UPDATED: Jan. 23, 2013: 6:50 p.m. EST
Amid the global economic recession, talk abounds of austerity measures, food shortages and a shrinking middle class. But there are few specifics about those who withstand the brunt of the downturn: women and girls.
This demographic has been hit hardest by the global recession -- more likely to be poor, die sooner and drop out of school, according to a new report from Plan and the Overseas Development Institute, an NGO that fights poverty in developing countries.
The report "Off The Balance Sheet: The Impact Of The Economic Crisis On Girls And Young Women" noted that entrenched gender inequality, austerity and economic trends typically take a toll on the most vulnerable, but the data on life expectancy is especially alarming:
“It is little surprise that the most vulnerable suffer more in times of austerity but to see the impact in higher mortality rates, reduced life expectancy, less opportunities and greater risks for girls and boys is stark," Nigel Chapman, Plan Chief Executive Officer, said in the report.
He pointed out that females need more targeted social protection, job creation and education and added that right now, “The world is failing girls and women."
Chapman told the Huffington Post that he feels the recession's impact on women and girls might be lost amid the gravity of the crisis.
"This is a conjectural point, but I feel in some ways the lack of equality and the gap in the rights was a very hot story three or four years ago," he said. "But theres a slight sense that the world moves on. The crisis has become macro. If you're in country where the economy is shrinking, that's really serious, and the government is focused on the big picture."
The study points out specific global examples of the toll on females, including Nicaraguan women who reduce their food intake; Cambodian girls who are forced to drop out of school and become domestic workers; and an unemployment rate of 67 percent for young Greek women, compared with 44 percent for men in 2011.
"While cooking, I try to use less rice…I always try to make sure that the male members have enough to eat. They are working hard and they need food to perform their laborious jobs. Then I try to feed the children. We [the female members of the family] eat the remaining food. Well, this is not enough. But what can I do?" the Plan study quoted a Cambodian woman as saying.
This could mean setbacks in the gains made toward reaching the UN Millennium Development Goals in improving maternal health, education and more, Chapman told HuffPost.
"It doesn't take much to set us back in this cocktail of an issues. The progress is fragile, and that's why we are drawing attention to it," he said.
The researchers also saw increases in child labor and and young girls taking risky jobs that make them vulnerable to abuse.
"In some cases, they're sent out to work to earn money through sex work, through prostitution, which is of course is very, very worrying," Chapman told ABC News. "They're very, very vulnerable children and it just exacerbates a pattern or a trend that happens in some countries already, but it makes it worse."
The report calls on countries to tackle gender equality and proposes specific solutions such as promoting local sustainable food production and programs that meet the needs of girls, and incentivizing families to keep kids in school and subsidize child care.
Chapman emphasized global education as the primary way to empower girls. He said NGOs and governments are have done much to highlight the need, but more needs to be done.
"We are simply driving girls out of school too young," he told HuffPost. "Education is a catalyst because it gives you earning power you wouldn't otherwise have."
Though the study highlights the need for greater strides, there are many organizations already working to empower women and girls amid the global recession.
In terms of tackling child labor and sexual violence against women and girls, nonprofits asked the Obama administration earlier this month to renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which would help protect the 27 million people who are considered modern-day slaves. This comes in the wake of The White House declaring January National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month and outlining ways the government, businesses and everyday people can fight trafficking and work to empower women.
NGOs such as Concern Worldwide are working to break the cycle of hunger by providing solutions for women farmers on issues such as land acquisitions, investment deals and more. The organization and others are calling for a continuation of hunger-fighting initiatives from 2012 into 2013, such as those outlined at the G8 Summit and by David Cameron at the Olympics.
And programs such as UNICEF's Education First was established late last year as a way to galvanize governments, nonprofits and foundations to make sure children worldwide have equal access to education. The organization also supports programs that promote gender equality and empowerment in education, and tackles health issues that impede children's development.