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The Not-So-Humble Backpack: Equipping Girls for Greatness

11/07/2013 08:51 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

2013-11-05-SENEGAL_Avenirlfants.JPGBackpacks are everywhere this time of year, cluttering the entryways and living rooms of most homes with school-age children. They are carelessly thrown over chairs, buried under jackets and sometimes left overnight in classrooms. At The Global Fund for Children (GFC), we believe that a backpack -- both figuratively and literally -- can change the course of a young girl's life in the developing world. Yes, we believe that the humble backpack is transformative. Let me explain why.

For adolescent girls in the poorest parts of the world, the journey from age 12 to age 18 is fraught with challenge. Beyond the usual teenage angst, these girls contend with the transition from primary to secondary school, the possibility of HIV infection or early pregnancy and the risk of early marriage. Gender-based violence and harassment on the streets begin or become elevated during this time, often impeding a girl on her path to greatness.

But what if we could equip girls with the tools to navigate this path successfully and emerge as young adults ready to become great contributors and leaders in their community, their nation and the globe? What if the metaphor of the backpack -- a symbol of learning, mobility and independence -- and its contents could help girls control, and indeed transform, their own destinies?

At The Global Fund for Children, we have thought long and hard about what we would put in each backpack to ensure that every girl has a safety net and a launching pad to a secure future. Here's the packing list:

  • An ID card. It starts with her identity -- name and nationality, but so much more. This simple card provides her with access to health services and school and gives her critical documentation as a migrant, a refugee or when otherwise displaced.
  • A book, a notebook and a pen. She is learning and informed. Education is the great equalizer, the path out of poverty and a route to success. A book or other reading material opens up the world beyond her immediate horizon. In 22 African and nine Asian countries, the school enrollment rates for girls are less than 80 percent of the rates for boys. The divide is greatest in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, particularly for secondary education; fewer than 40 percent of secondary-school students are girls.
  • Some money of her own. It wouldn't have to be much, but it would be significant to each of the 250 million adolescent girls around the world currently living in poverty. Many are forced to leave school early to care for their homes and younger siblings, without any ability to earn an income. And those who do find jobs generally contribute their earnings for the betterment of their families.
  • A cell phone. It is doubtful that girls living in poverty will use their phones the way our own daughters do -- for texting, playing Words with Friends or posting photos of themselves. The World Bank estimates that the number of mobile subscriptions worldwide has grown from fewer than one billion in 2000 to over six billion, of which nearly five billion are in developing countries. Cell phones are used in remote parts of the world to access health care, transfer money and find jobs. For girls, a cell phone can also be a lifeline. Too many girls and young women are victims of sexual and physical abuse; a telephone connects them to help. And a telephone can connect them to mentors, teachers, friends and employers.
  • A map and a whistle. It's not mountaineering in this case, but these items provide a sense of direction and a sense of security, both of which serve girls well in finding their way.
  • A copy of The Girl Declaration. This plan, released in October 2013, incorporates adolescent girls' voices in the UN's post-2015 development agenda. More than 500 adolescent girls living in poverty in 14 countries across four continents contributed to the declaration, sharing their ambitions and explaining what they need in order to reach their full potential. The document is a reminder that girls have power, value, and the desire and ability to shape their own futures.
  • A sanitary pad or tampon. Here's an item that is found in young women's backpacks and handbags everywhere -- except in the developing world. In many countries, a girl stays home, misses school and is isolated from her community for several days every month during menstruation because she lacks access to these important hygiene items.
  • A condom. More than half of sub-Saharan African adolescents have a child, with levels ranging from 26 percent in Rwanda to 69 percent in Niger, according to ICRW. The United Nations Foundation reports that one-quarter to one-half of girls in developing countries become mothers before 18, and girls under 15 are five times more likely to die during childbirth than women in their 20s. Evidence suggests that adolescent childbearing interrupts school attendance and impairs young women's long-term social and economic mobility. HIV infection rates also continue to disproportionately affect girls and women. Of the 5.5 million young people aged 15 to 24 living with HIV in developing countries in 2007, about 62 percent were female. With a condom in her backpack, she has the agency to negotiate safe and protected sex.
  • A bottle of clean drinking water. According to the nonprofit organization Water.org, one child dies every 21 seconds from a water-related disease. The World Health Organization estimates that in just one day, more than 152 million hours of women's and girls' time is consumed by the most basic of human needs -- collecting water for domestic use. If we could provide girls with clean, safe water, imagine the many productive ways they could spend those hours!

At The Global Fund for Children, we believe that small amounts of money, when given to enterprising local community leaders, can make a lasting impact on children's lives. Small investments, big returns. We give funding to organizations that work with both boys and girls to improve their health, their education, their well-being and -- eventually -- their ability to turn dreams into reality. While distributing actual backpacks is not the answer, the items we wish for every child in the world could make a difference between being diverted onto a road to despair and navigating a path to success.

The next time you walk past a backpack in your own home, please think about what you can do to help a child who lives in poverty somewhere in the world. Small acts of generosity can bloom into large-scale change in the life of a child.