of emerging economies ensured that 100 percent of their girls completed secondary school, it could lead to a lasting boost to their GDP of 10 percent by 2030.
But the Covid-19 pandemic could hobble progress for girls in poor countries, or even reverse it. During previous disasters, they have often suffered most. When Ebola forced West African schools to close in 2014, many girls dropped out, never went back and ended up pregnant or as child labour. UNICEF warns that something similar could happen with Covid-19 — but on a larger scale. Studies suggest that in the next decade 13 million child marriages that would have been averted may go ahead, and an extra 2 million girls may suffer genital mutilation.
Adolescence is a crucial juncture for girls. It’s when many health problems emerge or are averted; and many social ones, too, from truancy to self-harm. Only recently has this phase been recognised as the most important for brain development after infancy. Get it right and billions of girls will have a better shot at fulfilling their potential. Get it wrong and they will live poorer, shorter lives, less able to stand up for themselves, more vulnerable to coercion, and more likely to pass these disadvantages on to the next generation. So it’s important to get girlhood right.
(Excerpted and adapted from Times Higher Education and The Economist)