Sustainable Development Starts with an Educated Girl

By Sarah Hesterman

If I’ve learned anything after attending two Youth Assemblies at the United Nations, it’s this: everybody must take action to make our world a more sustainable place. Any gender, any age, any race or religion- we are all equals in this fight.

I’ve also learned that it isn't a question of whether or not we have the ability to create change. We do. It is a question of how we will go about making a difference in our communities, and how what our impact on future generations will be. We are visionaries, leaders, artists, and activists. We are the people who can transition seamlessly from extravagant UN events to working on the ground in developing countries, all in an effort to heal a broken world. However, there is a demographic that we are leaving out of conversations regarding sustainability, even at the highest of levels: adolescent girls. This problem is exacerbated when one realizes that the participation of every individual is vital for the Sustainable Development Goals to be a success.

Over 60 million girls of primary and secondary age are being denied their basic human right of education, the target of the fourth Sustainable Development Goal. And even if they are given the chance to to attend school, girls from Malawi to India are often pressured to drop out after a few years of primary school. Education and guidance is replaced with domestic duties and forced marriages. The potential of millions of girls is stolen.

When most people think of school, subjects like math, history, and science come to mind. While girls should have access to traditional disciplines, reproductive education has an equally important role to play in developing a more sustainable planet. This is especially true when considering the prevention of overpopulation and the spread of disease, which can be facilitated through family planning and safe sex education.

The World Bank reports that one year of secondary education increases a girl’s earning potential by 25%, and that 80 to 90% of her income is redistributed into her family and society. Along with economic stimulation, education also provides the set of skills needed to overcome future challenges. If nothing changes, over 60 million girls will not be able to contribute to the global economy, become political leaders and lawmakers, or spearhead the world’s next innovations.

When adolescent girls aren’t given the chance to succeed, we all lose.

In order to lessen the disparity between genders, there must be equal representation in decision-making. Only adolescent girls can most accurately articulate what problems they face. The Youth Assembly at the United Nations understands the critical and multifaceted role adolescent girls play in sustainable development, but more organizations must take note. It is not enough to have conversations about the status of girls in developing countries when there are none present to speak for themselves. To lift up the voices of the most marginalized people is to affirm that they are our equals, and that they have an important place in this world.

The girls who live in makeshift tents and sleep on dusty floors deserve to go to school. The girls who walk seven miles to get dirty drinking water deserve to have attainable dreams. The girls who are broken, abused, and degraded deserve a bright future to look forward to.

The moment we forget about them is the moment we become part of the problem.

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