It isn’t easy being a girl, especially in Africa. I know this from first-hand experience: as a young woman, I lived through a turbulent time in South Africa’s history, seizing the few opportunities available to pursue my dreams of making music and having a family. I’m proud of what I have accomplished, but I encounter so many girls across Africa today who don’t have the same chances that I did. To help them, we need not do anything complicated: we just need to get out of their way.
Too many girls still hit barriers accessing fundamental rights. If the world is really committed to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on security and prosperity, we must take advantage of the talents and energy of young women, by removing the barriers holding them back. Three areas strike me as particularly ready for change: education, health and sanitation. And change should start in 2017.
First, education. As a child, I had to fight to be educated in my own language. Since then, things have improved. More girls are being enrolled in school around the world than ever before. But despite major gains in primary education, girls attend secondary school and university in far fewer numbers than boys. In secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa, the ratio is 86 girls for 100 boys.
Why is that? Girls face barriers to learning that boys don’t often have to contend with. In places such as in Guinea and Niger, the richest boys are at least three times more likely to attend school than the poorest girls. Social and cultural norms such as early marriage and pregnancy, and parental bias towards sons, also often cause girls to drop out.
The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index found that countries with higher levels of discrimination in general against women performed worse on development indicators, including education. Yet we know how to demolish these barriers: among other things, improve school infrastructure, promote gender-sensitive curricula, make the cost of attending school affordable and end child marriage. The coming year will bring new developments in higher education, including the opening of the University of Africa in Sagbama, Nigeria, the launch of a regional Virtual Institute for Higher Education and new battles over tuition fees in South Africa. Let’s focus the same amount of energy on promoting basic education for every girl everywhere.
Second, health. Infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and conditions related to malnutrition, disproportionately affect girls and young women, either as sufferers or as caregivers. These make it far harder for them to attend school or work. The world has made tremendous gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but it remains one of the most deadly infectious diseases for women across middle- and low-income countries. In Africa 25% of all new infections among adults are in women aged 15-24. Bodies like the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria are pushing for programmes that are designed to take account of women’s needs, and we need national and local responses to do the same.
The SDGs recognise how the hidden epidemic of poor nutrition undermines all aspects of women’s well-being, rendering them susceptible to illness, weakening their ability to survive childbirth and severely affecting their children’s health. But we have failed to invest in eradicating undernutrition. We should enthusiastically support “The Global Nutrition Report”, an international collaboration which provides a framework for this by setting—and funding—targets for cutting anaemia in women of reproductive age.
Ending a vicious spiral
Lastly, sanitation. An estimated 2.4bn people live without adequate sanitation. This poses enormous obstacles every day for young women across sub-Saharan Africa.
Lack of adequate facilities at school often forces girls from poor backgrounds to miss lessons every month during menstruation. This makes them more likely to struggle and eventually drop out. They become more susceptible to coercive sexual relationships in order to survive. They are more likely to marry or have children young, increasing the risk of complications. They are less likely to earn a wage, more likely to contract HIV and more likely to raise their own children in poverty. Boys suffer too from a lack of investment in sanitation, but for girls the challenges it creates are long-lasting.
International donors and NGOs can do far more. But with 12 legislative and presidential elections happening in sub-Saharan Africa in 2017, including in Kenya, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, politicians have an opportunity and responsibility to highlight these barriers to girls’ development.
Some of the obstacles I faced as a girl are now in the past. Yet today’s young women, who are hungry for the chance to build a better world, still face the looming barriers of inequality. Let’s give them wings to fly.