On International Women’s Day, Laura Glenn O’Carroll, Research Associate at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, outlines findings from their latest report: Girls Leading, which explores why investing in rural girls is critical for solving global hunger.
It’s not easy being a rural girl. Across the globe, only 39 percent of rural girls attend secondary school, compared to 45 percent of rural boys. Most rural economies are based around natural resources, and girls are often the backbone of farming families; girls are largely the ones spending hours carrying water, seeking firewood, and caring for family members.
But an adolescent girl is on the precipice of change. If she is able to remain in school, gain valuable skills, and stay healthy, she can earn an income and invest in her family and her community. If she stops attending school, marries early, and becomes a young mother, her ability to reach her full potential is curtailed. Her loss is our loss as well. The global community cannot advance without these key members.
Recently, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released the digital report, Girls Leading: From Rural Economies to Global Solutions, chaired by Catherine Bertini, that brought together over 20 diverse authors to share their perspectives on rural girls and their ability to break the cycle of poverty and hunger.
This report builds on our 2011 report, Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies. The authors draw from their experiences in academic, legal, NGO, multilateral, diplomatic, private-sector, medical, and technological backgrounds—plus personal experience—to both highlight the needs of rural girls and the solutions to the challenges that they face.
Agriculture is a key lever of this empowerment. More than 60 percent of rural people live in poverty, and women and girls are overrepresented among the poor. By investing in rural girls— and allowing them the same level of access to land, inputs, financing, and education that their male rural counterparts receive—countries could unlock transformative economic development. It has been well documented that whole communities benefit if women earn higher incomes. When women work, they spend nearly all of their income on their family’s well being—nearly 90 percent of their earnings. By comparison, men invest only 35 percent of their income back into their families. This impact multiplies when millions of women are empowered, creating compounding effects that can reshape entire economies and national fortunes.
But female farmers, despite being 40 to 50 percent of the agricultural labor force, continue to see lower yields than male farmers. Female farmers are also burden with domestic roles as well, which can mean that customized support for training, child care, and more are needed in order to reach parity. In sub-Saharan Africa, women carry at least three times more tons per year than men—largely firewood and water—and are responsible for more than 70 percent of household labor. In Benin and Tanzania, for example, rural women work respectively 17.4 and 14 hours more than men each week. But closing the gender gap could increase agricultural yields by as much as 30 percent, which would mean higher incomes for rural families.
Agricultural development is up to four times more impactful than investments in other sectors for reducing poverty. The world’s youth population—2.3 billion and growing—are increasingly living in low- and middle-income countries where economies are dependent on the successful transformation of agriculture. But infrastructure development is key to realising these gains in rural regions. The potential of rural girls in particular has not been fully realised, as low investment in rural infrastructure and education expansion in both high- and low-income countries disproportionately impacts girls.
As climate change increasingly impacts weather patterns, these gaps will become even more impactful. As the least empowered members of their communities, rural girls are also the most affected by changes in the natural world. Already, nearly 80 per cent of people displaced by climate change are female and rural girls are disproportionately killed or displaced by natural disasters. Additionally, during long-term weather events, such as drought, girls often bear the impact of negative coping strategies. Early marriage rates increase during times of environmental crisis, and girls are often the first to be withdrawn from school when family resources dwindle.
Women and girls are not simply victims, however. They are key actors who have vital knowledge of their community and environment. If girls do not have the ability to participate in decision making, access resources and opportunities that they need, or learn practical skills, half of the population will be unable to contribute adequately to climate change adaptation. Being on the front lines of climate change, girls have the experience and the opportunity to best identify solutions—but first they must be empowered with education and a voice in their communities. Only by supporting the human rights of rural girls will the global community benefit from their talents and ambitions.