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World Population Day Highlights Educating Girls

A quick note from Maria: the Nike Foundation's Managing Director, Lisa MacCallum suggested we take a moment to comment on World Population Day. Following is her take on things.

Today, Saturday, July 11, is the 20th annual World Population Day. Its whole goal is to raise awareness of global population issues. It's a big deal.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that the global population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050. That's 36 percent more than today's population, and scientists tell us the potential impact on food, climate, poverty and health will be massive. (The UNFPA website has great information on this for those who want to know more.)

So this year, the UNFPA chose a theme that can reverse the tide: educating girls to end poverty.

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The ending poverty might seem obvious, but how, you might ask, can educating girls reduce the global population?

One person who's already onboard with this idea is former President Bill Clinton. At last year's Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting he said, "The only thing that has been done - that seems to find warm embrace across all religious faiths and all regions of the world - that slows population growth, is to put every single girl in the world in school and give every young woman adequate, equal access to the labor markets of the world."

There are over 600 million girls in the developing world and approximately one-quarter of them are not enrolled in school - and the ones that do enroll, rarely make it through secondary levels.

Desperately poor families make short-term decisions when it comes to investments in their daughters. In many rural environments, her value is seen in a dowry, for example. Instead of keeping her in school, she's married young to an older man and is often expected to become pregnant early. In an urban environment, she's forced to rely on sugar daddies to pay for school fees and other things; HIV and early pregnancy risk is high.

One girl in seven in developing countries marries before age 15 and as many as half become mothers before age 18.

But what does education have to do with population? Just about everything.

Before I make my case, I want to back it up with a scholar's argument. Professor Joel Cohen at Rockefeller University recently wrote (in the journal Nature) that a decrease in fertility of one child per woman between now and 2050 alters the 9.1 billion estimate by 1.3 billion.

So how can this happen? Research shows that with seven or more years of education, girls in developing countries marry four years later than their uneducated peers and have 2.2 fewer children. Take Kenya's 1.6 million out of school girls, multiply that by 2.2 and you've got 3.5 million and some change. Do that for all countries with low girls' education retainment rates and you'll reach Professor Cohen's pretty quickly. (By that way, that's my thumbnail math).

When we educate girls there is a ripple effect that positively impacts a girl's family, community, country and the entire world. The more education girls receive the fewer children they are likely to have throughout their lives and the better outcomes their children will have. Aside from lowering fertility rates, girls with secondary level education also have healthier children, lower mortality rates and are able to contribute more to their family and community through increased earning power.

An extra year of primary school boosts girls' eventual wages 10-20 percent and an extra year of secondary school boosts wages even more to a 15-25 percent increase. That's critical to families living on a dollar or two a day.

Keeping girls in school is more complicated than providing scholarships or building schools, but its time we figure it out and commit to achieving it. Take a look at Maria's earlier posts to learn more about the role economic empowerment plays in encouraging families and communities to invest in girls' education. This is the girl effect in action. It's simple, it works and it's going to matter an awful lot to your children, so pay attention.