Out of the nearly 7 billion people alive today, imagine for a moment what the most powerful individual on the planet might look like. Chances are, you aren’t picturing a 12 year old school girl raising her hand to answer a question in science class. But the truth is that the world’s 700 million adolescent girls may just be the most powerful agents we have to address the urgent challenges facing our crowded planet.
On average, girls with at least seven years of schooling will marry four years later and have 2.2 fewer children than their uneducated counterparts (United Nations Population Fund, 1990). When an empowered young woman makes informed decisions about her reproductive health—when to marry, when to have children and how many to have—she helps the rest of us build a sustainable, balanced world.
In my work with the Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy & Leadership Initiative (AGALI) of the Public Health Institute (PHI), I’ve had the privilege to see first hand the incredible changes that girls can bring about in their communities with just a little help and support. In August, my colleagues and I were in Malawi to conduct an AGALI training on advocacy and girls’ empowerment. After the workshop, we traveled to the northern tip of the country to meet a young woman named Catherine in her remote rural village.
Two years ago, as Catherine went door-to-door after school selling small goods to help feed her family, she was kidnapped by a much older man who demanded that she marry him. She was 16 years old at the time, the victim of the common local practice of bride abduction. Against the low hum of insects in the grass and the whispers of her younger brothers, Catherine told us of the two terrifying days she spent locked in the man’s house, wondering if everything she had worked so hard for—education, financial independence—was about to end, to be replaced by forced marriage, early childbearing, and the loss of her freedom.
Happily for Catherine, her father had received gender awareness training and mentoring from FOCUS, an AGALI partner organization in Malawi. He worked with FOCUS to secure Catherine’s release and to ensure that she was able to return to school. Today, she is completing her education and dreams of becoming a nurse. “Yes,” she told us, “I still want to get married and have children, but only when it is my choice.”
UNICEF reports that 36 per cent of women worldwide aged 20-24 marry or are in union before they reach 18 years of age. In Malawi, this rate is as high as 50 percent. However, Catherine’s story shows that with the support of advocates and committed organizations like FOCUS, girls around the world are making choices that will help the other 7 billion of us create a sustainable global community. So, next time you are wondering who’s in charge of our planet’s fragile future, picture a girl, and know that we are in good hands.