08/13/2013 01:14 pm ET Updated Oct 13, 2013

Migrant Girls Can Accelerate Global Development

Every year on August 12, youth leaders and advocates around the globe observe International Youth Day -- a day to celebrate the world's young people and to call attention to some of the biggest challenges and opportunities they face, like this year's focus on migration.

While much has been written about the rising tide of rural-to-urban migration in developing countries, less attention has been paid to the demographics of this wave and specifically to the increasing number of adolescent girls who migrate.

"Girls on the Move: Adolescent Girls & Migration in the Developing World," a recent report from the Population Council with support from the U.N. Foundation and the Nike Foundation, found that migration can provide adolescent girls with economic and social opportunities if safety nets are in place.

Sakana, a 14-year-old girl living in Phnom Penh, the bustling capital of Cambodia, moved to the city to earn a higher wage.

Sakana's father is a rice farmer and her mother runs a roadside snack stand in rural Cambodia. When she was 12, a lower-than-average rice harvest left her family in dire financial straits. Her school fees became too difficult to pay, so Sakana left school and devoted her energy to helping her mother at the snack stand. Then she ran into a cousin visiting from Phnom Penh who told her there were many higher-paying jobs available in the capital -- even some that would pay almost five times what she was making in the countryside. With her mother's blessing, Sakana decided to leave her village and move to the city with her cousin.

While girls' migration can be fraught with danger, despair and disconnection, Sakana's story shows that migration can have positive outcomes for girls and their families.

When a girl pursues a higher level of education, it can increase her wages and her ability to delay an early marriage. When she earns a living and sends money home to support her parents, siblings and extended family, it raises her social position in her family. Migration can also expose girls to new ideas and norms and provide autonomy that would otherwise be inaccessible.

However, to unlock the benefits of migration for girls, social and institutional safety nets must be in place before, during and after they move. Yet most current programs and policies for migrants overlook adolescent girls and their unique needs entirely. "Girls on the Move" makes a number of recommendations to meet the needs of girls, including providing education, basic life skills and information about what to expect before they leave; safe places to go and social networks to connect to when they arrive in cities; and services and policies that ensure their safety and improve their access to opportunities as they adjust to their new urban environments.

It doesn't just benefit migrant girls to make those changes: Numerous other studies have found that when girls receive more educational and economic opportunities, they give back more of what they gain to their families, their communities and their countries. This makes girls key actors in the drive to achieve some of the world's biggest development goals.

Adolescent girls like Sakana who make the bold leap of migration have a huge role to play in accelerating this type of global progress. By acknowledging their role and helping them maximize the benefits they can gain through migration, we can help them unlock their potential -- benefiting them and all of us.