Opinionista Mmusi Maimane 11 August 2014

Girls and women: The key to development

Women’s Day brings with it a multitude of commitments and commentary from all quarters highlighting the vulnerability of women in society. However, people tend to see women’s rights and crimes against women in isolation; divorced from the context of the complex tapestry that is South African society.

Generally speaking, I have found that very little is ever said about the role that South Africa’s women have to play in the development of our nation. So let me ask: what if the key to South Africa’s development lies not in with strongest amongst us but rather the most vulnerable? What if South Africa’s success as a nation rests solely in the hands of our young adolescent women?

According to the Girl Effect, an international movement started by the Nike Foundation and the UN Foundation and Coalition for Girls, adolescent girls are in a unique position to end poverty for them, their families, their communities and their countries. Simply put, girls are agents for change.

If one considers the position of girls in developing countries around the world, one begins to realise how vulnerable poor adolescent girls are without any apparent way out:

  1. Half of all first births in the developing world are to adolescent girls;
  2. Worldwide, nearly 50% of sexual assaults are against girls 15 years or younger;
  3. Worldwide, more than 60% of young people living with HIV are girls; and
  4. Girls between the ages of 10 – 14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than women aged 20 – 24.

The Girl Effect advocates that by investing in the economic potential of adolescent girls, issues such as HIV/Aids can be solved and the cycle of inter-generational poverty can be broken. This investment takes place primarily in the form of education and by delaying child marriage and teen pregnancy.

The statistics relating to what we are losing and what we stand to gain by investing in girls are compelling. According to the Girl Effect:

  • One additional year of primary school education boosts girls’ eventual wages by 10 – 20%;
  • Giving women the same access to non-land resources and services as men could reduce the number hungry people in the world by 100 – 150 million;
  • When a girl in the developing world receives just seven years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children;
  • It has been shown that an educated girl will reinvest 90% of her future income in her family, compared with 35% for a boy;
  • By delaying child marriage and early birth for one million girls in Bangladesh, the country could potentially add $69billion to the national income over these girls’ lifetimes.

The very strong argument in favour of seriously investing in girls is that girls who stay in school during adolescence have a later sexual debut, are less likely to be subjected to forced sex and, if sexually active, are more likely to use contraception than their peers who are not in school. This means that girls will grow up to become not only educated mothers but also economically active citizens who are able to reinvest in their families and communities. On a grand scale, this may have a knock-on effect by breaking the inter-generational poverty cycle and thereby uplifting entire communities and nations out of poverty.

In the South African context, this is why it is so important that we end harmful cultural practices that force young girls to marry early. It is also why child maintenance defaulters must be made to pay their maintenance duties so that their children have the resources to go to and stay in school.

We need to work hard to ensure that young South African girls grow and mature in a safe environment and are able to stay in school where they receive a quality education.

Parliament must conduct a gap analysis that identifies where laws and policies are silent, or unresponsive to gender-based challenges at the political, economic and social levels. However, once identified, these gaps should be addressed in the existing legislation rather than through the enactment of a new Act such as the Women’s Equality and Gender Empowerment Bill.

This information is a stark reminder that women’s interests are everybody’s interests. They do not exist in a vacuum. And by investing in South Africa’s girls, we can save the dignity of our young women, win the fight against poverty and develop our nation. South Africa’s girls and young women will unlock the door to development. And by delaying, refraining from or under-investing in South Africa’s girls, we are not only ignoring a massive humanitarian crisis in our country, but we do so at our own risk. DM



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